Local Economist Assesses New York Times' Take On Winston-Salem
A recent article in the New York Times, “Why Midsize Cities Struggle to Catch Up to Superstar Cities”, has put Winston-Salem in the national spotlight. But based on the reaction it’s received thus far from local residents and an increasingly vocal group of public officials, some are wondering whether the story got it right.
In his article, reporter Eduardo Porter paints Winston-Salem as a city struggling economically to catch up to what he calls “superstar cities,” like Charlotte, and the Raleigh-Durham area.
WFDD’s David Ford spoke with Director of the Winston-Salem State University Center for the Study of Economic Mobility Professor Craig Richardson to get his reaction.
On where Richardson feels the New York Times article may have missed the mark:
I really felt like the article focused much more on the losses than the reinvention of the city over the last decade. I've lived here for about 25 years and certainly with a lot of other folks who've lived here, we've seen some losses through tobacco and through textiles. But what the article really missed was the reinvention of this city. We now have Wake Forest Baptist as the largest employer in the county. Service jobs that are high paying have replaced some of these other manufacturing jobs. And moreover we still have Hanesbrands here. We still have RJR here who is employing thousands and thousands of workers. So, there was more of a glass quarter empty than three quarters full type feeling when I read this, and in some ways it really missed the boat on the resiliency of this economy, the diversification of this economy — and even the biggest story I think so far of the year of BB&T moving its headquarters and the merger. We don't put this in context enough, although that was certainly a loss of prestige and a loss of significant number of jobs. In total, it's probably going to be about one half of one percent of our workforce. So, we're a very resilient, dynamic local economy here, and I think the article really missed on that. It really concentrated on losses and gave lip service to some of the other type of entrepreneurial ventures that are happening that are in fact quite dynamic and creating reasons for us to be one of the top places for entrepreneurs to come now.
On the possible impacts of this article on the city’s ability to attract new employers, businesses, and workers to Winston-Salem:
The New York Times has been called the “nation's newspaper” and when Winston-Salem ends up in the New York Times, it's really important for us to push back. There needs to be a city voice. There needs to be a corporation voice. There needs to be a Chamber of Commerce voice — as there has been out there — to push back strongly against a narrative that has been forced into, I think, an unfair representation about what our city is.
On the notion of struggling to “catch up with bigger cities” as reflected in the article’s title:
The premise is catching up and so we have to ask ourselves what are we catching up to? It's true that our median income is lower than the nation's. It's a $50,000 family income versus $60,000. At the same time, we have the most affordable housing in the entire state. The average home price in Winston-Salem is $185,000. It's $293,000 in Raleigh. Do we want to catch up to house prices? Do we want to catch up to traffic? Do we want to catch up to crime? All of these things are the unspoken assumptions of an article like this, which asks, “Why aren't we catching up?” We have a very high quality of life here. We have one of the best downtowns in the country. And we're not perfect by any means, but the whole premise of catching up means higher income is higher happiness, and I question that whole assumption.
On Winston-Salem’s poverty problem:
We have tremendous resiliency in this economy, tremendous growth, and a lot to be proud of. At the same time, what the author really missed was we also have growing concentrations of poverty in East Winston that have dramatically increased in the last seven years. That is what the writer should have looked at and what our city should be looking at as something that's very troublesome and even alarming. As our city grows like a wonderful garden on the west side, we have another garden that's across [Highway] 52 that needs some tending — needs a lot of tending. And so, we're not a perfect city by any means, but I think this would present a much more nuanced and fair picture of our city to be considering it in this way.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This transcript was lightly edited for clarity.