Our Opinion: BB&T’s $35 million investment is a boon to downtown Wilson

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The small-town merchant bank founded 146 years ago in Wilson has remained true to its roots as it grew into a financial powerhouse with more than 1,900 U.S. branches and $220 billion in assets.

BB&T is investing $35 million in a new downtown Wilson office, a signal it intends to keep a large workforce here for decades to come. City officials, business boosters and bank employees cheered the news. But Wednesday’s announcement left some Wilsonians uneasy.

The four-story office building will replace the Paul V. Berry Hickory Grove Park in a land swap with the city of Wilson, which plans to convert BB&T’s current parcel into a green space after the new facility is built. That drew concern from residents who purchased commemorative and memorial bricks during a fundraiser for the park’s completion.

Changes to Wilson’s skyline have also dampened some folks’ enthusiasm. When the new office is move-in ready, BB&T will demolish its tandem towers on Nash Street. At seven stories, the buildings dwarf neighboring structures and serve as a distinctive downtown landmark.

We understand both concerns and, to a point, can sympathize. But we’re convinced BB&T’s new office will be a profit, not a loss, on Wilson’s civic balance sheet.

City leaders are committed to using BB&T’s current lot as an open-air park. How closely it will resemble Hickory Grove, whether it will bear the Berry name and whether the bricks etched with local names will be incorporated in the new project are unclear. What we do know is that the city has no plans to discard or destroy the bricks and children of the park’s namesake support the property trade.

“My father would not want to stop progress downtown, especially with BB&T,” daughter Vaughn Berry-Daniel told Times reporter Brie Handgraaf. “He was a big supporter of this community and had been in business here for almost 40 years. He loved Wilson. As his children, we want that to continue.”

As for the memorial and honorary pavers, city of Wilson spokeswoman Rebecca Agner said they will be “repurposed with plenty of notice and options provided to the families who purchased bricks.”

When plans for the commemorative brick path’s second life are announced, we trust that purchasers will have the option of taking the bricks they bought if the intended use is not to their liking.

Many Wilsonians may feel nostalgia and a certain wistfulness for the BB&T towers when they’re gone. Built in 1971 and 1985, they’re a key architectural feature on the downtown district’s main drag. But bank executives said the buildings need extensive renovations, and they found it more cost-effective to construct a new, efficient workspace.

We’ll miss the towers, but we’re excited to see what will take their place. The four-story complex will accommodate 650 workers — 100 more than the BB&T towers’ employee headcount — and we’re sure it will be a building in which Wilsonians can take pride.

Branch Banking & Trust Co. began its life as Branch and Hadley in 1872. It grew naturally and through acquisitions and kept its headquarters in Wilson until 1994, when it merged with Southern National Bank and stationed the combined company’s top executives in Winston-Salem.

A major player in consumer banking, BB&T is 16th on the list of biggest U.S. banks by assets as of this writing and has been as high as 11th within the past year — fluctuations in assets under management rankings are common. BB&T is North Carolina’s eighth-largest employer and maintains a Wilson workforce 2,200 strong.

The epitome of a good corporate citizen, BB&T is involved in every facet of Wilson’s civic life, supporting the arts, giving generously to charities and rolling up its sleeves to make a difference through the bank’s Lighthouse Project, which pays employees their regular wage or salary to perform volunteer work.

The downtown skyline and streetscape will change, and a city park will migrate a short distance from its current space. But when the construction dust settles, Wilson will be home to a gleaming financial corporate center and 100 more workers will spend their days downtown.

BB&T has been a good neighbor to Wilson for almost a century and a half, and we have every confidence the bank and its birthplace will continue to grow and prosper together.