State of the Community highlights Winston-Salem’s future

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Winston-Salem is growing, with the population nearing 240,000 residents; but the future of the city, and Forsyth County, has some bright spots and some need for improvement.

“There are a number of good things,” said Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines. “We’re not where we want to be.”

Tuesday at the Winston-Salem Alliance’s State of the Community, leaders from some of the city’s most important organizations weighed in on what’s going well and what needs work.

Joines said, in addition to the population, the city’s workforce is also growing, with an increase of 4.6 percent from December 2010 to December 2015. Joines said this is a larger increase than Greensboro, Raleigh and the state of North Carolina as a whole have seen in the same time period.

“Sometimes what you see is when your workforce grows,  you unemployment rate would tend to go up,” Joines added.

However, Winston-Salem has seen the opposite, with the unemployment rate dropping from 6.6 percent in February 2014, to about 5.2 percent.

In 2014, voters approved about $139 million worth of bonds for 301 projects; 250 of which will be underway as of next month.

“When we start listing them out it is quite amazing,” said Bob Leak, President of Winston-Salem Business, Inc.

Leak focused on sites, facilities, community projects and transportation in his presentation.

“We continue to have that opportunity for people to move into and live in downtown,” Leak said, referring to upcoming announcements of more residential space near Innovation Quarter, in Winston-Salem’s downtown, in the hope of creating a more vibrant community.

However, Leak said Forsyth County’s “Achilles' heel” centers around sites and buildings.

With Forsyth County being about half the size of Guilford County, Leak said there are only 16 buildings on the market with greater than 50 thousand square feet for industrial use. Of those buildings, none of them were built in the last 25 years.

“We’re smaller than Wake County, Mecklenburg County, so we don’t have as many places to put things,” Leak said.

The same problem exists with land for project use, with the largest individual site being only 62 acres.

“If we had a big project, say Caterpillar came back to see us again like they did five years ago, we would have nothing to show them,” Leak said.

Leak went on to touch upon transportation, which – in his words – is in a very good place, with all of the segments for the eastern beltway project funded, and the Business 40 project slated to begin on time next year.

While the workforce numbers are solid, the job creation numbers are lacking.

“The other large urban counties in North Carolina are doing much better than we are,” said Gayle Anderson, President of the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce.

For example, Anderson said Guilford County added 6,310 jobs between September 2014 and September 2015 while Forsyth County added 2,715.

“Lots of opportunity, but some challenges that we have to address,” she said.

Although Forsyth County is the fifth largest in the state, it ranked sixth in the number of jobs added.

“So, we’re falling behind, but we’ve got an opportunity to catch up,” Anderson said.

While manufacturing jobs have been declining from 2001 to 2015, healthcare and social assistance jobs have grown most.

Poverty remains an issue in the city and county, which African-Americans about twice as likely to be in poverty than whites and Caucasians, and Hispanics making up almost half of those in poverty in Forsyth County.

“Clearly, breaking the cycle of poverty is difficult and a complex challenge,” said Tommy Hickman, Vice-Chairman of the Winston-Salem Foundation.

Hickman added that children being raised in poverty increases their likelihood of being poor as an adult and their risk of poor health.

However, there has been significant progress in relation to homelessness, which is down 40 percent since 2011.

A healthy community, complete streets and a culture focusing on healthy living is very important to millennials, according to Jim Sparrow, President of The Arts Council of Winston-Salem & Forsyth County. Therefore, the city is looking at things like the arts community, keeping the city authentic and unifying the community.

“After ten years of hard work, we begin to see the fruit of that labor and that’s very exciting as well,” Sparrow said, adding that they’re providing incentives to “encourage the best and the brightest, and those good ideas, to root here in Winston-Salem.”

The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools goal of a 90 percent graduation rate saw some improvements. The school system also has a goal of having 90 percent of third-grade students reading at grade level by 2020, after some of the third-grade reading outcomes were “not good,” according to Superintendent Dr. Beverly Emory.

“Today, we have 73 vacant teaching positions in our school system,” Emory said, adding that more than 30 of those vacancies are in elementary education.

The school system has also identified teachers who are at the “top of their game,” as well as teachers who are not performing as well. They are putting measures in place to allow teachers to make more money, by leading different areas of their profession without leaving the classroom, as well as allowing colleagues to work together to improve their teaching habits.

Emory also highlighted the recently announced Project Impact, which they hope will direct $45 million towards providing additional operating funds to the school system, addressing student achievement gaps and improve third-grade reading and math proficiency scores.

“The community continues to step up and say, ‘the issues that face schools belong to all of us,’” Emory said.

Project Impact will start this summer with programs for Pre-K students.

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