Reynolds Building changes hands

With the handing off of a key, the building at 51 East Fourth Street, which was formerly the headquarters of RJ Reynolds Tobacco company, in downtown Winston-Salem is now official.

A press conference was held Friday morning in the building’s main lobby where Reynolds President Andrew Gilchrist, Mayor Allen Joines, PMC Property Group president Ron Caplan, and Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group CIO Joe Long addressed the media on plans for the project, which will include a 175-room boutique hotel, full service restaurant/bar and luxury apartment units on the upper floors. PMC and Kimpton purchased the building on May 22 for $7.8 million.

“They’re giving this grand old lady an extraordinary new life,” Joines proclaimed to an excited crowd.

Caplan said he anticipates a total investment of $60 million and said construction will begin sometime in the next 30 days, with the project being completed by the fall of 2015. The first phase of the project will be the demolition of some of the building’s aging interior structures.

“We’re going to have to get everything else out of here that would be in the way of reconfiguring the building for a hotel and multifamily (apartments),” Caplan said.

He said PMC was attracted to Winston-Salem due to the amount of business already downtown, and the potential for the building to play a major role in furthering development.

“From a pure development standpoint, this will be the central part of the community for years to come and therefore makes it a good building in terms of what we do.” he said.

“This is about as vibrant and progressive a state as their is on the east coast.”

In addition, Long cited the building’s upkeep as a factor in determining the building’s suitability for a hotel.

“We know we’re not going to poke into a wall and find a hornet’s next like you see in some of our other properties,” he said while adding that Kimpton has been involved in about 15 adaptive reuse projects since the company was formed in 1981.

“There has never been a building in as pristine condition, as well cared for as this one,” he said.

This is the second project that PMC and Kimpton have teamed up on, with the first being the conversion of a historic building  in Pittsburgh into a hotel last year.

“When we started to sit down and talk about the possible opportunity of building things together, we found that we were alike,” Caplan said of the two companies.

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Reynolds President Andrew Gilchrist hands the building’s key to Kimpton CIO Joe Long (center) and PMC president Ron Caplan (left).

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Heritage House : Up close and personal

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The first thing you feel is the heat. The weight of the oppressive air hits you just before the odor. It’s the odor that is hardest to deal with, the smell of urine, heaviest in the stairwell, lingers still in the hallway on the first floor.

On the second floor I could take only about five minutes of the combined heat and odor. But the pitch-black darkness of the second floor added to the disturbing thought that people, including 50 children, live here.

It’s called Heritage House. I’m not sure whose heritage is embodied here, but the future needs to be different. People shouldn’t be living like this. Residents and community activists have been making noise for a couple of weeks, but I had no idea the conditions would be this bad. Not a just  a few miles from where the city and the private sector plan to spend $60 million or so on a high-class performing arts center.

An estimated 177 people live in the Heritage House. The few residents I spoke to described an open ended drug market in the courtyard and in the hallways. One man who spoke to me as I left said young men stand in the hallways, much like the black as night hallway I walked through on the second floor, and offer to sell drugs.

“What do you need, man? I hear that every day,” David said.

Police have been called to Heritage House 2,860 times in the last 12 months, according to city officials. David says that police come in the front looking for drug dealers who run out the back, through an alley and up to the storefronts on Randleman Road.

Another resident agreed with City Councilman Mike Barber, who called for Heritage House to be shut down. The resident said the only hope for the place, which her mother has lived in for four years, is for everything to be torn out and replaced. The carpet, the furniture, the windows. I came across a pair of home health nurses leaving in disgust. They had been there to make an initial visit with a client, but police advised them it was not a good time, as inspectors where on that person’s floor just then. The nurses said they would not be coming back. One of them described it as the worst place she’d ever visited.

An animated owner who I came across just before leaving said that he does his best to screen his clients. But with no one controlling owner, and a weak homeowners association that currently is $55,000 behind on its water bill, there seemed little he could do to force compliance from others.

The man said part of the problem was that the city had shut down low-cost motels like Greensboro Inn and that those residents, who need the least affordable housing possible, had simply migrated, along with drug dealing, prostitution and other crimes, to the Heritage House.

City officials swept through the seven-story complex on Meadowview Road, about 100 yards from the glimmering glass front of the city’s transportation operations center. Police provided security for inspectors, who had reached the fifth floor by later Wednesday. After a press conference at the transportation center, where District 1 Councilwoman Sharon Hightower spoke forcefully about the city’s intention to improve conditions there, media types were allowed an hour or two in the early afternoon to talk with residents and interact with city workers doing their best amidst the heat of a hot summer day.

Stunned residents, many in wheelchairs or with canes, seemed to grasp what bit of dignity they could as they went about their business amidst the frenzy of attention.

One is left wondering why the proper attention or enforcement was lacking in the first place, a question few city officials seemed prepared to answer.

 

 

SciQuariam Hopes to Introduce Purrfect Mate for Fishing Cat

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Stop watching cat videos and head to the Greensboro Science Center! The Greensboro SciQuarium introduced a new resident today to join Tallulah the fishing cat. Mako, a 9-month-old male fishing cat, was brought to Fishing Cat Cove in the center today.

