With the keys having officially changed hands on 120 acres and 13 buildings in Whitaker Park, the former center of R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.’s manufacturing operations, local developers and elected officials hope to revive the area as an economic engine as early as this fall.
Reynolds completed on Thursday a 27-month pledge to donate 1.7 million square feet of space for a planned mixed-use project with an overall potential capital investment of more than $200 million.
The recipient is the Whitaker Park Development Authority Inc., a nonprofit corporation created in 2011 by Winston-Salem Business Inc., the Winston-Salem Alliance and Wake Forest University.
Project officials have said it will take months, possibly up to two years, for the resurrection of the plant and campus to begin rippling through the local economy.
The goal is making the campus a magnet for manufacturing, industrial, warehousing and distribution operations, but also possibly retail and residential, said Bob Leak Jr., president of Winston-Salem Business, which will market the campus.
“The work really begins today,” said Don Flow, the authority’s chairman.
“We’re confident that this project will yield more than 10,000 good-paying jobs for the community, creating new energy and vitality to this historic site.”
When Reynolds opened Whitaker Park in 1961 at a cost of $32 million, the facility was considered the world’s largest and most modern cigarette-manufacturing plant. In today’s dollars, the plant would have cost $260.7 million to build, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. At its peak, Whitaker Park had more than 2,000 workers.
Reynolds said in May 2010 it was closing the plant as part of moving all of its manufacturing production to its 2 million-square-foot Tobaccoville plant. Most production was shut down by mid-2012.
Both Flow and Leak said they expect to announce tenant commitments within 100 days now that the authority owns the properties.
Leak said that although his group will market the property as available in one piece, he expects to land multiple tenants in spaces as small as 7,000 square feet. The goal is having the properties marketed online by early next week.
“We know the odds are slim of landing a single user, but now we have the ability to find out what demand there will be for our new supply,” Leak said. “We know we have been passed up on for projects because we didn’t have this space available online. Now, we have property for companies needing low-ceiling, medium-ceiling and high-ceiling space.”
Details of donation
In a Reynolds’ land map, the Whitaker Park plant on the north side of Reynolds Boulevard is referred to as the West property. Several buildings are designated as the East property.
Not included in the donation is the central property in between, where Reynolds continues to operate tobacco processing and warehousing operations. Those consist of 18 buildings and 100 acres.
The company donated 3.7 acres and 70,000-square-foot laboratory building— 50,000 square feet is rentable — to the authority in July 2015.
Reason To Believe is renting 8,000 square feet. The manufacturer of technology-based products for the health of hair, skin and nails, is based in Raleigh.
Flow and D.D. Adams, a Winston-Salem councilwoman representing the North Ward, applauded the broad range of support that led to the donation.
“This was the public sector, private sector, nonprofits, university coming together to accelerate the re-purposing of this property,” Flow said. “All of those groups not only believed in the future of Winston-Salem, but invested in it as well.”
Winston-Salem and Forsyth County have agreed to provide up to $4 million each toward the initial project.
The Golden Leaf Foundation set aside $1.7 million toward renovation and new equipment costs in 2013. Those funds will go to the Whitaker Park Life Sciences building.
Adams said she envisions the campus attracting entrepreneurs with incubator and small-business space, as well as tenants with hundreds of jobs.
“This property can resume being another heartbeat for the community, just as downtown has become with the research park and the downtown living,” Adams said. “This property has the potential to create jobs that touch every part of our community.”