12 storylines that turned our head in 2012

By Michael Breedlove

Stadium wars, movie-star sightings, even a monkey on the loose. Winston-Salem saw a little bit of everything in 2012. So in an effort to recount the year that was, we’re taking a look back at a few of our favorite storylines from the past 12 months. We’ll admit these aren’t the year’s most hard-hitting headlines; simply a compilation of stories that grabbed our attention. From Trader Joe’s to BioTech Place, farmers markets to championship football, here’s our top 12 storylines for 2012.

 

1. PTRP Hits a Tipping Point

Leaders in Winston-Salem have talked a lot about Piedmont Triad Research Park over the past decade—about its importance, its potential, and its ability to guide us toward a knowledge-based tomorrow. But truthfully, before this year, there hadn’t been all that much to talk about. While the park has had a few bright spots since opening in 1994, it’s always seemed like more of an idea than a real workplace. That started to change in 2012, though, as the 175-acre park finally landed a few tangible pieces.

In February, Wake Forest BioTech Place officially opened inside a former RJR warehouse, bringing hundreds of jobs and cutting-edge research to the center of PTRP. Its price tag topped $100 million, making it the biggest project in the history of downtown.

Dan Cramer, a project manager with Wexford Science & Health, led the effort to transform the 75-year-old building into a state-of-the-art research space.

"I truly love the transformation of this space," he told us back in March. "It was a building that was originally designed to make tobacco, and now it’s being used to create health breakthroughs."

But the big news didn’t end with BioTech Place. Officials with Inmar Inc. also announced they were moving into two former RJR processing plants. The company, which specializes in technology and software, hopes to move all of its 915 employees into PTRP by the end of 2013, instantly becoming PTRP’s largest tenant and potentially boosting the park’s workforce to more than 2,300.

Aside from Inmar and BioTech Place, a number of other projects were put in place in 2012. The Center for Design Innovation (CDI), a university-based technology institution, broke ground on a new headquarters in PTRP’s South District. The old Bailey Power Plant also began getting a facelift with crews removing asbestos, steel framing, and pipes from the iconic structure. Officials hope to one day turn the power plant and its signature smokestacks into a multiuse retail and entertainment center.

Other projects included new condos, new park space, a greenway, and an impressive pond that will face Highway 52. Add it all up, and it’s clear that 2012 was a watershed year for PTRP. As Mayor Allen Joines told us, "It’s been extremely gratifying to watch these old buildings bounce back to life. It lets us preserve our city’s tobacco heritage while putting us on a path toward a knowledge-based future."

 

2. New Joe in Town

Well, it finally happened. After years of begging, local foodies got their ultimate wish in 2012 when Trader Joe’s moved into town. Officials with the specialty supermarket announced in March they would open their first Triad store at Thruway Shopping Center, taking over a portion of the former Borders bookstore. The store officially opened Oct. 26 amid balloons, music, and mass hysteria.

Chain grocery stores aren’t supposed to cause this much excitement, but this is no average Joe. Based in California, the specialty supermarket is known for its festive décor, quality foods, and extreme affordability. Nearly everything in stock is under Trader Joe’s own private label, which allows the store to carry tons of different food items inside a relatively small space. As manager Frank Kirkland told the Winston-Salem Journal, customers love Trader Joe’s for two main reasons: "One is the products. We travel the world to find amazing products. Two is the shopping experience; we want people to have fun."

 

3. Jobs Gained, Jobs Lost

It was two steps forward, one step back on the local job front in 2012. Like most of America, Winston-Salem showed some genuine signs of economic recovery. The good vibes were often short lived, though, as a couple of extreme job cuts shook the community to its core.

The biggest blows came from the health-care industry, which, until this year, seemed nearly indestructible in terms of job growth. It started with Novant Health, which announced it was eliminating 150 positions in May, and continued with Wake Forest Baptist Health, which announced it was cutting 475 workers as part of a restructuring plan. R.J. Reynolds also cut 10 percent of its workforce—or 540 jobs—many of which were based locally.

It wasn’t all bad news, though. In fact, the city actually netted thousands of new jobs in 2012 while unemployment numbers shrunk to their lowest levels since 2008. As far as big announcements, Pepsi Bottling Ventures pledged to create 200 jobs at its Union Cross plant while Deer-Hitachi vowed to add 350 jobs at its Kernersville facility. The town of Advance also made headlines when Ashley Furniture announced plans to open a 680-acre plant that could employ up to 1,000 people. And in neighboring Mocksville, Carolina Precision Plastics LLC announced it would open a new facility and create nearly 150 jobs.

