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Residential developer, Whitaker Park group plan announcement about former R.J. Reynolds buildings Thursday (copy)

Whitaker Park Development Authority Inc. plans a major economic development announcement for 10 a.m. Thursday with downtown residential developer Chris Harrison participating.

They will discuss plans for former R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. Buildings 2-1 and 2-2 at 951 Reynolds Blvd., across from Woodland cemetery.

In October 2017, the three-story leaf buildings were named to the National Register of Historic Places. The 2-1 building was built in 1937 and the 2-2 building in 1955.

The authority is a nonprofit corporation created in 2011 by Winston-Salem Business Inc., the Winston-Salem Alliance and Wake Forest University.

The authority’s goal with the donated properties is to make the Whitaker Park campus a magnet for manufacturing, industrial, warehousing and distribution operations but also possibly retail and residential space, with an overall potential capital investment of more than $200 million.

Harrison’s C.A. Harrison Cos. LLC was the developer of Plant 64, a $55-million, multi-use complex that debuted in 2015 at 545 Power Point Circle in Wake Forest Innovation Quarter near Inmar Inc.’s headquarters and Wake Forest BioTech Place. The complex consists of 422,000 square feet, including 243 one-, two- and three-bedroom apartments.

Asked whether the announcement will include news of residential development, Bob Leak Jr., president of Winston-Salem Business, said Wednesday that “you’ll find out tomorrow.”

Building 2-1 “housed two essential elements of the tobacco manufacturing process: stemming and redrying, both necessary to reduce leaves to strips that could be incorporated into tobacco products,” according to the application for the national registry.

Building 2-2 provided more square footage for the redrying process and allowed for the installation of more advanced equipment.

The stemming process was automated in 1953, leading to a sharp reduction of employment in the buildings.

The buildings appear to be the city’s only existing R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. structures constructed primarily for these purposes, the authority said.

The buildings were de-emphasized following the 1961 opening of the $32 million Whitaker Park manufacturing facility — $273 million in today’s dollars — to accommodate growth of Reynolds’ new filtered cigarette brands Salem and Winston.

Major employer close by

Don Flow, Whitaker Park authority’s chairman, expressed confidence in April 2017 that the Whitaker Park project “will yield more than 10,000 good-paying jobs for the community.”

However, some economists have questioned whether the jobs placed in Whitaker Park represent a net gain for the local community or just a shifting of local operations, such as what Inmar did when it moved its headquarters from Indiana Avenue to become an anchor tenant in Wake Forest Innovation Quarter.

The proximity to Inmar Inc.’s 950 employees, as well as a residential mix of retired couples, medical students and other individuals who work downtown, could be a selling point as well for the planned Whitaker Park project.

Inmar moved its headquarters to across the street from Plant 64. Inmar has said that several employees have chosen to live in Plant 64 over time.

The equivalent for Whitaker Park could be Cook Medical, which said Jan. 2 it had purchased an 850,000-square-foot section of the manufacturing complex for its local workforce of 650. The Cook Medical section is within a mile of Buildings 2-1 and 2-2.

Cook Medical’s plan is to complete renovations by the end of 2019 and begin production by the end of 2022. Cook has pledged to add 50 jobs over 10 years.

Eligibility for historic federal and state tax credits is likely another key to the latest Whitaker Park project given that Plant 64 also is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Wake Forest influence

The two former Reynolds buildings are close enough to Wake Forest University to be attractive for students wanting to live off-campus.

“We’re currently in a 10% growth in undergraduate enrollment, or from about 4,800 to about 5,350,” Hof Milam, executive vice president at Wake Forest, said in June.

Milam said that the university and the Whitaker Park authority believe there is opportunity to convert some of the buildings into residential apartments that could serve individuals working at Whitaker Park or those who need moderate-priced housing.

Surging demand for student housing led Wake Forest to spend $28.42 million in December to buy Deacon Place, which is near the Polo Road campus entrance.

The gated community, which opened in the spring of 2017, consists of 146,448 square feet in six buildings containing 328 beds, including fully furnished four-bedroom suites and five townhouses in 1,500- and 1,800-square-foot options. The complex is fully filled by Wake Forest students.

Whitaker Park background

When Reynolds opened Whitaker Park in 1961 at a cost of $32 million, it was considered the world’s largest and most modern cigarette manufacturing plant. In today’s dollars, the plant would cost $270.2 million to build, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

At its production peak, the plant had more than 2,000 employees, many of whom ate breakfast, lunch or dinner at several nearby diners along Deacon Boulevard and University Parkway.

