On paper, the plan temporarily shelved last week by the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners to build an event center smack in the middle of Tanglewood Park makes some sense.
At 50,000 square feet, county officials say, the yet-to-be-named center would allow the county to host — and charge a hefty fee to host — concerts, expositions, gun shows and so on, the same way the city does with the Fairgrounds and the Annex.
“Tanglewood is already the single-most visited place in the county,” said Dudley Watts, the county manager. “A lot of people know that place. I think it will be well-received by the community of promoters who create events.”
No doubt that’s true. Anybody who stands to turn a buck off such a place would be pleased. Hotels and restaurants down the road in Clemmons or just over the mighty Yadkin in Bermuda Run have visions of a plumper bottom line.
“There is always opportunity adding another venue in town to attract additional business,” said Rich Geiger, the president of Visit Winston-Salem.
Also true. But here’s the thing: People — nearby residents and regular citizens who flock to the park by the tens of thousands and ultimately will pay for it — have a say, too.
When the plan first surfaced recently in an widespread way, otherwise well-informed locals were left gobsmacked by its scope — and its price tag.
A maximum of $5 million, with $450,000 in front money for design, would be spent to build the structure near existing horse barns and a swell walking/jogging path only recently nearing completion.
Commissioners had planned to vote Thursday on entering into a contract with Shelco LLC for that $450k and viewed the move as a mere formality. After all, county voters approved it in 2016 in a bond referendum.
What’s another $5 million in a voter-approved bond-binge by both city and county running to somewhere north of $691 million since 20114? Chump change.
Among such attention-getters as the city’s Quarry Park and $350 million for schools — not to mention $115.6 million for a new courthouse and so on that voters didn’t get a direct say on — it’s easy to see how a little old events center might be lost in the shuffle.
A funny thing happened on the way to a pro-forma vote, however. Just as the summer Olympics were about to kick off, county officials dove into the deep end and backstroked away from an initial rubber-stamp approval in world-record pace.
Watts, who’s been known to fall on political grenades, told commissioners that he’d “made a grave error” by assuming the citizenry had been informed.
“Maybe there’s a site we haven’t identified yet that is the one best site,” he said. “There are some fears out there around this thing.”
All over an events center that county officials admit might wind up being a break-even proposition at best.
Lessons to be learned
The good news is that by slowing this particular roll, commissioners have purchased additional time to think through other issues that could crop up.
At the top of the list, of course, are concerns about property values and lifestyle questions already raised by residents of next-door Clemmons West.
Explosive growth in the area has fueled for years tensions between revenue-anxious county officials and Clemmons residents fed up with traffic issues. The Clemmons census tract, designated as 40.15 by planning types, showed growth of between 30 and 50 percent for an area south of U.S. 158 and Idols Road.
The still-lingering stink over an on-again, off-again expansion at the Tanglewood Business Park, which caused the county to buy back a 14.5 acre tract it had sold to Beaufurn LLC, a commercial furniture manufacturer. The total cost of that, including $110,000 for lawyers and engineers, ran just north of $500,000.
“This will give us more time to regroup and to get the park more fully developed before we sell the next property,” Watts said in July 2019 when the Beaufurn deal went south and construction on a sewer-lift station was well under way.
County officials might well want to take note of a recent flap their counterparts in the city went through earlier this month when officials cancelled a contract it had signed for a hip-hop concert over safety concerns.
Some observers wondered about the role of racial stereotyping and others questioned whether the city should even be in the business of concert promotions or hosting gun shows on one hand while decrying a tide of gun violence on the other.
And having just come through a pandemic that drove thousands back toward the great outdoors, does building an indoor events center — one not guaranteed to even sniff a profit — the wisest thing to do in the middle of a popular, active park beset on all sides by rampant growth?
Sometimes what makes sense on paper doesn’t make sense for the living, breathing and voting citizens.