Durham, North Carolina is unique to say the least - the absolute very least. From its interesting, haphazard history of even becoming a city to a tobacco empire that eventually crumbled and ironically gave way to becoming a premier medical community that champions cancer treatment caused by said tobacco.
There have been a few common threads the bind the Bull City to it’s interesting and humble beginnings to the modern day place-to-be it has become: diversity, ingenuity, entrepreneurship and grit.
It wasn’t too long ago that the downtown area of Durham did nothing more than lend to the city’s infamous nickname “Dirty Durham.” With empty store fronts and dilapidated buildings reduced to nothing more than holding cells for varmint feces and SWAT team worst-case-scenario tactical training grounds. The trees growing out of the buildings seemed to be the only living beings that saw potential in downtown Durham.
That’s really hard to imagine these days when these same buildings are now the most expensive real estate in the state of North Carolina. The apartments on American Tobacco Campus are currently going for “if you have to ask, you can’t afford it,” and commercial real estate is in the ballpark…’s shadow and leasing amounts that hurt to read. Okay, it’s not that bad. Anyone with an arm and a leg to spare can afford space on American Tobacco Campus. No really, in all seriousness, the drinks at Tyler’s and free events are totally affordable.
How did buildings that were nothing more than rundown reminders of a bygone era turn into the state’s prime real estate? All while the ‘Dirty Durham’ moniker remained and continues to be fully attached? Same threads: diversity, ingenuity, entrepreneurship and grit. Durham’s woven to succeed as long as what you’re doing is creative and widely regarded as overly ambitious. It’s a Durham thing.
Whether or not he fully understand that Durham thing at the time, Bill Kalkhof, former President of Downtown Durham Inc. (DDI) from 1993 to 2013, was ‘that guy’ on the frontlines of a project that was nothing short of Bull City creative and overly ambitious.
It’s no surprise that Bill chose Beyu Caffe on Main Street in downtown Durham to meet for his interview. What was a surprise was the boundless energy and enthusiasm Bill darn near knocks you over with. Not what you expect from a ‘retiree.’ He came waltzing into the café grinning ear to ear and ready to tell all. Ask him about the now legendary downtown revitalization and you best hold onto your hat darlin’. He’s got the story locked and loaded and he’s just raring to send it all barreling at you.
To answer the question of how the revitalization came to be and was such a success, Bill said, “There are, in my opinion, three key elements which played out over 20 years leading to downtown’s revitalization. First, during the interview you will often hear me refer to “we.” The “we” is the “collective we” of Durham leaders from the public (both elected and City and County officials) and private sectors who DDI was able to partner with to get things done.
“Second, after seven years of progress and laying behind the scenes groundwork, DDI led the effort to develop the Downtown Master Plan in 2000. The Master Plan was an “economic development” plan as differentiated from a “planning” plan. It was a 20 year vision for the revitalization of downtown. We accomplished almost all the goals of this plan in 7 years, not 20. In 2007, we updated the Plan.
“Third, a crucial element in putting deals together, especially public-private partnerships which were the key to downtown’s renaissance, was my development of “5 non-negotiable criteria” for downtown projects:
(1) The project had to be consistent with the Downtown Master Plan;
(2) If the developer was seeking a public-private partnership, then the project had to be a good deal (including financially) for the Durham taxpayers;
(3) The City and DDI would vet the developer’s financials in order to determine if an incentive was needed to get the deal done;
(4) No incentive payments would be made until after the project was completed and paying taxes; and,
(5) There would be quantifiable financial and job creation criteria that had to be met before any incentive payment would be made.
“The development of the American Tobacco had so many interesting twists and turns. I think it was about $100,000 worth of pigeon droppings had to be removed from the deteriorating buildings. The Lucky Strike tower cost about another $100,000 to save. The river that everybody just takes for granted today almost did not happen.
“We were trying to figure out what to do with the internal area of American Tobacco. American Tobacco was developed because of the vision of Capitol Broadcasting, and because Glaxo, Duke and Compuware leased 300,000 square feet of office space. So, with the leases, Capitol Broadcasting was able to secure the bank financing to get the deal done. Yet, the decision of what should Capitol do with the center portion of the project was a question “to be determined.”
As a Durham newcomer, deeply in love with the city and whose first Bull City experience was American Tobacco Campus, this was all hard hitting, heart string tugging material. I’ve heard the legends of the buildings being in dire disrepair, but how far south had things gone to have $100,000 in pigeon droppings accumulate? How could a tower that is now a known, iconic feature of our city’s demur skyline need $100,000 in repairs?
Wait. The river that everyone loves and gives American Tobacco Campus its unique ambiance was an afterthought? Less than 5 minutes after meeting “that guy” and my head was swirling with questions, astonishment and bit of pain at hearing how horrible things had been in the area.
I set the notion of asking my standard questions aside for the moment and asked, “Wait. Are you saying the river wasn’t initially part of the grand plan of renovating American Tobacco Campus?”
We all have at least one teacher in our memory that got us excited to learn. The Obi Wan Kenobi who gets our inner Luke Skywalker to stop whining and start listening. They cared about what they taught and who they were teaching it to and that made all the difference. There is a very particular expression they make when they know they have your attention and you’re game for all the knowledge they’re about to drop on you. That is the exact expression Bill had at this moment.
Beaming Bill went on, “The vision was for AT to become a mixed use development, that would be a gathering place for the entire community through event programming, unique features such as the river and the Lucky Strike Tower, and outstanding high quality of historic building renovations which at the time were unknown in North Carolina. It wasn’t like the river was the first thought in the middle of the development. After much consideration of what to do, Capitol spent about $1 million to create the river. Because of the river, as well as the event programming and quality of construction craftsmanship, American Tobacco is the premiere mixed use development in all of North Carolina.
“What’s been fun about my career in running Downtown Durham Inc. was that there’s backstories like that to everything — pick a project, pick a building and you’ve got a backstory. The general public generally doesn’t know how things really got accomplished.”
Durham, never a dull moment to be had, nor dull stories to be told. Bill shared lots of those backstories, including his own, and more. All of which will be shared in later installments and full length when all of this culminates into a book. As for now, envisioning the downtown area in such disrepair and discovering that the river in American Tobacco Campus almost never was is more than enough excitement.
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Sheila Amir is a health & nutrition writer who fell in love with Durham, North Carolina and starting writing a book about it.