Then there’s Herbalife, a California-based nutritional supplement maker that’s planning to open an East Coast manufacturing plant. Herbalife officials are eyeing the former Dell Plant off Union Cross Road for their new facility, which would employ nearly 500 workers. Winston-Salem is competing with a site in Atlanta for the project; no decision had been made when we went to press. We’re certainly keeping our fingers crossed, though.

 

4. Remaking Salem Lake

One of the city’s recreational gems got some much needed polish last year. Salem Lake, a 365-acre spectacle in the center of the city, was equipped with a new concrete dam that replaced its original 92-year-old dam. The $12 million project took more than two years to complete, causing boating and fishing to be suspended at the lake. Work on the dam wrapped up in late July, and water eventually filled back into the lake. (It had been lowered by 12.5 feet during construction.)

While the dam was being replaced, a number of other upgrades occurred around the lake. Decking and handrails were replaced on the pier, the boat ramp was extended by 25 feet, and the size of the Linville Road parking lot was increased. Workers also improved drainage and terrain along the lake’s 6.9-mile greenway, widening and repaving it in places.

5. Tanglewood Updates

In the western side of the county, Tanglewood Park was also in the midst of major change. The park’s pool area got a dramatic makeover this year, doubling its capacity from 650 to 1,100. New amenities include a lazy river for tubing, a play area for kids, more deck space, and a refurbished shelter nearby. The park also opened a 2-mile paved path for pedestrians and bikers that circles through the stables and campground. Lastly, pet advocates announced plans to open a dog park inside Tanglewood near the campground area. Work is scheduled to begin on the new dog park in early 2013 with hopes of opening by spring.

 

6. Stadium Wars

In its 90-year history, R.J. Reynolds High School has never had a football stadium to call its own. That may soon be changing, though, thanks to a series of developments that happened this past year. A group called Reynolds Home Field Advantage led a charge to build a stadium on Northwest Boulevard adjacent to Reynolds’ main campus. The proposed 2,200-seat facility would be built next to Wiley Middle School on the northern edge of Hanes Park, which caused an uproar among some area residents. In fact, "Save Hanes Park" signs became regular sights in the front yards of homes surrounding the school.

Critics say the stadium would create more noise and traffic while hurting the park’s overall atmosphere. Supporters, meanwhile, say the stadium would boost school spirit and extracurricular involvement at Reynolds. The school currently plays its home games 10 minutes away from campus at Deaton-Thompson Stadium, which it shares with Parkland High School.

The debate tilted toward supporters this fall when the school board approved a proposal to build the stadium. Supporters will now turn their attention toward raising the $6 to $7 million needed for construction. "We are well on our way," supporter Kathryn Spanos recently told the Winston-Salem Journal. "We have had a very enthusiastic response from many alumni."

 

7. Hollywood Heads to Town

When word came that Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner was filming his first feature film, You Are Here, in Winston-Salem, residents seemed to respond with a "That’s pretty neat" attitude. But when stars from the film began popping up around town, local interest went from casual to full-on crazy.

The movie, which is labeled a dark comedy, started filming around Forsyth County in May. Almost immediately, a constant stream of social-media updates detailed the stars’ whereabouts. While Amy Poehler and Zach Galifianakis certainly turned heads, it was Owen Wilson who seemed to draw the most attention: "Owen Wilson is eating at Mozelle’s!" … "Owen Wilson just checked into Graylyn!" … "I think I just saw Owen Wilson at the Greek Festival!" (Even our art director had an Owen Wilson moment; he swears he saw him riding a bike up Fourth Street one afternoon).

Crews finished filming in July, causing Winston-Salem to cease its stargazing efforts. But you can be sure the buzz will be back when the movie is released in theaters later this year.

 

8. Old Salem Goes to Market

We were pretty bummed when we heard the Downtown Farmers Market was calling it quits after 21 years in service. Thankfully, though, a new farmers market was already in the works.

Called the Old Salem Cobblestone Farmers Market, the market is a spinoff of the city’s original Cobblestone Farmers Market at Krankies. It takes place every Saturday morning from May until November at Old Salem, occupying an area behind T. Bagge Merchant. The market prides itself on being a pesticide-free, producers-only market, meaning everything is grown, raised, or produced by the vendors themselves. Selections here include vegetables, herbs, meats, eggs, cheeses, breads, and a number of other farm products.

Aside from local praise, the market also grabbed national attention when U.S. News & World Report named it one of the 11 best farmers markets in America, calling it "a colorful venue and treat for the senses."

