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A renaissance is a rebirth. In the early 1990’s, Downtown Winston-Salem was dead. The most famous renaissance was in Europe following the Middle Ages, from the fourteenth until the seventeenth centuries. What many people don’t know is that we had our own renaissance in Winston-Salem, but it was actually more of a Rence-aissance, because a lot of the revitalization of downtown was spearheaded by my dad, Rence Callahan.

In doing my blog interviews of Winston-Salemites that either have gone on to do great things outside of Winston, or that make a huge difference in town, it is incredible how many people describe the difference of Downtown Winston as they have grown older. I have noticed that same difference, but I have seen the change from the inside-out. I used to run from my West End house I grew up in to the Winston Tower and back frequently during my youth. Once you passed The West End Cafe, there really was not much the rest of the route along Fourth Street.

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My dad has no idea I am writing this, but it is something that is very important to me. I see a lot of new places named after downtown difference makers in the newly revitalized downtown, but to me Fourth Street should be called Rence’s Way. As early as the nineties, my dad had the dream of revitalizing downtown, when it was literally a ghost town. I remember overhearing discussions he had with my mom about how people essentially thought it was crazy-talk to put new things downtown. He did win several accolades through the years including one of The Business Journal’s most influential people in 2008, 2010, and 2012. He was selected by the Triad Business Leader magazine as a “Triad Mover and Shaker.” In 2009, he won the Winston-Salem Chamber of Commerce’s Citizen and Service Award (link to article and video of speech).

One of my favorite movies is Field of Dreams, where the most famous line is, “if you build it, they will come.” In the early nineties, when my dad had the dream of turning Downtown Winston into a special place, the thinking was more, “if you revitalize it, nobody will come.” Everybody thought that restaurants needed to be on Stratford Road to succeed. There was no way bars could make it downtown, because it was too shady. There was no way a small movie theater or a movie festival could survive downtown. A sports stadium built downtown would never draw a crowd, because stadiums needed to be out University Road.

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Looking back at it now twenty years later, the naysayers were wrong. There are terrific restaurants from Trade Street all the way to Old Salem. The Winston-Salem Dash stadium is one of the nicest minor league ballparks in the country. There is a unique and trendy artist community downtown, and a thriving movie theater and film festival. The new residential buildings fill up as fast as ants moving to a dropped crumb. Downtown Winston is now a thriving community that all Winston-Salemites should be very proud of and if it wasn’t for the big push by my dad and others, it could still be that same ghost town it used to be. Imagine the traffic out Hanes Mall Boulevard if that was the case, but it is not due to all of the hard work that many people have put into the revitalization.

My dad grew up in a small coal-town, Point Marion, in Southwestern Pennsylvania, near the West Virginia border. Point Marion is smaller than the West End neighborhood I grew up in near downtown. He left in the late 1960’s to attend college at the University of Virginia. He had never even seen the campus before, when he stepped foot there in 1968. He married my mom in the early seventies, and they moved to North Carolina for my dad to attend architecture graduate school at UNC-Charlotte and my mom to attend graduate school at UNC-Greensboro for speech pathology.

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After they had my sister in Charlotte in 1976, they moved to Winston for my dad to begin work as an architect here at Hammill-Walter Associates. Eventually in 1988, he became a partner at his firm, Walter Robbs Callahan and Pierce. The firm has had a lot of success, including winning the North Carolina “Firm of the Year” in 1998. You can see the firm’s work throughout downtown and the entire southeast (link to WRCP projects).

Luckily, my mom keeps articles that my family are featured in, so I have a strong database to look back at my dad’s vision for downtown. As far back as 1992, he wanted to make Fourth St. more pedestrian friendly.

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In 1997, my dad wrote a guest column in The Winston-Salem Journal about the downtown of Greenville, SC that they used as an example for the new downtown Winston plan, where he said, “the participants enjoyed being downtown on a Friday night along with hundreds if not thousands of Greenville families, walking along Main Street, listening to live music and selecting from any of 60 downtown restaurants.” I would say that less than twenty years later that is exactly what we have in Downtown Winston, thanks to the hard-work of a lot of determined Winston-Salemites.

