Bailey Power Plant: Powering a New Kind of Energy

16 minute read

Dwarfed by the backdrop of high-rise buildings behind it, she still casts a long shadow on the district below. Its shape is iconic, punctuated by two stacks towering several stories above her other structures.

They are emblazoned with whitewash letters, symbolizing a name that was once synonymous with Winston-Salem and a major contributor to the city’s economic engine: R.J.R. TOB. CO. The red brick is dirtied, and the windows no longer gleam, but the letters preserved by the force of the past refuse to fade in the hot southern sun.

But soon, those windows will light up again, and the bricks will once more embrace the hum of human activity.

As the next step in the development of Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, the rebirth of Bailey Power Plant is about much more than brick and mortar. Soon, it will bring a different kind of energy to Winston-Salem. The energy that happens when proximity meets collaboration. Like a beating heart, Bailey Power Plant will soon provide the life blood of community: places to interact, socialize, recreate. Places where ideas will be born.

This vision is now beginning to take form as people from its past, present and future help reintroduce it to society.

A Vision for the Future

Bailey Power Plant is an integral piece of Winston-Salem’s past. The power plant’s colossal turbines supplied the electricity and steam needed to run the factories of the R. J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, a company that helped build Winston-Salem into a major manufacturing and transportation city of the South.

At its peak, Bailey Power Plant powered a swath of buildings that stretched from Main Street east to what is now U.S. 52 and from Martin Luther King Jr. Drive south to Business 40. In the 1950s, RJR Tobacco began moving its factories out of downtown because of changing industry and manufacturing needs. The last factory was closed by 1990. The power plant soon followed, left dormant for decades.

In 2005, Reynolds generously donated a group of buildings in the former tobacco district to what would become the Wake Forest Innovation Quarter.

I saw Bailey as an engine that could bring the larger community into the ecosystem that we were building downtown.

Eric Tomlinson

From its inception, the Innovation Quarter was designed to do more than just fill the space vacated by the tobacco industry. Leaders from many sectors—Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, city, county and state government, business and development, and the community—had a vision of a district that would become the driver of a new innovation economy. A district that could provide spaces for companies, organizations and institutions in emerging fields such as biomedical sciences, information technology, advanced materials and more. A place that could also provide pathways for the community to enter into these new fields through jobs, education and training.

This vision was part of what brought Eric Tomlinson, now president of Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, to Winston-Salem. He was recruited with the purpose of building a place, but saw an opportunity to build something more—to build a community. Bailey Power Plant plays a unique role in that vision.

“I saw Bailey as an engine that could bring the larger community into the ecosystem that we were building downtown,” Eric says. “We wanted to build more than a drive-in/drive-out research park; we wanted to build a community focused on innovation and the economic benefits that could bring.”

The redevelopment of Bailey Power Plant is one of the final steps to the first phase of developing 145 acres in downtown Winston-Salem into an innovation district. The individuals and organizations driving the Innovation Quarter envision Bailey Power Plant powering community-building by drawing people and their unique stories into closer proximity and by encouraging collaboration.

Cleaning Up the Power Plant

But before there was a vision, there was a building—one outfitted for a use completely unrelated to its future.

“On one hand, Bailey was an iconic and incredibly interesting building, and on the other hand it was a mothballed power plant,” says Graydon Pleasants, who has managed real estate development and infrastructure for the Innovation Quarter for over 20 years.

Before Wake Forest Baptist even accepted the donation of Bailey Power Plant from Reynolds, a massive amount of work had to be done—which is how Graydon got involved.

For Graydon, Bailey Power Plant was a challenge, a chance that the Innovation Quarter almost didn’t take.

Today Bailey Power Plant is cleared in preparation for redevelopment, but only six years ago it was chock full of equipment and materials—steam-generating turbines, four-story boilers hanging from the ceiling, furnaces, all the accoutrements needed to pulverize coal—all ensnared within a maze of catwalks and ladders.

“Developers wouldn’t even look at it in that state,” Graydon says. “We had to do a lot of soul-searching about whether or not to take on the remediation.”

Just taking everything out of the building would be a huge undertaking. Some of the materials were environmentally hazardous. Equipment was covered in asbestos, and many thermostats in the power plant contained mercury. Cleanup would be laborious.

Reynolds was patient. The company allowed Graydon to figure out what Bailey Power Plant was and what could be done with it. After a year of research, due diligence and negotiation, Graydon sat down with Richard Dean, MD, then chief executive officer of Wake Forest University Health Sciences, and together they decided to take a risk.

In 2010, Reynolds officially donated Bailey Power Plant, along with a contribution of $2 million for general use, and the cleaning up of the buildings began.

Graydon found a sustainability consultancy company, Environmental Resources Management (ERM), from Charlotte that had a specialty in the abatement of power plants that made the project feasible. ERM brought in remediation companies from all over the country to help clean up Bailey Power Plant.