Reynolds announced plans in May 2010 to close Whitaker Park as part of shifting production to its 2-million-square-foot plant in Tobaccoville. That shift was completed in 2012.

Reynolds donated what has been known as Building 601-1 to the Whitaker Park Development Authority when it handed over the keys to 120 acres and 13 buildings in April 2017.

The Cook Medical portion represents about half of the 1.7 million square feet donated by Reynolds.

Whitaker Park is in one of 11 census tracts in Forsyth approved as opportunity zones by the U.S. Treasury in May 2018.

The economically distressed census tracts qualify to receive private investments through a new vehicle known as opportunity funds.

Promoted by the Trump administration as part of the 2017 federal tax-cut initiative, the goal with opportunity zones is connecting low-income census tracts with investors and offering tax credits and other tax incentives to get investors involved.

Leak said Wednesday that “there have been some general inquiry conversations” about local opportunity zone census tracts.

“It certainly could work on the project we are announcing tomorrow,” Leak said.

Schools remove Chromebooks after one overheated, smoldered in Lewisville

The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County school system is suspending the use of all Chromebooks after one started smoldering Wednesday at Lewisville Elementary School.

The Chromebook overheated about 9:45 a.m. while a third-grade student was using it during online instruction.

Brent Campbell, chief communications officer for WS/FCS, said that the student immediately reported that the Chromebook was hot and was getting too overheated and smoked a bit.

“The teacher immediately enacted the evacuation plans and the proper protocol, removed the students from the room and a staff member pulled the fire alarm,” Campbell said. “The building was evacuated per our district protocol.”

Campbell said that a fire extinguisher was used to stop the smoldering and the Lewisville Fire Department responded quickly.

“All the kids were able to exit the building safely and, thankfully, no one was injured,” Campbell said.

The Chromebook was a 2015 model that is used throughout the school system.

Campbell said the district’s 2015 Chromebooks were scheduled to be replaced at the end of the year.

“We rotate these in an out through usage or over time as they are used,” Campbell said. “We have roughly 20,000 of this particular model in use at this point. The district has asked principals to go ahead and remove all of those Chromebooks and take them out of use immediately so that we can access the situation a little bit further.”

In recent years, there have been some news reports of laptops and other devices catching fire or smoking in other school districts in the United States. In September 2017, for example, a school in East Bridgewater, Mass., recalled 1,169 Chromebooks.

Kevin Sherrill, chief technology officer for WS/FCS, said that the district will remove the 2015 Chromebook models and reassess all its newer Chromebook models before putting students back on the devices.

“We refresh these devices every five years,” Sherrill said. “These were in their fifth year to be refreshed this summer.”

The newer Chromebook models are expected to be evaluated by Monday.

Sherrill said that each of the 2015 Chromebooks is priced at $210 each.

He also said that losing 20,000 will affect instruction in the district because students use Chromebooks and other electronic devices for a lot of online programs, but he expects the school system to recover.

“We do have 8,000 scheduled to go into service this month,” Sherrill said. “That will help offset this a little bit. Then going into the next budget cycle in July, we’ll purchase roughly 8,000 to 10,000 more to build back up to the number we were at.”

Sherrill added that plastic melted on the smoldering Chromebook, which was on a desk.

“It was a battery-heated issue,” Sherrill said, saying he has never experienced an issue with a smoldering Chromebook before in all the years the district has had mobile devices.

He said that the affected device will be sent to the manufacturer that the district uses to have tests run on it to determine the cause of the incident.

Lewisville Fire Department Chief Darin Needham said the school evacuation was over in about three minutes from the time the fire department received a call about the situation.

He praised the staff at Lewisville Elementary, which has just under 600 students, saying, “It really highlights the importance of those pre-plans that we ask all of our citizens to do.”

Needham described what happened with the smoldering device as a “relatively low frequency but also low risk event,” saying that the incident was an electrical hazard, not a fire.

Former Forsyth County Commissioner Everette Witherspoon Jr makes first appearance in court on federal tax fraud charges

A former Forsyth County commissioner facing federal tax fraud charges made his first appearance in federal court Wednesday.

Everette Levon Witherspoon Jr. was indicted last week on three counts of filing a false tax return and one count of failing to file a tax return. Witherspoon is accused of not reporting the money he made as a Forsyth County commissioner and under-reporting income from the mental-health company in Greensboro that he started in 2009. That company is called Chris’s Rehabilitative Services LLC, according to court documents and records from the N.C. Secretary of State.

