Durham, N.C., was once a tobacco boomtown. Revitalization efforts during the last 20 years have turned the Bull City into a Southern destination.
Elysia Su / The Chronicle
Durham, N.C., was once a tobacco boomtown. Revitalization efforts during the last 20 years have turned the Bull City into a Southern destination.

A lingering scent of tobacco and menthol.

That's what Duke alumnus Brian Vosburgh remembers of 1980s Durham. The nearby cigarette factories allowed this familiar scent to persist in a city composed primarily of empty storefronts. Aside from buying books at the Book Exchange or visiting two local eateries—Parker’s Barbeque Joint or Anna Maria’s Pizza—Vosburgh was not compelled to explore Durham.

“It was more about local character—older things that had been around for a while," said Vosburgh, Trinity '85. "Going off campus was the exception.”

In fact, students were encouraged by administrators to stay on campus in order to minimize safety risks, he said.

Now, students are encouraged to voyage into the 95 sq.-mi. city. With a bustling bar and restaurant scene and vibrant arts culture, Durham has transformed radically in the three decades since Vosburgh attended college. But such a change would take time, and Duke would play a role in it.

Vosburgh moved back to Durham in 1991, the same year that the Capitol Broadcasting Company of Raleigh bought the Durham Bulls, a minor league baseball team that has played in Durham since 1902. Capitol Brodcasting President Jim Goodman decided to relocate the team to a more central location in the Triangle. In order to avoid relocation of the Bulls and to keep the team in its historic downtown park, Durham city leaders proposed a renovation of the historic Durham Athletic Park—which despite its role in the 1988 baseball classic Bull Durham, Vosburgh described as “small and beat up.”

“A small group of us kept the hope alive, and the success of the stadium got the community to believe in downtown Durham."—Bill Kalkhof, innagurual president of Downtown Durham, Inc.

The solution seemed clear—build a new stadium for the Bulls to ensure the team would stay in Durham. But a city-wide referendum to build a bigger stadium was struck down by Durham voters, throwing a wrench into the process.

Two years later, Bill Kalkhof, the inaugural president of Downtown Durham Inc., found a way to kill two birds with one stone by championing the effort to build the new Durham Bulls Athletic Park as a way to begin a full-scale urban development plan for the city.

“In 1993, there were fewer than 3,000 employees and fewer than 1 million sq.-ft. of space in the area," Kalkhof said. "There were very few entertainment options, and it was incredibly difficult to navigate. At the time, the broader Durham community—including Duke—had given up on downtown Durham.”

Completed in 1995, the new Durham Bulls Athletic Park has become one of downtown's primary selling points.
Darbi Griffith / The Chronicle

Kalkhof financed the construction of the new $18.5-million stadium with bonds issued by the city council that did not require the approval of voters. Ground broke on the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in 1993, and despite a $4 million overbudgeting that delayed the park's completion by a year, the first major domino in Durham's revitalization had fallen.

“The new stadium has been wildly successful. It’s really lucky that DBAP did so well,” said Vosburgh, remembering the risk that surrounded the endeavor. “It required a long-term attitude.”

With his first major victory under his belt, Kalkhof embraced the belief that the revival of downtown Durham was possible. The Durham Bulls Athletic Park was just the beginning.

“A small group of us kept the hope alive, and the success of the stadium got the community to believe in downtown Durham,” Kalkhof said.

Among Kalkhof's key supporters were Duke administrators, including Nan Keohane, who served as the University's president from 1993-2004.

“President Nan Keohane wanted to refocus the University’s commitments to Durham in a new and vibrant way," said Sam Miglarese, director of the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership. "The University’s commitment formerly existed but was diffuse and not very visible.”

The centerpiece of the American Tobacco District, the old Lucky Strikes water tower is a reminder of Durham's roots in the tobacco industry.
Darbi Griffith / The Chronicle

Duke got involved in Downtown Durham Inc.’s second major project—the renovation of the American Tobacco District, a difficult project that resulted in a number of new restaurants and desirable commercial real estate.

“Three tenants were needed to commit to the space—they were GlaxoSmithKline, CopyWare and Duke," Kalkhof said. "Duke saw the need to be the corporate entity that could help downtown.”

Although Duke’s presence downtown was crucial to Durham’s transformation, it was vital that the University did not own these properties—clearly defining the line between Duke and the city that envelops it.

“We wanted Duke to be a ‘credit-worthy client’ and did not want downtown Durham to be downtown Duke," Kalkhof said. "By Duke not owning the property, the property stayed on the tax forms for Durham. Duke stepped up to the plate in a very big way at a critical time."

A sizable donation from Duke also helped to fund the construction of the nearby Durham Performing Arts Center, which was ranked fourth in Pollstar magazine's ranking of the nation's 50 best theaters in 2011.

Moreover, the DPAC's success gives back to Durham residents. Kalkhof said that 40 percent of the theater's income—which totaled $3.3 million in 2012-13—goes back to the city thanks to a revenue-sharing agreement.

"We really have to give credit to Duke and in particular [Executive Vice President] Tallman Trask for seeing the vision and importance of Durham having a state-of-the-art performing arts center," DPAC General Manager Bob Klaus wrote in an email. "DPAC is a place where the entire community—Duke students, Durham residents and visitors from throughout the region—can come together for world-class performances."

Once a vacant lot, Durham Central Park is now a hub for community events and a model for public parks run by nonprofit organizations.
Elysia Su / The Chronicle

Urban development did not confine itself to the birth of new buildings. In 2000, Durham bought a five-acre plot downtown and turned it into Durham Central Park—an idea that had been in the works for 20 years.

