By Richard Craver
Published: February 21, 2011

Blue Cross Blue Shield of N.C. said today it will make a $16 million investment in one of the largest, if not the largest, economic-development projects in downtown history.

The investment, made over three years, will be spent on Building 91, a former manufacturing facility near the corner of Fifth Street and Patterson Avenue that was donated to Piedmont Triad Research Park by R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co.

The building has been renamed Wake Forest BioTech Place. It will offer 242,000 square feet of space for laboratories, offices and other uses, primarily for operations that Wake Forest University Health Sciences is transferring from its Hawthorne campus.

The Blue Cross investment will come through the N.C. Mill Rehabilitation Tax Credits program. It is the insurer’s first major investment involving the program, spokeswoman Stephanie Skordas said. She said that the investment could vary depending on the cost of bringing the building back into use.

It’s a cash investment only. Skordas said that Blue Cross has no plans to move operations into the building. It has more than 600 employees in a customer-service and claims-administration operation at Madison Park in northwest Winston-Salem.

Last June, park officials reached an agreement with Wexford Science and Technology LLC of Baltimore on an $87 million project for the North District – the biggest announcement regarding the park since plans for it surfaced in 1994.

Renovations have been taking place for months in the building units. The project is scheduled for completion by the end of the year.

Officials at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical Center, which is landlocked on its main campus, have longed for years for expansion space for its research departments.

About 350 employees will work there – a 38 percent increase in the park’s work force, to 1,275. Wake Forest Baptist plans to occupy 85 percent of the space.

“Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina has a 77-year tradition of investing in the health of North Carolinians,” Brad Wilson, the insurer’s president and chief executive, said in a statement.

“We are pleased to continue that tradition with this investment, which creates new medical research labs from historic tobacco warehouses. You could say we’re preserving the past while creating a new future for this part of the Triad.”

Doug Edgeton, the president of the park, said that the tax credit “is a very effective tool for sustainable redevelopment and provides tremendous benefits to the local economy.”

“This investment by Blue Cross Blue Shield of N.C. will enable us to preserve a former manufacturing area in the heart of downtown Winston Salem,” Edgeton said.