Witherspoon served two terms on the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners. Last year, Tonya McDaniels defeated Witherspoon for a seat on the board during the Democratic primary and went on to win the seat in the general election.

The case was continued until Nov. 4.

Witherspoon is the fifth person to be charged in connection to a tax-fraud scheme that operated out of Fast Tax of Winston-Salem. Witherspoon co-owned the tax-preparation business with two other people who have since been convicted in the tax-fraud scheme — Claudia Lynette Shivers and S. Wayne Patterson. Shivers and Patterson were both accused of preparing false tax returns for clients of the tax-preparation business.

The indictment does not accuse Witherspoon of filing false tax returns on behalf of anyone other than himself. Witherspoon also co-owned another tax-preparation business, Quick Taxes LLC in Greensboro. Shivers was a co-owner of that business as well.

Federal prosecutors alleged that Shivers, Patterson and two other people — Kristyn Dion Daney and Rakeem Lenell Scales — conspired to prepare 519 false tax returns that claimed $1.3 million in fraudulent tax refunds. Shivers, Patterson, Daney and Scales have all been sentenced.

On Wednesday, Judge Loretta C. Biggs granted a motion for Ira Richard Knight, a federal public defender, to withdraw from the case. According to the motion, Knight had a conflict of interest in the case because he represented one of other co-defendants. Knight had been Daney’s attorney.

Attorneys Chris Clifton and Michael Grace appeared in court with Witherspoon, and they told Biggs that Witherspoon was in the process of hiring them to represent him on these charges. They asked Biggs to continue the arraignment to November.

Witherspoon is free on a $10,000 secured bond. If convicted, he faces a statutory maximum prison sentence of three years for each of the three counts of filing a false tax return. He faces one year in prison for the one count of failing to file a tax return. Witherspoon could also face supervised release and financial penalties if convicted.

Electric rental scooters return to downtown Winston-Salem streets on Friday

Electric scooters are scheduled to be back on Winston-Salem streets on Friday when Zagster, in partnership with Spin, will put out 100 Spin scooters for public use, Winston-Salem officials announced.

A second company, VeoRide, has filed an application with the city and plans to begin operations at the end of October.

Northwest Ward Council Member Jeff MacIntosh, who was an avid Bird scooter pilot when Birds were a thing, said he’s looking forward to getting back on board a scooter.

“I’ve got my helmet that I keep in the back of my car, and you will see me out there,” MacIntosh said.

Dockless scooters for rent can only be used between the hours of 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. and only by those 16 and older, under an ordinance the city council adopted in March. Other provisions in the ordinance include:

  • Scooters cannot be used on sidewalks, on greenways, in Old Salem or in public parks.
  • Scooters are considered vehicles and must obey stop lights, stop signs and all other traffic laws.
  • Scooters must yield to pedestrians in the public right-of-way.
  • Scooters cannot be left where they will block sidewalks, driveways or curbside parking.

Scooter users are encouraged to wear helmets.

Rental rates are set by the scooter companies and are not subject to city review. Companies are responsible for maintaining their equipment and responding to customer complaints.

In August, the city announced that Zagster and VeoRide had been selected to be the two companies that would be permitted to put scooters out on the street.

The scooters put out Friday will be the first rental scooters legally out on the street since the city instituted a ban last November.

That ban came after the Bird company dropped scores of scooters on the sidewalks of the city in the summer of 2018 with no advance notice.

The scooters became a hit, but also drew complaints that drivers were disrupting pedestrian and auto traffic.

Winston-Salem officials ironed out rules for companies wanting to put out scooters, and five companies applied. Bird was not one of them.

A company called Slidr was approved to put out rental bicycles. The city did not say when those might appear.

MacIntosh said it is good to have other options than cars downtown.

“I’m glad to have them back,” he said. “I think we have some pretty good controls around them. I hope everybody behaves.”

Although days are shorter and the weather is cooler, MacIntosh said there should still be another couple months of riding available.

“We may be hot through January, so there may be an awful lot of time to ride with them this year,” he said.

The city said residents who need customer service for the Spin scooters, once they get out, should call 888-249-9698 or send an email to support@spin.pm.

Contact information for the shared mobility companies that are authorized to operate in Winston-Salem, along with the rules for use, will be posted at CityofWS.org/SharedMobility.