The fishing cat is slightly larger than the average house cat, weighing between 13 and 26 pounds. Their coats are covered in black spots, similar to a leopard, and they have a stocky, muscular build. Fishing cats get their name from their hunting practices of using their paws to scoop up fish. Fishing cats have even been known to dive into the water after their aquatic prey. Fishing Cat Cove at the SciQuarium includes a small stream with running water to encourage this natural fishing behavior.

Fishing cats, native to Southeast Asia, are classified as endangered with fewer than 10,000 felines left in the wild. Habitat loss is the biggest threat to fishing cats as wetlands, the preferred environment for the cat, have been drastically reduced in Asia over the last ten years.

Mako and Tallulah will be paired together in hopes that they will produce offspring. The Greensboro SciQuarium participates in Species Survival Plans as an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

According to a press release, the center’s curator had been searching for a potential mate that would be suitable for Tullulah. Mako was recommended due to his age and genetic makeup, but “the cats are being introduced slowly.” Mako was introduced to the exhibit alone on this morning so that the cats will be able to been to recognize one another by smell.

There is a behind the scenes area of the exhibit where the cats will also be able to see each other from separate areas before making direct contact with one another. On Wednesday the cats will be introduced face-to-face for the first time, with the hopes that they will be comfortable enough with one another to be on exhibit together by the weekend.

Greensboro City Council Flustered by Bill from Higher State Powers

Council members were noticeably uncomfortable while expressing their general lack of faith in a resolution to support a student prayer and religious activities bill passed by the NC House on June 4.

The resolution was introduced by Councilman Tony Wilkins, who felt that SB 370 clarified confusion among administrators and students.

The first amendment already protects the religious freedoms of students in schools. The NC ACLU opposes the bill, which it called problematic.

“The right of students to voluntarily express and practice their faith in public schools is already well-established and protected by the First Amendment,” said Sarah Preston, ACLU-NC Policy Director. “Some of this bill’s unnecessary and confusing language could wrongly encourage public school personnel to takes sides in student-led religious activity, making students with different beliefs feel excluded or ostracized not only by their classmates, but also by their teachers and schools.”

Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter was concerned that the bill might encourage faithful students to become more aggressive in proselytizing to their public school peers.

“I believe that moments of silence allow everyone to pray; you’re not co-mingling church and state,” said Abuzuaiter. “This allows students to distribute literature. This part concerns me.”

Mayor Vaughan voiced concern that it was not the place of City Council to take a stance on the issue. Vaughan felt that the bill was under the jurisdiction of the School Board.

“I feel that this is a resolution that should come from the School Board,” Vaughan said. “We’ve had concerns over what the legislature has been doing to us by overstepping into areas of our authority, and I feel that we would be doing the same thing here to the School Board.”

“This isn’t us telling the School Board what to do, it’s the state,” said Wilkins.

Councilman Jamal Fox also agreed that it was a School Board issue, even though he expressed his agreement with the first part of the bill, which explains what students are allowed to do while at school.

Councilman Zack Matheny felt that he had to support the resolution as an advocate for free speech, but made it clear that he was unhappy about having to vote on it at all.

“I don’t like these resolutions,” said Matheny. “We bring them up and I complain about them every time. We’re talking about something where we don’t really have any say-so whatsoever.”

Councilman Mike Barber was also frustrated by presence of the bill on the supplemental agenda, and felt it was an example of the NC General Assembly’s lack of priorities.

“Here in this Council we’re doing things where the rubber meets the road,” said Barber. “I wish our state legislators spent as much time on more pertinent issues. I commend Tony for bringing this to us but this is one that I just can’t support.”

Sharon Hightower voted to support the resolution after expressing her apprehension over the consequences of the grievance process outlined in the bill.

“When I see Raleigh stepping up to something like this I’m a little leery of the reason behind it,” said Hightower. “I’m not against religion at all. I’m just afraid that supporting this with the grievance process will get people going back and forth in court.”

Matheny and Wilkins voted to pass the resolution along with Hightower, but ultimately the bill failed to pass on a vote of three to six.

Community Discusses Station Plans

Community leaders met Tuesday night in the Ishi Pentecostal Temple in Winston-Salem to discuss plans for the city’s historic Union Station building located at 300 South Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, currently home to Davis Garage. The building, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, dates back to 1926 when it served three railroads that connected many major cities in the state. During the 1940s as many as 18 trains and 500 passengers per day came through Union Station, but it closed in 1970 with the decline of passenger rail service.

The city has partnered with the architectural and interior design firm Walter Robbs to find a way to utilize the space. There are currently plans to extend a few local bus lines to the station when it is finished, but not all of the space would be used for transportation. Firm vice president Rence Callahan said they have met with city leaders as well as faculty from Winston-Salem State University about the potential for economic development in the area.

“This building is a fabulous piece of architecture, and when it’s restored it could be the showpiece of East Winston,” Callahan said at the meeting while emphasizing that it would not replace the main bus station downtown.

