SmART Durham is using the public arts to reimagine economic development

Is there an alternative path for economic growth that doesn’t rely on a single tariff or the typical subsidization of infrastructure, education and industry? Durham’s SmART Program thinks that art can be that alternative, one that causes growth by spurring more tourism and commerce, and they are putting their theory to the test with an ambitious effort to transform Durham's urban landscape.

SmART is an initiative of the North Carolina Arts Council that aims to use art in a way that boosts the economy of local communities while preserving and highlighting their individual character. Selected as one of four SmART pilot cities – alongside Burnsville, Kinston and Wilson – Durham received a small grant and paired it with additional funding from sources including Duke University, local and national businesses and an “Our Town” grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. With funding secured, SmART Durham – the group created to oversee the undertaking – contracted acclaimed artist Mikyoung Kim and her firm Mikyoung Kim Design to reimagine downtown. After extensive community input, Mikyoung Kim Design created a multi-year plan to build a unified arts and entertainment district combining three key regions of downtown Durham – American Tobacco, City Center and Central Park – through a shared creative corridor. The goal of this renovation is to bring more events, tourism and customers for local businesses and would require addressing the major barriers to increased movement between districts - namely a lack of continuous connections and an unappealing pedestrian experience.

The newly envisioned zone will start in the Central Park District – home to Durham Central Park and many small businesses – before running through City Center – the location of CCB Plaza and Carolina Theatre  – and ending in American Tobacco District – site of Durham Bulls Athletic Park and DPAC. Along the way, it will feature fifteen different projects that are classified as either streets, gateways (areas which welcome pedestrians to new districts) or civic centers (places for events and bonding). The three most notable projects focus on transforming city plazas into pedestrian-friendly sites that better fit the needs of the surrounding areas. In the American Tobacco District, the Diamond View Plaza and a key adjacent crosswalk shall be preserved via partnerships with local developers while being given a new identity through the addition of crosswalk art and light installations. In the City Center District, CCB Plaza – a civic site and tourist destination that houses the 21c Hotel – will be remade into a new centerpiece that uses innovative paving, sculpture and seating to change how visitors see Durham while also incorporating the region's history and hoped-for future. Lastly, Durham Cultural Plaza – another City Center District plaza which links the Convention Center, Durham Armory and Carolina Theatre – will be turned into an event space that highlights the aforementioned sites through artistic paving and lighting. 

As of now, three projects have been completed – the wrapping of Corcoran Street Garage, the installation of an interactive exhibit at Liberty Warehouse Wall and the creation of three Art-Deco inspired crosswalks – with many of the others still in their planning or design stages. While these finished projects have brought some visual flair to the regions they’ve been placed in, they and SmART Durham overall haven’t been as transformational as was hoped, mainly because they haven’t established the cohesive corridor that will be the beating heart of the new district. However, that isn’t to say that these projects are failures, as much of their benefit is intended to come from being part of the larger zone, if it is fully implemented. But the outline is just an outline, and there is no certainty that the original project will be finished, be it for lack of funds or some other issue.

All in all, the SmART program makes grand promises of a unified downtown district that will boost tourism and the arts, growing Durham’s economy, increasing its quality of life and bringing more people and businesses to the region. There are potential pitfalls from this grand project bearing even grander promises, however —  from creating a fragile tourism-based economy to causing uneven development and further gentrification within Durham to enriching only those who own businesses in the new zone. Yet, there is still hope that SmART Durham will persevere in their work and complete their ambitious vision, because if carried out completely, SmART has the potential to change Durham for the better.

Zev van Zanten | Campus Arts Editor

Zev van Zanten is a Trinity sophomore and campus arts editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.


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