 

9. New (Cool) Schools

It’s been almost 50 years since the community of Walkertown had a high school to call its own. The small town in northeastern Forsyth County closed its former senior high in the 1960s when East Forsyth opened nearby. But with the opening of Walkertown High School earlier this year, the town added a sparkling new facility and a renewed sense of community pride. The $33 million structure houses both middle- and high-school students (about 1,200 total). Amenities include cutting-edge science labs, candy red lockers, a "green" roof, and a 2,500-seat football stadium.

2012 also saw the opening of a new Forsyth County Career Center, which welcomes nearly 2,000 students from high schools across the county each year. Students maintain their affiliation with their home high schools while traveling to the center for Advanced Placement and other specialty courses. In January, the center moved from its longtime home at Forsyth Tech to a shiny new $22 million facility on the renovated Kennedy Campus, which also houses Carter High School and John F. Kennedy High School. In addition to sweeping views of downtown, the new Career Center features a warm color scheme, wood and chrome accents, and a wealth of natural light.

 

10. The Rams Resurge

It was a year to remember for the Winston-Salem State University football team. Led by coach Connell Maynor, the high-powered Rams capped off an undefeated regular season with an appearance in the Division II National Championship game. Though they lost to Valdosta State in the final, it was still a monumental occasion, as the Rams became the first historically black college to ever appear in the D-II title game.

But football wasn’t the only sport WSSU dominated this past year. The Rams also won CIAA conference titles in its two other "big" sports—men’s basketball and baseball—along with championships in softball and women’s cross country. All of the success leaves us with one overriding thought: What a great time to be a Ram.

 

11. Fire on the Mountain

One of the most alarming sights from 2012 happened at one of the area’s most visible landmarks. Around 10 a.m. on Nov. 8, a controlled burn was started at Pilot Mountain State Park to help clear underbrush near the park’s summit. While it was supposed to only last a few hours, the flames quickly spread beyond containment lines when embers from a dead tree blew into steep terrain. By that night, the "controlled" blaze had taken a chaotic turn, causing dozens of firefighters to descend on the park.

Meanwhile, those of us on the ground were treated to a stunningly poignant sight—the entire side of the mountain engulfed in smoke and flames. The scene, which was visable throughout parts of Forsyth County, was particularly eerie at night, as the glowing mountain took on a volcano-like appearance.

It took nearly a week for officials to completely control the fire, leaving at least 800 acres of the peak scorched. While much of the park reopened two weeks later, parts of it—including the Little Pinnacle overlook—remain closed for cleanup.

 

12. Monkey on the Run

Of all the memorable headlines we saw in 2012, it was the tale of an escaped monkey that served as the crown jewel. It all began June 29 when an 8-pound female macaque fled the Wake Forest Primate Center, sending the entire community into monkey-watch mode. With each passing day, the legend of the renegade monkey grew. Sightings were reported almost daily; parody Facebook and Twitter pages were created; even the national media began tracking the monkey’s whereabouts. Finally on July 10, the fugitive was found in a tree along Frye Bridge Road, just a few miles from the primate center. She was safely captured and returned to custody, capping off a wild 11-day ride.

 

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In Remembrance

Four prominent people we said goodbye to in 2012

Andy Griffith. One of the most beloved North Carolinians of all time passed away at the age of 86 due to complications from a heart attack. Known as "America’s Favorite Sheriff," Griffith played down-home Sheriff Andy Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show, one of the most popular TV shows in history. The show took place in the fictional town of Mayberry, which was inspired by his real-life hometown of Mount Airy, about 30 minutes north of Winston-Salem.

Anne Kesler Shields. The local art community lost a dynamic force when Anne Kesler Shields passed away at the age of 80 after a battle with cancer. Raised in Winston-Salem, Shields was known as a trailblazing artist and a driving force behind the creation of SECCA and the Associated Artists of Winston-Salem. Her art, which varied from abstract painting to collage, was challenging and controversial at times, but it was always said to have a message.

John Medlin. Regarded as the leading banker of his generation, John Medlin Jr. passed away at the age of 78 after suffering a heart attack. Medlin served as CEO of Wachovia Corp. for decades, helping turn the Winston-Salem-based bank from regional player to national power. Though he retired from the company in the 1990s, Medlin still kept an office in the Wells Fargo tower and worked nearly every day.

Doc Watson. A folk music pioneer from nearby Wilkes County, Arthel Lane "Doc" Watson passed away at the age of 89 after complications from abdominal surgery. Watson, who was blind since birth, was known for his signature "flat-picking" style of guitar, playing a mix of mountain music, bluegrass, and blues. He was also the driving force behind Merlefest, an annual music festival in Wilkes County that he started in honor of his son, Merle, who passed away in 1985.

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