Winston-Salem council approves first entertainment district

Ziggy's, a Winston-Salem music venue, is in the heart of the new entertainment district.
The Winston-Salem City Council said, "Let it rock!" with a lopsided 7-1 vote on Monday night to approve an entertainment district encompassing Ziggy's and the District Roof Top Bar & Grille, drowning out the objections of neighbors to the south in the Downtown Arts District.

The applicants, represented by consultant Drew Gerstmyer, lined up support from a powerful set of influential players, including the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership, the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter and Goler Community Development Corp., whose leaders spoke in support of the rezoning, which is designed to protect entertainment venues from complaints by residents.

But the president of the Downtown Arts District Association and a couple business owners on Trade Street urged council to turn down the request, citing concerns about public safety, sanitation and parking.

Councilwoman Molly Leight, who represents the South Ward, cast the lone no vote.

"Downtown is like Legos; it's building blocks," said Councilwoman Wanda Merschel, the Northwest Ward representative. "And this community has been bringing out our Lego set for years and years. We brought out the expanded sidewalks. We brought out two ways on 4th Street. We brought out the restaurant row. This community has just put Lego after Lego after Lego out there. And one of the next things, I hope, will be a business improvement district, because we don't want to be guilty of our own success.... I view this as just another key Lego piece going into the development of downtown."

Mayor Pro Tem Vivian Burke echoed Merschel's sentiment that the city has invested too much in downtown development to not take the next step.

The council's action creates an entertainment district with relaxed regulations for noise to encourage entertainment facilities catering to young people north of 7th Street on either side of Trade Street, reaching beyond 9th Street.

"I think the thing all of us are talking about is the concern for safety," said Kathy Gaultin, president of the Downtown Arts District Association. "We have a lot of businesses that are currently in the proposed area of the district. We have a lot more traffic than we used to have. We also have a lot more sanitation issues. We have a lot more safety issues. I don't know if more people misbehave or we just have a larger demographic."

Antonina Whaples, a 25-year-old Wake Forest University graduate, recently took over Kindred Spirits, a new-age store on Trade Street, with her husband, an Iraq war veteran. She said the entertainment district would imperil the nearby arts district south of 7th street, especially fledgeling business owners.

"My main concern is that this entertainment district isn't going to assist in the younger generation's ability to make entrepreneurial success in Winston-Salem, especially downtown," she said. "I don't think I have to tell any of you that it's hard out there for college graduates. I worked for an entire year after graduation as a bagger. Through ingenuity, hard work and an excellent business loan I was able to make this happen.

"I'm very concerned that this entertainment district is going to bring in some energies to the downtown district that is not going to be supportive to the artists that are downtown," Whaples continued. "Artists are the kind of people we need without the worry of our rent going up, insurance increasing because of worries about theft and dangerous people downtown after hours. There's concerns about those things. When people are inebriated, the danger increases. I don't have to tell you being a young woman, it's dangerous to walk out of your store at night. You want to feel comfortable."

Will Knott, a member of the arts district association, noted that the district already has a number of bars and restaurants, some of which are members of the association. He said the galleries that operate during the daytime are challenged when patrons of the bars who are over-served leave their cars parked on the street overnight. Finnigan's Wake, the Silver Moon Saloon and Single Brothers are among the bars located on Trade Street south of 7th Street.

"We are a vibrant, but we are a fragile neighborhood — small businesses, many of them that are marginal in their profitability," Knott said.

"The E district would also encourage crime — just sort of natural, goes with it," Knott added. "I've talked to Drew and his people, and they understand and talk about additional security, but it is a factor. It can create a seediness that the art pioneers have worked hard to get rid of. The tourists — 60 percent or so of our business comes from out-of-town people. If tourists, people in the hotels, don't feel comfortable, they're not coming down. They're not buying art."

Councilman Robert Clark, who represents the West Ward, acknowledge the growing pains that attend balancing growth between art galleries and entertainment facilities.

"Knowing there's a lot of beer served," he said, "I have a feeling we may have a problem with public urination."

Larry Olds said a provision in the ordinance when council created the new zoning category last November that prohibits other entertainment districts within a mile radius was "a serious oversight and mistake."

"We should have several entertainment districts in downtown," he said.

Greg Carlyle, owner of the Millennium Center at 5th and Trade streets, did not attend the city council meeting. But minutes from the June 13 City-County Planning Board meeting reflect that he stated that the zoning change would put him at a competitive disadvantage because he will be ineligible to rezone his property as an entertainment district.

Three speakers lined up in support of the initiative.

"I think this represents progress," said Jason Thiel, president of the Downtown Winston-Salem Partnership. "I think in some cases you do want to allow for the higher volume of music and outdoor entertainment. I think you see that in most of the cities that we compete with as peers."

Eric Tomlinson, president of Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, said he had recently been at an establishment near 7th and Trade streets "winding down" with a group of colleagues.

"I had a lot of fun doing that," he said, "and I can see how that would attract a lot of youth and a lot of energy into our city."

Michael Suggs, executive director of Goler Community Development Corp. — a nonprofit involved in housing development and other revitalization efforts in the area directly to the east of the entertainment district — also urged approval.

"We think it's going to be a good thing that's going to spur some economic growth in the area," Suggs said. "If you look at the picture, it's literally the hole in the doughnut. It's not connected to any particular development. We think doing this type of project, it has the potential to connect particularly the area of Kimberly Park to some of the things that are happening."

Councilman Derwin Montgomery, who represents the East Ward, said the rezoning represents an opportunity to lay a foundation for a harmonious mix of uses in an area that to date has few residents "with the understanding that when you move in residential you'll have that understanding between those two."

"Other cities are watching us to see how this works," Montgomery concluded, "and I think we're going to be an opportunity for others around the state to be able to copy what we've done here in Winston-Salem."

Disclosure: YES! Weekly's publisher is a part owner of Ziggy's, one of the subject properties in the new entertainment district.

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