Duke Hopes Optimist Site Will Spur Ideas, Draw Talent

Mar 6, 2019

Duke Energy has opened a new innovation center in an old mill just outside uptown, and it's not like any button-down corporate office you've ever seen.

In January, about 400 Duke employees moved to Optimist Hall — once known as Tompkins Hall and the Highland Mill. The 83,000 square-foot brick factory sits at 16th Street and Parkwood Avenue, not far from the Parkwood light rail station.

The factory dates from the 1890s, when it began weaving gingham fabric. Now, it's at the center of Duke's plans to transform the company and its processes — and attract new talent.

"There's a talent war going on and we must have a place where people want to work, and they feel like they can exercise the talent that they have innate in them," said Brian Savoy, Duke's senior vice president for business transformation and technology. "Places like this are beacons for us to do that."

The single-level building has few walls. Windows and skylights spill natural light onto rows of computer stations in large open rooms, called "neighborhoods." Private meeting rooms are called "huddle" rooms. This "modern factory floor" is dotted with whiteboards and wide-screen monitors where workers can collaborate. 

A project progress board at Duke's Innovation Center
Credit David Boraks / WFAE

Duke also hopes it will change the way its 30,000 employees interact. A slogan on one wall reads "Interactions Equal Innovation." Three blonde wooden boards mounted on one side of a large room show how projects are going, with sections for "Ideas," "In Progress," and "In Flight."

Savoy said it's a testbed as the company plans a new 39-story office tower across from its South Tryon Street headquarters. 

"This will heavily influence how we design the workspace inside that building," he said. "Towers have a different feel and culture, but we are injecting as much of this as we can into that building." 

The center has open areas with screens and whiteboards for collaboration.
Credit David Boraks / WFAE-FM

The layout lets employees work side-by-side, instead of being spread across multiple Duke offices. A spokesman said they're working on projects to improve how Duke does business, from interacting with customers to developing new power facilities.

About 300 of the 400 employees are based permanently at the site. Another 100 will cycle through as needed to work on major projects.

Duke won't say how much it spent to build the new center. The company has an 11-year lease.

Optimist Hall is a $60 million redevelopment by White Point Partners and Paces Properties.  Eventually, it will have a food hall with shops and restaurants. Those already announced include Aix Rotisserie, Fonta Flora Brewery, Under Current Coffee, Papi Queso, Zukku, Bao and Broth, Ava Neapolitan Pizzeria, Suarez Bakery and Honeysuckle Gelato.