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Whitaker Park transition continues

Jun 08, 2023Jun 08, 2023

Back to school Monday. Be patient.

The handoff has been inevitable ever since that May day in 2010 when R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. announced that it would stop making cigarettes at Whitaker Park.

At its peak, the plant, which opened in 1961 and cost more than $270 million in today’s dollars to build, employed more than 2,000 workers.

The jobs paid well and provided security for families across generations; Reynolds, as always, proved to be a foundational plank of the local economy.

The global tobacco industry had changed dramatically through the years, a formality since the landmark 1964 Surgeon General’s report on Smoking and Health.

Production of Camels, Salems and Winstons shifted to the 2-million square-foot plant in Tobaccoville.

Whitaker Park (mostly) sat idle awaiting a transition to a new, higher use.

For a while, it seemed as if the plant would be refitted to allow Cook Medical, which bought a 850,000 square-foot section of the plant for $4 million, to expand its operation.

“We see Whitaker Park as an impact project in that we are converting a facility that manufactured cigarettes into a modern facility producing life-saving medical devices,” Barry Slowey, president of Cook’s Winston-Salem location, said in January 2019.

“We’ve been in Winston-Salem since 1983, and acquiring the Whitaker Park facility signifies a renewed commitment to this community.”

The move seemed fitting as Winston-Salem, like other cities built on the Pride in Tobacco ethos, moved to diversify its economy.

And the medical field — with the increasing prominence of what used to be known as the Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center — was a natural target.

Cook’s plans never came to be as the COVID-19 pandemic fundamentally altered the American workplace. (Ironic that disease changed the plans of a company that manufactured medical devices.)

The shift opened a door for Purple Crow, another homegrown Winston-Salem company, to step in, however, as we learned last week.

Purple Crow, in case you're unaware, has its origins in the late 1980s when the Calhoun brothers recognized opportunity within the growing Hispanic community.

Phil and Nat Calhoun, graduates of the former Piedmont Bible College and the sons of missionary parents, saw value in providing familiar foods from Mexico to our new neighbors — and by hiring from the growing Hispanic workforce.

It was brilliant. The Purple Crow brand formally launched in 1995 and grew along with the community to the point where it needed a facility the size of the one Cook Medical wanted to sell.

The company, through an incentives request to the city, said it plans to add 274 jobs at an average salary of $72,000 to its existing workforce of 300 local employees.

In addition, it’ll spend $50 million in capital investment.

(The request, a standard ask by Big Business these days, is for up to $694,000 in performance-based incentives over five years.)

If the sale goes through as expected, the evolution of Whitaker Park from state-of-the-art cigarette manufacturing plant to medical devices to a food-services company built on demographic shifts will continue.

Could any of the city’s movers and shakers have foreseen such a transition way back in 1961 when Whitaker Park opened its doors?

It’s unlikely.

But change, like death and taxes, is inevitable. And so, too, is the repurposing of an old standard.

It’s early yet — today was the first day of classes for the 2023-24 school year for most Triad school districts — but the confusion and frustration caused by moving tens of thousands of students to hundreds of schools is just beginning.

Teachers, parents and students enrolled in the Alamance-Burlington School System have seen plans roiled by the discovery of mold in some 21 buildings (out of 37) that will require more than $1 million in remediation.

In Stokes County, the Board of Education is still wrestling with hard decisions about school consolidation — closings — forced by a budget crunch.

And school officials in Guilford and Forsyth counties, like their colleagues in every other district across the state, continue to deal with problems large and small caused by shortfalls in the number of employees.

The Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools were short 59 school bus drivers — 27 hopefuls applied within the past two weeks but did not have the proper CDL certification to get behind the wheel right away.

At least 3,000 students will be late getting to (and home from) school today.

Mold, a shortage of teachers and bus drivers and budget cuts are squeezing public education.

Welcome back.

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