The final installment of Bill Kalkhof’s blog series gives insight into the indescript, magical fabric of Durham.
“It’s always been a welcoming community in the sense that if you want to be involved in the community, there is a place for you and you can actually make a difference.” Bill Kalkhof
Midday on Halloween 2016, at a small table by the stage at Beyu Caffe, Bill Kalkhof gave me over two hours of his time and insight. I learned a little about the history of Durham, economics, city zoning and a lot about community — the true value of community. Moreover, the unique magic that is the Durham community, the Durham fabric.
How does one become part of the Durham fabric — woven in, so to speak? Regardless of who you ask, the answer will be a variation of two things 1.) show up — truly show up, 2.) be here.
That’s the magic of Durham. If you’re genuinely here to be here, you’ll love this city and it will love you back. Durham is a city where there is a place for everyone. You can be your authentic self and give what you have to offer to Durham and the Bull City will embrace you.
The other side to that coin is that you can’t take from Durham. If you’re here with the exclusive intent to monetize or capitalize in some fashion without contribution, integration and being a thread in our fabric, you’ll soon find that Durham isn’t for you.
In a roundabout way everyone who passed through this patch of North Carolina learns that. The ‘Durham Originals’ know it without realizing it. The transplants learn it as we go along. Bill learned it as a transplant put in charge of doing a seemingly impossible feat of turning moribund into mecca.
How did he assimilate into this community and effectively lead that effort?
“I went through a chamber program called Leadership Durham back in 1989. It was a program to introduce you to leaders, issues and places in Durham in the hope you would one day become a leader in the community.
“What I learned was that if you put in the time and energy, you really could make a difference in Durham. I think Durham has always been good about that.”
“We’re growing and we’re becoming a real city, but we’re still a small town. Individual people can make differences here if they put in the time and the energy and frankly the longevity to get things done. I always found that fun and exciting.
“We’re now a community that we’re small enough to be intimate, but we’re large enough to have culture, restaurants, a great baseball team, a theatre now that has been spectacularly successful. It’s got pretty much everything you need — great medical, you’re near an airport, two and a half hours from the beach, two hours from the mountain. It’s a wonderful place to be. It’s very exciting now.
“Richard Florida wrote a book called The Rise of the Creative Class. I always like to say that we were doing the creative class before Richard Florida wrote his book. What the essential theme of the book is if you have a community that embraces diversity and provides an environment that is inviting to what we now call millennials, you will be a community that thrives in the future — a community that welcomes diversity and creativity.
“Way back in the 1990’s, our goal was to keep in Durham the creative talent we were losing when the Duke, NCCU, UNC graduates were leaving. We needed to build a community, downtown, in which these graduates would want them to stay.
“Young people like diversity. They like openness. They like art, bars, restaurants, baseball, theatres… We provide all that. We believed that if we could keep those graduates here, the Burt’s Bees of the world will continue to locate here, because they are going to follow the talent. To be successful in the long term, these companies must locate where the talent is.
“We worked hard at our vision of building a community that would retain the college graduates, the millennials; because we knew the businesses would follow the talent. That was the theme of his book and we were doing it before he wrote the book.
“Actually Durham was probably mentioned in his literature. We were ahead of the country. To us it was just common sense. It wasn’t like we were professors doing some philosophical research. It was just common sense.”
As long as there has been Durham, there has been change. Some of it good, some of it bad, and all of that depends on the person and perspective. Because of that, and especially due to the changes over the last dozen years or so, the locals pay close attention to any and all changes they see. All because one thing they won’t let change — what makes Durham Durham. What makes for effective leadership in a city deeply steeped in diversity and collectively wary of progress?
In Bills words, “From my experience, there is always a core group of political, business and community leaders who lead. During my tenure with DDI, the phrase I liked to use is that this group of leaders “played well in the sandbox together.”
“A community needs political leaders, business leaders, community leaders, non-profit leaders and an organization focused on something. There was always a group of about 12 to 15 of us in all the years I worked, while we didn’t agree on everything, we were always agreeable. We all trusted each other. These working relationships, and friendships, allowed us to get things done.
“One element that I give DDI credit for is that we taught Durham not to be afraid to think big. It was always a core group of people, that when we combined the energies, the talents and the contacts of that group of 12 to 15 leaders, we could get projects accomplished. Durham was very lucky for that period of time. We had great leadership in all of those sectors to move the community forward.”