He said the building is in good condition, and most of the work needed to be done would be restorative. Each floor is 12,000 square feet.

At the meeting, residents in attendance tossed around a variety of ideas which included turning the building into a museum to preserve the history of the station, using it as a business center for meetings and using it for commercial development in an effort to bring more businesses to the area surrounding the university.

Marva Reid, a member of the Winston-Salem Neighborhood Alliance, said she has been involved with the restoration project since 2006, when the city discovered they would receive federal funding. She has fond memories of the days when trains ran in and out of Winston-Salem.

“Being a little girl, I remember coming to the station, using the station,” she said. “We used to always drop my mother off because she used to go to seminars out of town. But I remembered the activity, just to see people come and go and sitting down waitng for the next connection. But the place is just beautiful.”

Reid said she hopes at some point passenger trains will once again roll through Winston-Salem. Amtrak currently serves Greensboro and High Point.

Callahan said he found the dialogue insightful and after a few more similar community meetings, the next step in the process will for the firm to test out the ideas proposed and see which ones are realistic.

“It’s the creative process of synthesizing all those ideas into a series of different approaches and then getting feedback, and then at the end of the day we take that feedback and synthesize it into the final concept,” he said.

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City Council Passes Budget

The Winston-Salem City Council passed its more than $500 million budget for Fiscal Year 2014-2015 at its meeting Monday night after several weeks of discussion. Here are some of the highlights.

  • A one-cent property tax increase to account for the loss of software tax revenue next year in addition to tax increases of 4.5 and 6.7 percent for water and sewer services respectively.
  • Increases in merit pay of city of employees at rates between 1.5 and 3 percent based on performance ratings. The council also set the minimum wage at $10.10 per hour.
  • The elimination of the West End Trolley, which is projected to save $116,000. That money will be transferred into the public transit fund.
  • The purchase of five new boom trucks for brush collection at a cost of $145,000.

Many of the adjustments in the budget from previous years come in response to changes made by the General Assembly to North Carolina’s tax structure last year. House Bill 998 eliminated the software tax and restricted business privilege license taxes to businesses with a physical location. Council member Robert Clark said given the circumstances he thinks changes to this year’s budget are relatively minor.

“We’re pretty much doing the same things we do year to year with a few exceptions,” he said.

The merit pay adjustments come in response to a study conducted by the city of Winston-Salem which compared its pay structure to that of similar-sized cities in the state.

“I don’t believe the city of Winston Salem can take a stand on poverty if our employees aren’t being page minimum wage,” said council member Derwin Montgomery. He said he wants to see more citizen engagement and hopes the city can further its dialogue with state representatives.

Council member Jeff MacIntosh said he thinks the budget is sustainable despite the loss of some revenues.

“If we can avoid some weather shots, I don’t think we’re going to take it on the chin,” he said, while emphasizing that the political climate in Raleigh could create further challenges for the city in 2015 and that economic development will be crucial to the city’s ability to raise revenue going forward.

“If we’re going to have more money to work with, it’s got to come from the business sector. It can’t come from hardworking people.”

 

Greensboro Proposes False Alarm Fee Increase

The Greensboro Fire and Police Departments currently lose about $1 million a year responding to alarms that were set off in error. During a City Council work session on May 27, members expressed concern over this waste of taxpayer dollars and proposed two solutions to help recoup some of the funds. At a work session on June 12, Council agreed on a final proposal for the fee changes.

Currently, the City charges a $50 fee for three of more false alarms at a property within a 12-month period. These charges bring in about $120,000 a year and only cover a fraction the cost required to address all the false alarms in the City.

At the May 27 work session Council members proposed enforcing higher fees. The proposal recommended that the City charge a fee of $50 starting with the second false alarm occurrence. This proposal would bring in an estimated additional $180,000 to help cover the public safety cost of addressing false alarms.

Councilman Jamal Fox proposed an even more aggressive fee system that would charge a $100 penalty beginning with the second false alarm. This proposal would increase revenue by an additional $400,000.

Council members felt that while Fox’s proposal was too severe, the revenue from the first proposed fee increase would not be sufficient.

Councilman Zack Matheny suggested a compromise between the two proposals with a $50 false alarm fee beginning with the second instance, and a $100 fee starting with the third occurrence. Council members quickly decided to adopt this Goldilocks option into the recommended budget, which is scheduled for a final vote on June 17.

The City of Greensboro defines false alarms as:

  1. Negligently activated signals that are the result of faulty or malfunctioning equipment.
  2. Signals activated to test the alarm systems that have not been approved by the Greensboro Police Department
  3. Signals that are purposely activated to summon police personnel in non-emergency
situations

Chief Ken Miller recommended that part of the ordinance should emphasize the importance of having property owners register their alarm information with the Police Department.

Winston-Salem currently fines property owners a $100 penalty for false alarms from unregistered units. Otherwise the City charges a $50 fee for the fourth and fifth false alarm occurrence within 12 months, $100 for the sixth and seventh, $250 for the eighth and ninth, and $500 after ten or more occurrences.