City Manager Tom Bonfield has served in local government for more than 30 years, including 25 years managing cities. Before his arrival to Durham, Bonfield was the city manager of Pensacola, Fla. This summer will be the start of Bonfield’s third year in Durham. The Chronicle’s Indu Ramesh recently spoke with Bonfield about Durham’s future and his experience in the city.
The Chronicle: How did your experience in Pensacola prepare you for the position of city manager in Durham?
Tom Bonfield: The biggest thing I can take from my past experience is a couple of things, the first being that because the downturn in the Florida economy happened two years before it happened here, I had a lot of experience in how to deal with these problems—how to structure a budget, how to evaluate programs, how to cut the budget effectively—I had more experience about these problems that people hadn’t dealt with before. The second is that overall, from having managed Pensacola through three major hurricanes in two years, a lot of what it takes to manage multiple issues at the same time is to be able to multi-task—with massive hurricane aftermaths, it’s all about managing multiple issues at the same time. I suppose that is another set of experiences that in many respects helped me here, because any given day I have to manage 50-60 different issues, and I’ve learned that it’s a matter of keeping it all moving forward, concentrating on certain issues and knowing your priorities.
TC: How do you feel about the Durham-Duke relationship? Do you feel that it is something that must be encouraged to grow, and why?
TB: You know, that’s interesting. Before I got here, really my only knowledge about Duke was reading about the lacrosse case, which led me to believe that there was a very strange relationship between Duke and the police. But, in fact, one of the first e-mails I got—my first day of the job—was from President [Richard] Brodhead, just introducing himself and welcoming me. I was impressed that the president of such a prestigious institution would even remember that it was my first day on the job and take the time to send an e-mail—at nine o’clock in the morning. I found the relationship with Duke to be way more positive than I thought it was. And it is way better now than it was even two years ago, with increased personal relationships, working together, more initiatives, the Board of Trustees here in early May—in my mind you go back and look at positive improvements that have happened in the community, and you see them as connected to Duke University. It’s been way more positive than a lot of people would like to admit, and I think that it is in both of our best interests to continue that positive relationship.
TC: What do you believe are your most significant or exciting achievements as city manager so far?
TB: Well, I don’t see any achievement as being just mine, but as part of the efforts of entire organizations. But I think that we have handled the economic downturn pretty positively. We had to redirect and readjust city resources, and for the most part we have been able to maintain a high quality of city services in light of the economy—that, I think, has been very positive. I have been very fortunate to have inherited a number of projects that were underway when I got here... several new major recreation centers, renovating the performing arts center, improving the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, the transportation center downtown.
TC: What changes do you hope to see in Durham in the next five years? Ten years? Thirty years? Do you have a specific vision of a future Durham?
TB: You know, it isn’t just about my vision, but the community’s vision. I’m a conduit that helps this vision happen. Certainly continued redevelopment of downtown and expanding downtown beyond a few core areas is important, particularly to neighborhoods south and east of downtown. From the city standpoint, understanding some of these issues in some of our neighborhoods—very poor spots—is extremely important. Certainly with where we are with the economy, we could be back on a very active track—I think it’ll happen in three to five years, unemployment will be back to where it was before. And then I think we’ll see a lot more progress in terms of development and job growth—these are things that will change.
TC: What do you say to people who have the perception that Durham is crime-ridden and unsafe?
TB: I think that the issues that the city has dealt with, [like] crime, have significantly improved. Does that mean there are some areas of the city that [are] more challenged than others? Absolutely. I think that it’s an issue. But I don’t think that there’s any place in the country where you can’t worry about crime. The fact of the matter is that Durham is generally a safe place. It compares statistically to peer cities, typically above the 50th percentile. Do we want to be better? Absolutely, but if you think about it, most Duke students travel off campus with their activities in a safe environment.
TC: You were drafted by the New York Yankees in 1977. Can you tell me a little bit about your baseball career?
TB: Obviously, my professional career with the New York Yankees was pretty short. I was just lucky to be a good baseball player—in high school my team went to the state championships, I went to college on a full baseball scholarship—that helped pay for my school. I had lots of great experiences playing baseball, and it’s part of my past [and] certainly part of what I am today, even professionally. Obviously all the clichés about hard work, dedication, teamwork—I think all these things have contributed to my success in local government and I wouldn’t change these experiences for the world. It was fun, but also a part of me becoming the person I am with the skills I have.
TC: What is your favorite thing about Durham? Or do you have a certain favorite place in Durham to go to?
TB: Well, I wouldn’t say there is any one place that is my favorite place in Durham. There are so many places that I enjoy—there are so many aspects of downtown that I like, or places around Duke’s campus. But I would say my favorite place is just sitting in my backyard in the evening and looking at Eno River Sate Park.
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