Bill went on to describe the value of leadership to Durham, “On occasion, I still get asked to speak to groups. One of the questions I always get asked is “what do you think are the biggest issues facing Durham?” I’m of course going to say public education. I’m of course going to talk about crime and safety. But one of the things that’s going to be real interesting to me, I mean I’m not worried about it, but who are going to be the core of 12 to 15 who are Durham leaders for the next 20 years? Who is going to be that next group that helps build this community so that we don’t lose our identity, but we continue to grow? Who is going to be the guy or girl who can pick up the phone and get 6 to 8 of those 12 to 15 people around a table having a beer or a glass of wine saying, “we need to build a theatre,” like we did over 10 years ago, when most people are shaking their head like it’s the craziest idea in the world?
“I use the DPAC as one project and the ability of a small group of people to get that done. Not be deterred by everybody who shot arrows at us. Who thought we were crazy. Who hated the idea of the theatre. Without that theatre, there would be half the restaurants you see around downtown because that theatre allowed the restaurants to have a 5 o’clock seating and a 10 o’clock seating. It put Durham on the map as a restaurant mecca because now you could make money. If you open a restaurant and you’re good at what you do, which almost all these restaurateurs are, you can be successful. But you still have to have the people to come. Our vision was that the DBAP and DPAC would be the engines that would eventually drive the street level bar and restaurant scene in Durham.”
Durham is known for its horizontal culture. Michael Goodmon explained that perfectly in his interview when he said, “There are no rings to kiss in Durham.” When the Bull City feels from that statement wear off, a challenge for leadership becomes apparent — leading without separation or elevation. As well as often both taking one for and from the team.
“Leadership Durham taught me the need on both sides of our community - those who have wealth, and those who have significant challenges. I encouraged my colleagues in Downtown Durham Inc. to be involved in those areas of the community beyond your job at Downtown Durham Inc. You need to go out and help the community in ways that fit you in terms of your personal and professional life. It is the right thing to do, and you will be seen as people who really care about the broader community.”
Here’s where the horizontal culture of Durham really starts to become apparent. I asked, if someone is interested in putting on that hat though, where would they start? Moreover, would they have to be a Durham Original or close to it?
Bill all but yelled, “No! Heavens no. I think that [Mayor] Bill Bell and I share a phrase together. That is we’re real happy to have had the opportunity to make a difference in our adopted hometown. You can come from the outside and make a difference in Durham.
“I can remember 2 guys — Adam Klein runs the American Underground, he used to work for the Chamber, and Matthew Coppedge was my right hand guy at Downtown Durham Inc. He now works for Net Friends. Adam Klein left the Chamber several years ago to create American Underground with Capitol Broadcasting.
“Casey Steinbacher used to be the President of the Chamber when I was President of Downtown Durham Inc. Casey and I really wanted to do something that would set Durham apart about going after entrepreneurs and millennials. The smartest thing we did was to give that charge to Adam and Matthew and then get out of their way and let them do it.
“They did one of those common sense things that are brilliant. Many communities were talking down to millennials, saying “this is what you need.” What Adam and Matthew did was ask, “What is it you need?” A very simple thing. It was brilliant.
“Adam and Matthew then hook up with Capitol Broadcasting and all of a sudden, in a few short years, you have the American Underground with three campuses in Durham and one in Raleigh.
“That is how some dots got connected. Casey and I were smart enough to get out of the way. Matthew and Adam asking, “What is it you need?” Then you go to great smart people like Capital Broadcasting who have the resources to bring all that together.”
To lead in Durham is to be part of the community. To prosper in the Bull City is to give it all you’ve got. Put your heart into it. Pour your soul into it. It’s a sure thing you’ll reap what you sow and in this patch of North Carolina, the red, clay soil has always grown ingenuity, inspiration, abundance, and best of all, Durm.
As to the rest of Bill’s lengthy interview, well darlin’ that’ll be in the book. Pre-order your copy today. Sure the final product, release date and even layout all remain to be determined, but in Durham none of that matters. The audacious vision and heart are there every step of the way. In the Bull City that’ll get you there. It’s a Durham thing.
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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.