Just a years ago the most prevalent feature of Winston-Salem's downtown seemed to be plywood. Boarded-up flagging central business distric. Shoppers only strayed into the area.
Even a tree-studded pedestrina mall couldn't chisel out a new life for the city's inner core and keep stores from bolting to the suburbs.
That scene is chaning.
Today shops and businesses are slowly reopening doors while a few sleek new office buildings pierce the city's skyline. "It's funny thin," says Wayne Corpening, the city's affable and homespun mayor. "Some of the people who moved out now want to come back downtown."
The spark for at least some of this activity has been none other than the arts. Over the past few decades this texitle and tobacco town, folded into North Carolina's piney Piedmont region, has nurtured a strong artistic community and today ranks as one of the most culturally active cities of its size (140,000 ) in the country.
It also stands as the country's most celebrated example of using the arts as an economic development tool. At a time when many cities and states worry about government parsimony, Winston-Salem is drawing up wellsprings of cultural support from individuals and corporations alike, Several museums and theater groups flourish here as well as a touring dance company, a symphony orchestra, and an increasingly well-stocked artist community. The area's four colleges have produced dozens of prominent artist.
But while this small industrial city has long been building itself up as thriving cultural center, it has only been more recently that city leaders have turned to the arts to try to revive the downtown district.
The idea was to develop a "culture block" that would lure people back to the city, and private ivestment along with them. Centerpiece of the development, now under reconstruction, is the 1,400-seat Roger L. Stevens Center for the Performing Arts. Once a movie theater and vaudeville house, the art deco building is being refurbished for use by traveling Broadway shows, the local symphony, and the town's prestigious North Carolina Schoolf for the Arts.
Not far away, an aging saw-toothed textile building and former Cadillac showrrom is being turned into series of art galleries, craft exhibitions, and artists' studios. A nearby parking low will become an outdoor park and theater.
All this comes in the backdrop of a flurry of activity by locally based corporations. The Integon Insurance Corporation Recently built a glassy new downtown headquarters, and R. J. Reynolds Industries Inc., with interests in everything from tobacco to ketchup, is putting up a center for one of its subsidiaries. Across town, a red-brick textile mill is becoming a cluster of shops and boutiques.
Some outside analysts see the arts development as more of a capstone than a foundation of the city's revival. But local enthusiasts view it as the real mortar behind the community's build-up. "What I think we've got is a national model for central business district revialization," says R. Philip Hanes Jr., local civic and business leader.
Government and business officials have come from near and far to probe the city's soul for the anser to its cultural renaissance, part of which lies in the past. The area was first settled in the mid-1700s by Moravian Protestants -- a hardworking, music-loving group that inspired some of the country's earliest musical works. Music classes began at the well preserved Salem Academy and College as early as 1782. To this day each of the Moravian churches in the area has its own band, and residents tell stories of being pleasantly startled (sometimes in the middle of the night) when the groups roll out the brass on special occasions.
In 1949 the city set up the country's first arts council, an idea now duplicated in thousands of cities and communities across the country. The primarily state-supported North Carolina School of the Arts, considered one of the best of its kind in the country, was established in 1965 after the community raised about $1 million in 48 hours. Ten percent of the city's families pitched for the cause.
Layered over this cultural base is a bedrock of business, led by Reynolds Industries and the Hanes Corporation, a major textile producer. Many of the millionaires tucked away in surrounding magnolia-and pine-covered hills are avid arts patrons. The fortresslike house of business magnate James G. Hanes has become the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, where regional artists exhibit their works.
More than anything else, however, Winston-Salem's cultural tour de force seems built on old-fashioned community zeal. Leading the civic charge is R. Philip Hanes Jr., who has an Ed Koch knack for hometown boosterism. The crew-cut chairman of the Hanes Corporation now devotes most of his time to raising money and helping nonprofit groups.
His latest pitch: Winston-Salem has become a national cultural treasure and should therefore receive alms from big corporations and foundations, not just local companies. It seems to be working. Several companies such as Exxon have given money for local projects even though they have no operations in the area.
Still, if Winston-Salem seems all shine and symphonies, it isn't. More businesses still have to be lured downtown to fill some boarded-up storefronts. And a few presidents, blacks in particular, want more done in the way of jobs and housing for the poor. Some too would like to see more blacks taking part in the arts revival.
"Most black people work hard, but they don't have the time and money for cultural events," says James Diggs, a black painter and former head of Winston-Salem University's fine arts department.
For the most part, however, the Cultural boom has garnered widespread acceptance. "The arts are a wonderful vehicle for any community," says Florence Creque, assistant director of the city's community development threatened."
But the questions remains: Can the Winston-Salem model be duplicated? In its exact form, probably not. but certain elements -- such as a little vision and community vigor -- can.