“We recycled everything we could to offset some of the cost,” says Graydon. Copper, brass and steel from the plant was carefully removed so as not to discard anything considered historically significant to the building.

Through ingenuity, partnership and creativity, we were able to get the power plant to the point where developers would take a look.

Graydon Pleasants

In addition to Reynolds’ generosity and ERM’s expertise, the city of Winston-Salem also assisted in getting Bailey Power Plant back on its feet. Derwick Paige, assistant city manager, found remediation funds from the Environmental Protection Agency that helped clean up the power plant’s exterior.

In 2013, after three years of extraordinary effort, Bailey Power Plant was finally clean, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration-safe site.

“Through ingenuity, partnership and creativity, we were able to get the power plant to the point where developers would take a look,” Graydon says.

And look they did, but most flatly turned down the project. There weren’t many developers with the needed expertise who would take a chance on converting a coal turbine power plant into innovative office, entertainment and retail space. Such an undertaking requires creativity, ingenuity, resources—and a considerable amount of elbow grease.

Developing the Vision

For Dan Cramer, Bailey Power Plant was a key piece in a much larger puzzle.

Dan is senior vice president of Wexford Science + Technology, the developer responsible for many historic rehabilitation projects in the north district of the Innovation Quarter.

“When other developers were saying no, we saw how important Bailey was to the district that surrounds it,” Dan says. “While the building was outside of our specialty, we decided that its value to the community was worth taking a chance on.”

Wexford’s specialty is working with institutions to form “knowledge communities,” environments that foster innovation. To form knowledge communities, Wexford focuses on capital formation, infrastructure, amenities and programming in their developments.

In creating Innovation Quarter’s knowledge community, Wexford sees Bailey Power Plant as a key piece to drawing people into community.

“Wexford is proud of the historic redevelopment we have already completed in the Innovation Quarter, but we knew leaving Bailey undeveloped would cast a shadow on our other projects,” Dan says. “We see Biotech Place, Inmar’s building at 635 Vine Street, 525@vine and our other buildings as reasons for why people come into the Innovation Quarter, but we believe Bailey Power Plant will be one of the reasons they stay. We strive to build communities by designing spaces that are a conduit for human life, including work and play.”

Dan’s vision to complete what Wexford started in the Innovation Quarter is the reason the company tackled the power plant head on, even though it is outside of its scope of expertise.

“The story of Bailey Power Plant is one of people stretching themselves to make the redevelopment possible,” Graydon says.

To fulfill the power plant’s potential, Wexford recruited the help of individuals who had their own history with the building.

Celebrating the Connections

Rence Callahan walks back into the conference room flanked by shelves of books, mostly on the cultural influences of architecture. Those tomes, however, pale in comparison to the tremendous stack of architectural drawings he carries in his hands.

Hundreds of pages detail every inch of the renovation. For Rence, vice president of Walter Robbs, a local architecture firm tasked with reimagining Bailey Power Plant, the building is a magnet. Bailey Power Plant was part of the company that helped build this city, the company that drew him here almost 40 years ago. He believes that Bailey Power Plant may once again draw people downtown.

“The reason I came to this town was to work on the Reynolds Plaza building,” Rence says. “One project we worked on was bringing the steam from Bailey Power Plant into the building. The impact was not just in the building itself but on the thousands of people who worked in the buildings around it.”

Decades later, Rence’s path crosses Bailey Power Plant’s again as he guides its renewed influence on downtown.

Rence brought on Lauren Frye, a project architect at Walter Robbs, to develop the architectural plans for the power plant’s renovation.

Some people might look at it and think that the building is rundown. It’s got rust stains all over the side. It’s got a patina to it, but that’s something that I really love.

Lauren Frye

Lauren has her own personal connection to the power plant.

“My grandfather worked for RJR, and my father actually worked in Bailey Power Plant one summer,” Lauren says.

For her, Bailey Power Plant is a birthright. Growing up in Winston-Salem, Lauren inherited it as part of her native landscape, part of the city she left and came back to—and found Bailey Power Plant waiting.

Flipping through the vast stack of architectural drawings before her, Lauren speaks about what she sees in the power plant. “Some people might look at it and think that the building is rundown. It’s got rust stains all over the side. It’s got a patina to it, but that’s something that I really love,” she says.

Lauren and Rence wanted their design for the renovation to tell the story of the power plant.

“Our goal is to celebrate what’s there, highlighting the historical and industrial nature of the power plant,” Lauren says.

Because Bailey Power Plant is a historic property located within the Winston-Salem Tobacco District, which is a nationally registered historic district, the plant qualifies for state and federal preservation incentives, and therefore, state and national regulations guide any renovations.

Enter Jennifer Hembree, a senior associate with MacRostie Historic Advisors, LLC, a national historic preservation consulting firm. In the Bailey Power Plant project, Jennifer sees a history that has to be pieced together bit by bit in order to preserve the valuable story contained within its walls.