In a space that was once a vacant lot now resides a community gathering spot that serves as the home of the Durham Farmer’s Market, food truck rodeos, outdoor film screenings, the annual Independence Day parade and a series of Friday night jazz and blues concerts known as Warehouse Blues Series.

“The vitality of Durham needed an open, green space that would provide opportunities for the community to come together,” said Ann Alexander, executive director of Durham Central Park, Inc., the nonprofit organization that oversees the park. “Durham’s been ready to take off for years, and now with all the development going on, it’s all finally coming to fruition.”

“We no longer manufacture tobacco or textiles—today knowledgeable and innovative people are Durham’s main products."—Geoff Durham, CEO of Downtown Durham, Inc.

A flow of private investment followed the string of larger, publicly-funded projects—Kalkhof said that since 1993 there has been $1.3 billion of investment in downtown Durham. Most notably, these investments have helped turn the Bull City into a culinary mecca. The explosion of bars and restaurants downtown helped Durham earn the title of "Foodiest Small Town in America" by Bon Appetit in 2008 and "The South's Tastiest Town" by Southern Living in 2013.

In 2004, Duke leased 70,000 sq.-ft. of commercial real estate downtown with 150 employees. Today, the University leases more than 1 million sq.-ft. and will have 2,750 employees working in downtown locations.

The symbiotic relationship between Duke and Durham have helped turn the city from a fledgling college town into an urban destination. In turn, the growth of the city has made Duke a more desirable choice for the nation's top students, receiving a record number of applications in each of the last seven years.

“Duke is more attractive as an institution because of Durham," said Scott Selig, associate vice president of capital assets and real estate. "Downtown changes have provided culturally enriched activities for Duke students, faculty and staff, and Duke has been a major driver in that downtown renaissance.”

The benefits of Durham’s expansion and renewed vitality transcends the four years that a student spends at Duke. Not only do Durham’s attractions help lure students to the area, but discoveries of the city's eclectic personality and business potential are what convinces them to stay.

“Ten years ago, we made the decision to build a community that would aim to keep the talent and creative class in Durham," Kalkhof said. "And we’ve been rather successful at keeping the talent in the area.”

Not only is Durham now a selling point for prospective students to come to Duke—students are settling down in the Bull City after they graduate.
Elysia Su / The Chronicle

The combination of highly-achieving students graduating from both Duke and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill with the increasing number of professional opportunities available in the area seems to be a formula for the continued development of this mutually beneficial relationship.

“We no longer manufacture tobacco or textiles—today knowledgeable and innovative people are Durham’s main products," said Geoff Durham, president and CEO of Downtown Durham Inc., in an email.

In May 2014, Business Insider ranked the Durham-Chapel Hill area the seventh best city for brand new college graduates. The website considered the number of young adults, the median earnings, affordability of living expenses and the level of education among the population of the area.

Resting at the core of Durham’s metamorphosis and its growing success are a number of partnerships between public and private enterprises. Many of these relationships, like Durham Central Park, which is overseen by a locally-run nonprofit, have become models for cities across the country.

“There will always be a need for the public and private sectors to work together to invest in smart ways," Kalkhof said. "If that doesn’t continue, the renaissance ends.”

More than two decades after Durham made a concentrated efforts to invest in its inhabitants, citizens of Durham are investing back in their city.

“In the past when I asked people to move downtown, it was a death sentence. Now people are eager to be downtown in the midst of the action. The growth of downtown Durham is just beginning and Duke’s involvement is also just beginning,” said Selig, who manages all of Duke’s purchasing and leasing of property. “Duke is intimately tied to downtown Durham and vice versa.”

Beyond the economic development and investment that Duke has contributed to Durham, Duke focuses efforts on community development, which includes initiatives to improve housing, health care, crime rates, safety and education—services that are vital for a city with 19.4 percent of its citizens living below the poverty line from 2008-2012, according to a report from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Sharing this urban renaissance with downtown Durham’s neighbors has been a primary effort for Duke throughout the city's revitalization.

Since 1993, businesses have flocked to Durham amid the city's development efforts downtown.
Chronicle Graphic by Elysia Su

In 1994, Duke began a review process and decided to focus on the University's 12 surrounding neighborhoods, four of which it classified as modest- to low-income, Miglarese said. Since then, the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership—one of the units under the jurisdiction of the Office of Durham and Regional Affairs—has been an impetus for a range of changes in the neighborhoods surrounding Duke.

“Most of our energy and time are concerned with community development issues that affect quality of life and support urban issues, such as affordable health care and housing opportunities. Duke has initiated health care clinics serviced by Duke providers and has contributed to housing initiatives through organizations such as Habitat for Humanity,” Miglarese said. “Duke has been the catalyst in so many ways. Duke is not only a community developer but a vital partner that helps defines community development.”

So what does the future hold for Durham? All signs point toward a bigger set of projects in the years to come as the Bull City attempts to establish itself as one of the South's premiere destinations while sticking to its roots.

“It is downtown’s local establishments which have come to define this place," Durham said. "The next wave of development will be skyline-changing new-build construction as opposed to the adaptive reuse which has largely defined downtown’s renaissance to this point. When adding these newer structures it is important not to lose Downtown’s unique identity.”

A project that began more than 20 years ago is far from over.

“One of the challenges is maintaining the renaissance. A key will be understanding and embracing the fact that the job is never done,” said Kalkhof. “I think downtown Durham will continue to grow and become even more of an asset to the Duke and Durham communities.”