Downtown Durham was in trouble.
The North Carolina city was hit hard by the loss of industries like tobacco, textiles, farming and furniture, and the situation had become dire by the 1990s. Everything downtown, from the iconic brick tobacco buildings to textile factories, was shuttered.
“When those economies began to go away, the downtown pretty much collapsed,” said former Durham mayor Bill Bell, who held the position from 2001-17.
Bell said it was essentially a ghost town. Apart from government, the courts and a jail, he said the city was empty. At night, Durham literally went dark.
Somehow, miraculously, the city bounced back.
The keys to that success include strategic public-private partnerships, resolute decisions by local government, and support from big stakeholders like Duke University, said Bell and other city leaders on the final day of a Hampton Roads Chamber trip to the Research Triangle.
The Chamber’s inter-regional visit Sept. 23-25 included economic development tours of Raleigh, Durham and Research Triangle Park, as well as several panel discussions with local chamber and development officials.
No project quite encapsulated the spirit of cooperation or decisive action quite like building the new ballpark for the Durham Bulls minor league baseball team in 1994, Bell said. The success of the movie “Bull Durham” in 1988 brought national attention to both the team and the city.
New Bulls owner Jim Goodmon, who lived in Raleigh, wanted to move the team to a Triangle location outside Durham. City officials had other ideas, Bell said.
“We felt the pride of ownership by having the ballpark in Durham,” he said.
As then-chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners, Bell and his colleagues proposed a bond referendum on building a new local ballpark. If the park was built, maybe Goodmon, who also owned several local television stations, could be convinced to keep the team in Durham.
The referendum failed.
Durham built the new ballpark anyway.
Bell said the city used certificates of participation to finance the $16 million stadium. The brazen decision eventually paid off for the city, even if a few council members weren’t reelected, he added. Goodmon kept the team in Durham, and the city now leases the park to the Bulls.
The new ballpark, in turn, led to even more downtown revitalization. Goodmon optioned the former site of American Tobacco across the street from the ballpark. A public-private partnership agreement led to more than $200 million in renovations and redevelopment, which were finished in 2006.
The site went from being used for Durham police target practice, Bell said, to employing thousands of people in offices, restaurants and entertainment venues.
Now called the American Tobacco Campus, the 850,000-square-foot mixed-use site has tenants like Oracle software company, Burt’s Bees, the McKinney creative agency and the WUNC public radio station.
As part of the partnership agreement, Goodmon paid for the bulk of the renovations, and Durham’s city and county governments each funded a parking deck on the site. The redevelopment also made use of several federal and state historic tax credit programs.
While downtown Durham was struggling to replace old industries, leaders at other area institutions realized how much their success depended on the community. Former Duke University chancellor Ralph Snyderman figured that out when helping develop the Duke University Health System in the 1990s.
“It was a conscious decision on the part of the (former Duke University) President Nan Keohane, my boss, that Duke was too much of an ivory tower,” Snyderman said. “We really needed to get involved.”
Duke’s footprint in Durham is much larger than its campuses and hospitals —the university’s real estate office currently leases more than 2.5 million square feet of office and multi-use space.
The city still has its fair share of challenges, Bell said. The former mayor, who now manages a community development nonprofit, said Durham’s public schools are improving, but not where they need to be. The poverty rate, estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau to be around 17%, is still too high.
However, Bell said he has high hopes for both Durham and Hampton Roads, as long as leaders in both areas get the public on board.
“You’ve got to have some common ideas and common goals within the community,” he said.