WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (WGHP) — While walking through the eastern portion of downtown Winston-Salem, home to Innovation Quarter, it’s hard to imagine the area without the sprawling campus surrounding Bailey Park. It wouldn’t be there, however, without just that. Imagination.

In the 1900s, the city was one of the fastest growing in the state of North Carolina, thanks in part to it being a hub for transportation and entrepreneurship. One of the major players, of course, was R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. Its buildings and smokestacks along the city skyline became beacons of prosperity. When Highway 52 was built, and by the time Reynolds built its new factory in nearby Tobaccoville in the 1980s, the Winston-Salem grounds became somewhat of a downtown ghost town.

“There was a real sense that we needed, as a community, to work together to create a new opportunity,” said Graydon Pleasants, who first started exploring the opportunities presented by the abandoned campus around the turn of the century.

Pleasants, a successful real estate businessman, saw the unused buildings as a possible future home for Wake Forest University’s then-Health Sciences campus.

“As we began to explore, one of the ideas was, ‘could we relocate that campus into what was a pretty disinvested area of downtown Winston-Salem,’” he explained, detailing his early days as Innovation Quarter’s Head of Development.

With the idea of the school of medicine being somewhat of an anchor tenant, they started sharing their vision with property owners, including Reynolds Tobacco, which Pleasants says offered up about 45 acres of land and 2-million square feet of old manufacturing buildings.

“No one held out. Everyone agreed with that,” Pleasants said. “It was complicated, we did a number of things that were unusual, but we were able to assemble all that land.”

One of those buildings was the current home of Wake Forest Biotech Place. Paired with the Richard H. Dean Biomedical Research Building, they support scientists and researchers with wet labs to small-scale manufacturing.

“One thing just led to the next thing that led to the next thing,” Pleasants added.

In April 2015, with gutted buildings under renovation looking on, Bailey Park opened in the heart of Innovation Quarter. To Pleasants, it is the crown jewel of Innovation Quarter.

“It represents the heart of the community,” he said.

In July 2016, the Wake Forest University Bowman Gray Center for Medical Education was completed. The university says it gives students access to the latest technologies and advancements, including an anatomy lab, clinical skills lab, patient simulation suits and tiered classroom.

As the campus has grown, so have the tenants and businesses surrounding it, including apartments, centers, restaurants and studios.

In all, Pleasants worked to acquire and assemble 337 acres of land through about $900 million in private and public investment. In return, Innovation Quarter reported a $1.66 billion economic impact in 2022.

“This is a project of a lifetime,” Pleasants said, smiling.

While the current Innovation Quarter is just phase one of the plan, Pleasants is calling it one and done.

“Well, you know? Enough is enough sometimes,” Pleasants explained.

With 20 years of his life spent working for Innovation Quarter, he’s retiring from the position.

“It’s our story,” he said, of Innovation Quarter. “It’s the community’s story.”

His hope is that the now-internationally recognized as a leading innovation district will double or triple in size over the next 20 years of its life.

“What makes innovation work is a lot of different opinions, and a lot of different ideas, brought together in an environment where they feel like they can take risks, and they can fail,” Pleasants added. “You don’t learn unless you fail.”

Part of that vision includes addressing hope and health in the communities split from the city during Highway 52’s construction. Announced in Sept. 2022, Metropolitan Village, a $65 million real estate development project in east Winston-Salem looks to transform the East-End Neighborhood. With phase one of the East End Master Plan underway, Innovation Quarter looks to help facilitate significant commercial real estate development in the area in support of the Metropolitan Village team. Together, they aim to provide solutions to community development challenges including gentrification, access to healthcare and economic mobility.

Pleasants’ retirement is effective June 30.