Don Flow, the man with an automotive network bearing his name, outlined a plan to turn the former GMAC building into a center of entrepreneurial growth, one that will steer the city’s effort to attract and retain college-educated young people to the area.

Speaking at the fall meeting of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership, Flow described an entrepreneurial center as the piece that’s been missing in Winston-Salem’s decades-long effort to transform its economy.

“Our goal is to fill the building with vitality and young people who want to start companies, who want to take risks, and want to imagine a different future,” said Flow, one of the keynote speakers at the event.

Flow fleshed out some of the details of a project, which was announced in March as a plan to renovate the empty 18-floor tower on Fifth Street and redevelop the site along with Charlotte-based developer Grubb Properties, which will build more than 200 apartment units on the southern end of the site toward Fourth Street.

“We have 60,000 college students in the Triad and no place to come start a company,” Flow said. “We have prominent people from all over the United States sending their kids here to Triad colleges. Our goal is to retain them, to give them a place to come work, a place to start companies and a place to imagine the future.”

Some highlights of the Flow plan:

  • The ground floor lobby will be redesigned to have a contemporary and open look highlighting its appeal to young adults.
  • A well-equipped fitness center on the second floor for those who work in the building.
  • Classroom space on the third floor for college and university students to engage in entrepreneurial efforts.
  • The fourth and fifth floors will be available for new startup companies. On the fourth floor, companies can get a place to start for little or no cost, and then move to the fifth floor in their second year. The companies would have to leave to make it on their own after the third year and, as Flow put it, “fill up offices all over the city.”
  • The sixth floor will have conference rooms and meeting spaces.

Flow said there will also be what he called an “encore floor”: a place where senior and retired executives can have offices, with a catch: Each would have to volunteer to be a mentor to a young person starting a company, and would have to invest in one of the startup companies based in the building.

The effort to help startup businesses at Flow’s building is called Winston Starts, a nonprofit corporation headed by Steve Lineberger, a local executive with experience in both established and startup companies.

In addition to housing startup companies, the building will centralize the operations of the Flow Automotive Cos., which will have a workforce of about 140 people in the building.

Flow said that the GMAC building’s size was initially a challenge when trying to figure out how to proceed on the redevelopment. It is a large building constructed for a single user, he said, but having it vacant and taking up a full city block impaired downtown development.

Flow said the Grubb side of the project is still in its design phase and would go forward when that is wrapped up. Flow began remodeling the GMAC tower in July, but the other building on the property, a six-story building adjacent to the taller tower, will be torn down.

Grubb has promised to set aside 5 percent of the apartments for people making no more than 90 percent of area median income, and 25 percent for people making no more than 110 percent of that income level, which is typically about $40,500.

Jay Davis, the director of media relations for Winston-Salem State University, said the university has had discussions with the Flow project developers and hopes to take advantage of any effort to involve students and alumni.

The audience at the busy fall meeting also heard from Richard Geiger, president of Visit Winston-Salem, who challenged attendees to help bring more convention business to town, and from Eric Tomlinson, the president of the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, who outlined the growth the research park has experienced. Pat Ivey, the division engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation in Forsyth County, gave an update on the Business 40 reconstruction project that has just begun.

Also:

  • Ed McNeal, the director of marketing and communications for Winston-Salem, was given the Glenda Keels Memorial Award, in honor of a former employee of the partnership who died in 2016.
  • Ralph Womble, the vice-chairman of the board of directors of the downtown group, was named to the Order of the Longleaf Pine, an award the state presents for exemplary community service.
  • Womble has served as president of the Millennium Fund and on the board of the UNC School of the Arts, where he is vice chair. He was formerly president of the Hanes Cos. Inc., and has served on several boards, including the N.C. Board of Transportation.
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wyoung@wsjournal.com 336-727-7369 @wyoungWSJ

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