In 1998, my dad told Triad Business News that “the (downtown) plan is not a series of steps that we will have to take to make downtown a wonderful place, but it establishes a strategy to keep things moving forward.” That same article showed just how desolate downtown was when the writer wrote, “when the day is done and Old Salem closes, (Downtown) Winston-Salem can seem done as well. Much of it is being deserted by 6 p.m.”

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In a 1998 article in The Business Journal, the writer described my dad as a “downtown dreamer.” Winston-Salem’s Mayor Allen Joines, who was then an assistant city manager said, “he brings a passion and a belief that a healthy city center is crucial to the overall vitality of the city itself.”  When talking about downtown in this article my dad said, “we can have dreams, they’re worth pursuing, and maybe this is one worth pursuing.” One of my favorite quotes of any I have read from my father was in this article: “Even though the train is moving (my dad loves trains), it could come to a screeching halt and we’re still out in the wilderness. We’re getting close to the station, though, so I’m cautiously optimistic we’re going to be able to pull it off, and pull it off in time for me to enjoy it.” Little did my dad know those eighteen years ago, that Winston-Salem did pull it off, and I am sure there isn’t anybody that enjoys it more than him.

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I found out that my dad’s thesis in 1977 at UNC-C was about developing a NFL stadium in downtown Charlotte, sixteen years before they got a professional football team. In 2000, my dad  had a new vision for downtown, which I honestly believe was just ten years before its time. Major League Soccer was a fledgling professional league at that time, and my dad had the idea to bring a team to Winston. Some of my favorite quotes from my dad and about my dad come from an article in 2000 in The Business Journal: 

  • The writer wrote, “he speaks like a man who has spent the past decade working behind-the-scenes, through peaks and valleys, to spur on a downtown Winston-Salem’s renaissance.”
  • The writer wrote, “City centers are his hobby, and people who know him say they wouldn’t want anyone else spearheading the rehabilitation of Winston-Salem’s core.”
  • Jim Lambie said, “His heart and soul is to the downtown area.”
  • The writer wrote, “He thinks that a rejuvenated downtown- with restaurants, night clubs and retail shops- would make a perfect fit for a North Carolina team.”

Unfortunately, the Carolina Soccer Foundation wasn’t able to raise quite enough money for a stadium. Like I wrote earlier, I just think this plan was ahead of its time. This did nothing to stop my dad and several other’s dreams of revitalizing downtown.

Bizlife Magazine wrote an article about Walter Robbs in 2001, where my dad continued his foreshadowing of our vibrant downtown. “Downtown Winston-Salem is going to become not just the center of Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, or maybe even of the Piedmont Triad. Winston-Salem is going to become a true destination,” my dad said in the article. The writer described him as being “so impassioned you can almost feel the electricity in his words.”

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I honestly believe I get the same passion I have as soon as I step on the soccer field at Salem College that my dad had when talking about downtown in the early 2000’s. Some people don’t like my passion, particularly some referees and a couple other coaches, just like some people might not have liked my dad’s passion for downtown at that time. But he kept his dream alive. The firm moved to the Chatham Building on Fourth St. before many businesses were downtown. Then they designed and moved into Trader’s Row on Trade St., which was the first LEED Certified project ever in Forsyth County.

Throughout the last fifteen years, my dad, Walter Robbs, The Downtown Partnership, and many others carried on the dream to revitalize downtown and it is now a mecca for arts and entertainment in the region.

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My sister owns a business (a/perture) downtown now, and her family moved to Fourth St. My parents plan to move from the West End to downtown soon as well. All three of my dad’s grandchildren go to school downtown. I work downtown and the entire Callahan Clan are truly Downtown Winston people.

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I can’t take my daily trips through downtown without thinking how proud I am of my dad for all of his hard work. In the early 1990’s, people did not believe him when he would tell them he wanted to make downtown a special place, but my family did, because we saw his passion everyday when he was at home away from the naysayers.

I will finish this blog with another quote of my dad’s from 2001, “The opportunity to create a building, to leave a legacy that will last much longer than you can last gives you the inspiration.” Dad, your inspiration has helped pave a path for a downtown for all Winston-Salemites to be proud of and to enjoy daily. The legacy of Downtown Winston should always hold the Rence-aissance close to its heart.

 

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6 thoughts on “The Rence-aissance of Downtown Winston

  1. Jay…what an awesome article about your dad! Yes, his vision helped to save downtown Winston
    Thank you for writing this

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