Jennifer helped prepare proposals to be submitted to the state and national historic agencies for review, assisting Wexford and Walter Robbs in determining what elements of the power plant were historically important, based on historical documentation. This includes original architectural drawings, historic photos and other sources from archives and libraries.

“The regulations help preserve the historic fabric and character of the building,” Jennifer says. “The goal is for people to be able to experience and understand the historic structure, both inside and out.”

Jennifer’s expertise helped the architects and developers navigate what features are considered historically important in the power plant and what fall outside of those historical guidelines.

It turned out that there was a historic line that ran through the middle of Bailey Power Plant. A section of the red brick building was constructed in the 1940s, while other sections were not built until the 1960s and ‘70s.

“From a design perspective, Bailey Power Plant almost became two separate buildings,” Lauren says. “There was the new, contemporary side butted up against the historic red brick.”

After the renovations, part of the building will be converted into contemporary office space—utilizing new glass and metal—a look that will reflect the look toward the future that Bailey Power Plant represents in the Innovation Quarter. Other parts of the building will be converted into retail and entertainment space, creating a new magnet to draw people to the former tobacco district.

Remembering the Past

Inside, Bailey Power Plant is cavernous. Huge concrete foundations that supported the power plant’s turbines miniaturize those who step inside. Kurt Hemrick, however, seems at home.

For Kurt, the power plant is a stewardship, something entrusted to him which he preserved for almost 10 years. Kurt remembers its past; it is a story he knows better than most.

“Bailey Power Plant was the heart of everything that went on down here,” Kurt says.

Kurt has a unique relationship to the power plant. He’s a subcontractor who was hired 15 years ago to be a caretaker of all vacant properties in the Innovation Quarter. While caring for Bailey Power Plant for the past eight years, he gleaned valuable information about how the power plant worked, its quirks and the nuances of its operations and function. He has at times also served as an unofficial tour guide for the property.

Each nook and cranny of the red brick building reminds him of something he’s learned about the power plant.

Motioning around the massive concrete turbine foundation, Kurt points out images of camels that have been painted on the giant slabs.

“There was a janitor who used to work here, and after his shifts he would paint murals of beaches and camels on the turbine foundation,” Kurt says. “You can still find some of them.”

These quirks are not the only things Kurt likes about the plant. He remembers what Bailey Power Plant used to mean to the downtown area.

It’s just like the heart in your chest, nobody sees it, but it’s one of the most important things you’ve got.

Kurt Hemrick

Growing up in nearby Tobaccoville, Kurt remembers when the power plant was still operating. Three shifts of workers constituted the day-to-day manpower. People came and went at all hours. Parking lots were full.

He also remembers when it was a ghost town. “Buildings used to be dark and cold, almost dead-looking,” he says.

All the time Bailey Power Plant stood dormant, Kurt was curating its stories and preserving its potential, a watchman of sorts over its past and a silent observer of the potential for its future.

“Without the power plant, none of the factories down here would have operated. No lights, no heat, no power,” he says, gazing up into the cathedral-like core of the building. “It’s just like the heart in your chest, nobody sees it, but it’s one of the most important things you’ve got.”

Building a Community

Through the renovation, that heart is getting a kick-start. Combined with Bailey Park, the reimagined power plant will be the cultural heartbeat of the Innovation Quarter, housing new retail and entertainment space in an area that, today, is predominately residential, research and office space.

“Retail space is much needed in the Innovation Quarter as a whole,” Rence says. “The transformational aspect of this building is the hope that it will engage the larger community on a day-to-day basis by creating a critical mass of activity around the smokestacks. It is a place for the community to be more interactive with the Innovation Quarter.”

Bailey Power Plant is a key piece of the community being built in the Innovation Quarter.

Dan Cramer

The architects intentionally designed the power plant to draw people in and spark connections and conversation through physical spaces: Places for people to enjoy, to eat, to recreate. Places for students to hang out in between classes. Places for people to come on the weekends, to spend time when they are not working.

And if Bailey Power Plant is the heart of the Innovation Quarter, these connections are its heartbeat. In its iconic shape, many people find connections to their city, their past, their future, their stories.

“This power plant and this area have a rich history,” Lauren says. “People who are from here have a relationship to this building. We would be remiss to not include their stories.”

Looking at how far the plant has come, Dan is encouraged. “Bailey Power Plant is a key piece of the community being built in the Innovation Quarter,” he says. “We’re excited to see how that unfolds.”

“Because reviving Bailey was so challenging, seeing the renovations move forward is like a dream coming to fruition,” Graydon adds. “This progress is a tribute to the hard work and diligence of many individuals.”

When Eric looks at the power plant’s red bricks, he sees those stories and hopes to help create new ones. “We hope Bailey Power Plant creates connections that will spark innovative ideas, new businesses and create an on-ramp for opportunity in our area,” he says.

As its renovations pay tribute to its past and prepare for its future, Bailey Power Plant will become a central part of the story in an evolving innovation community, right here in downtown Winston-Salem.

by Jessica Brown