December 11, 2019

Why Midsize Cities Struggle to Catch Up to Superstar Cities

Then Caterpillar came, also lured by local incentives, but it has not met its original target of 510 full- and part-time jobs. Currently, it has around 160, down from a peak of more than 400. Bank headquarters have left: Wachovia in 2001, when it was bought by First Union; BB T in 2019, when it merged with SunTrust. Krispy Kreme, the doughnut company, is moving corporate operations to Charlotte and food-production services to Concord.

The city made a bid for Amazon’s second headquarters. But though Amazon will build a fulfillment center in nearby Kernersville, where FedEx runs a distribution hub, Winston-Salem didn’t make the short list for HQ2. “If you go down the Amazon checklist, it requires all the things that we don’t have,” said Koleman Strumpf, a professor of economics at Wake Forest. “We don’t have mass transit. No Amtrak. No good airports. It’s not a walkable city. It doesn’t have great amenities.”

If any middling city can make a transition to a technology-centered future, however, Winston-Salem should. It is home to five universities, including Wake Forest, an institution that enrolls four out of its five students from out of state. Transplanted to Winston-Salem in the mid-1950s under the Reynolds family’s patronage from its original site near Raleigh, the university has a leading medical school, which it hopes will anchor a biotech ecosystem.

“The top talent is going to go to the coasts, no doubt about that,” said Graydon Pleasants, head of real estate development for the Innovation Quarter. “But there are plenty of smart people who will come here.”

Winston-Salem State University and the University of North Carolina School of the Arts jointly support a Center for Design Innovation, which has an advanced motion-detection studio for animation and virtual-reality productions.

Forsyth Tech, the local community college, also tries to draw companies to the area, promising to provide the skills they need. To entice Caterpillar, for instance, Forsyth bought sophisticated machinery to create the simulated working environment the company wanted.

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