Carolyn Titus, deputy manager of Durham County, has worked in Durham County for almost three decades, watching as Durham developed. She has served 11 years in her current position in which she has directed economic development efforts and supervised health, human services and public safety agencies within the county government. Set to retire in March, The Chronicle’s Julia Ni spoke with Titus about changes in Durham since first arrived.
The Chronicle: What were the toughest challenges Durham faced in the 80s when you started working here?
Carolyn Titus: In the 1980s, Durham was primarily a blue-collar town that relied heavily on tobacco and Duke University for its economic system. And throughout the 80s, the tobacco factories, such as Liggett Myers and American Tobacco, started shutting down, and we had to shift our economy from one that was based on manufacturing to one that’s based on technology and medical care. And in the 1980s, due to what a lot of communities were experiencing in that time—which was suburban flight—a lot of the downtown became vacant as citizens preferred to shop at malls and preferred to get professional services in suburban areas. So the downtown became largely a place where the courthouse and government offices were. The offices were primarily occupied by lawyers and banks. There were really very few restaurants and commercial areas. At night, when all of that daytime business went home, the streets were dark and desolate at night.
Durham was in the process of change, and I think that change started perhaps with Brightleaf Square. It started to renaissance with the renovation of the tobacco warehouses, so there was a strategic effort put into place by the elected officials of the county government and the city government to address those areas within downtown and the surrounding perimeter to revitalize much of the area. So now you see the American Tobacco Complex and the theatre, you see many offices and restaurants in downtown, you see a lot of condos and apartments.
Now, Durham is focused on biotechnology, medicine and technology. Between the business and entrepreneurial starts from Duke University and some of our companies that we have strung apart, we were able to recruit leading-edge companies into downtown and throughout the county. We have really, I think, over the last 30 years, revitalized much of Durham, and it is quickly becoming a place that’s recognized for its entrepreneurship and for its talent in its workforce.
TC: What improvements in public safety have occurred in Durham?
CT: There have been increases in public safety services over the last 30 years. For one thing, we have added greatly to the amount of law enforcement, we have added greatly to the number of programs that citizens who may have problems with mental health, domestic violence and the court system. We have enhanced our human service offerings to try and address the root of causes of violence. Number two, I think that public safety encompasses our fire and EMS service and we have had great enhancements over the last 30 years with both the fire and the EMS service. We are one of the premiere EMS services in the country. We have a great affiliation with Duke University Health System that allows us to be on the cutting edge of emergency medicine, and we partner with the emergency groups in Durham so that a patient’s care is seamless between the ambulance, the emergency room and the hospital.
TC: What are the county’s largest achievements?
CT: Number one, is the transformation of the economy of Durham. Number two is the revitalization of downtown—the Bulls ballpark, the American Tobacco Complex, the performing arts theatre [and] Brightleaf Square. I think we have nurtured an economy—that’s the third [achievement].
TC: What issues do you feel are not being adequately addressed? What is your outlook on Durham’s future?
CT: We may have made less progress on some issues than others, but I think that Durham is in excellent hands. We have excellent elected officials, we have three great institutions of higher learning—with Duke University, North Carolina Central [University] and Durham Technical Community College—and we have a whole host of citizens who are really involved, and we have a lot of businesses who care very much [about the community]. I feel like the future of Durham is positive and inspiring.
TC: Do you forsee any challenges the county may face in the future?
CT: I think the challenge for the next few years ahead will be those which many communities are facing, and that’s one of decreasing revenues, particularly for education systems and from the state. Durham is actually in very good shape financially, and it’s largely due to our very conservative fiscal management. We’ve been very cautious about increasing spending when we knew that the economy was shaky. The county is doing very well. The county government is closely tied to the state for providing human services and education. I think the greatest challenge is going to be from the larger economy’s effect on Durham County.
TC: Is there anything you’d like to add about the development of the city?
CT: I’d just want to add that Duke University has been a major contributor to the positive changes in Durham. Leadership at Duke and the Duke Health System have really reached out to the community and worked in partnership with us and they have, in so many ways, been an excellent partner here in Durham. Without Duke, a lot of the things I’ve mentioned would not have happened.
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