Moments after Brad Brinegar told the staff of McKinney advertising agency that it would be moving from Raleigh to Durham, six employees came to him with some version of the same question: “Why are you giving me a death sentence?”
Brinegar, McKinney’s CEO, understood the concern. This was 2003, and Durham hardly had a stellar reputation. The city’s center was a ramshackle version of its once-vibrant self. The redbrick tobacco warehouses that had pumped life into the city’s economy had fallen silent years earlier, when cigarette production moved out of town. Huge swaths of downtown were vacant and in disrepair. It seemed the only thing that earned downtown Durham headlines in those days was its high crime rate.
The site Brinegar had chosen for his company was the granddaddy of those broken- down buildings, a decaying former American Tobacco cigarette factory that had been empty for more than a decade. Sandwiched between a car dealership and the then-eight-year-old Durham Bulls Athletic Park and just off the heavily traveled Durham Freeway, the warehouse was an unmistakable eyesore whose blight had become a symbol for downtown Durham’s struggles. It sat close enough to the ballpark that a particularly well-struck foul ball might shatter a warehouse window— not that many were left by the early 2000s. Its insides had been unattended for so long that when construction workers began gutting it, they found trees growing within the walls. In some places, the floors were covered ankle-deep with pigeon droppings.
If you’ve been away from Durham for a while, you very well might not believe what you see today at the American Tobacco complex. Eight years after its reopening, the former cigarette factory has become a poster child for mixed-use urban redevelopment, a sprawling, eye-catching collection of restaurants, bars, offices, and shops that, along with several other new projects in the area that followed its lead, has brought about a stunning rebirth of Durham’s core. In many of those renovated spaces, innovative new businesses are taking root, fueling Durham’s surprising new standing as a vibrant, hip center of entrepreneurial activity. A burgeoning restaurant scene—once dominated by fried chicken and burgers—has caught the attention of critics at The New York Times, who last year placed Durham on a list of “41 Places to Go in 2011.” (Locals point out with glee that Durham was mentioned right between Iraqi Kurdistan and Kosovo.)
In less than a decade, downtown Durham has turned from a place best avoided at night to a destination where growing numbers of people flock to work, eat, or take in a game or a concert.
But this renaissance didn’t come easily.
When Mike Schoenfeld ’84 arrived at Duke as a student in 1980, Durham was a small, sleepy Southern city where Duke happened to be located. The city ran on tobacco; its downtown infrastructure of factories and warehouses churned out Pall Mall, Lucky Strike, and Chesterfield cigarettes, fueling the city’s economy and filling its air with the wafting smell of processed tobacco. But the lives of Durham’s mostly middle-class residents and Duke students rarely intersected. Students might occasionally mingle with residents over barbecue at Bullock’s or fried chicken at Pete Rinaldi’s. Hartman’s Steakhouse on Geer Street was long a popular haunt. But when they sought entertainment, they tended to venture out of town, remembers Schoenfeld, now Duke’s vice president for public affairs and government relations.
“The idea of off-campus fun was driving to Chapel Hill, which actually felt like a college town,” he says. “You lived in Durham, but there was relatively little to make you feel like you were in a city.”
That’s how it was for much of Duke’s history. While the university had a mostly friendly relationship with its host city, it was a relatively separate coexistence. Of course, many faculty and staff members lived in Durham and participated in its civic life. And there were small-scale efforts at town/gown partnerships. In the 1940s, for example, Duke Chapel helped residents of East Durham after a cotton mill went belly up. Two decades later, medical students set up a clinic in Edgemont, one of Durham’s decaying neighborhoods.
But institutionally, Duke largely kept to itself, recalls Jim Wise ’70, a Raleigh News & Observer reporter who has written three books about Durham and its history. “Duke was pretty much its own place,” he says. “Individual faculty or staff members would get involved, join the Kiwanis Club or run for city council, or get involved with the public library or the choral society. But nobody saw a particular reason for the university as such to get involved.”
The collapse of the city’s tobacco industry underscored that separateness. In the 1990s, as Duke’s star was rising, Durham’s was falling. American Tobacco pulled out of the city in 1987. Liggett & Myers followed in 2000, leaving several square miles of downtown virtually dormant. Shops pulled out of downtown and headed for the suburbs. Office buildings went unrented. Downtown began to feel like a ghost town.
In 1996, Duke formed the Duke-Durham Neighborhood Partnership, a flagship initiative of then-President Nannerl O. Keohane to formalize the university’s stake in Durham. Now run by Duke’s Office of Durham and Regional Affairs, the partnership has sparked programs to aid local schools, improve access to health care, and boost home ownership in the twelve neighborhoods surrounding the campus.
Around the same time, interest in downtown renewal was gathering steam. Duke leased space in West Village, an office, retail, and housing project just off the downtown loop that was championed by former basketball players Christian Laettner ’92 and Brian Davis ’92. Jim Goodmon, president of Raleigh-based Capitol Broadcasting, built Diamond View, an office building overlooking the Durham Bulls ballpark. But Goodmon had his eyes on a bigger prize—the American Tobacco complex across the street.
Initially, many were skeptical of Goodmon’s plan. “We finally realized this was the one good shot to get something going at American Tobacco—the big, ugly eyesore,” says Tallman Trask III, Duke’s executive vice president. “Duke isn’t going anywhere, and the deterioration of downtown was not beneficial to us.”
Duke couldn’t do much on its own, nor did it want to. The university preferred not to buy property outright because as a nonprofit it would be exempt from property taxes, meaning the city would lose the potential tax revenue from the space. And as much as its leaders agreed with the aims of redevelopment, Duke isn’t in the development business. “We don’t want downtown Durham to be downtown Duke,” says Scott Selig M.B.A. ’92, Duke’s associate vice president for capital assets. “That wouldn’t be interesting. We wanted an eclectic place with a broad economic base.”
Ultimately, Duke agreed to lease 100,000 square feet at American Tobacco, but it waited to sign the lease until three for-profit companies had signed on for an equal share of space. That strategy proved helpful in convincing McKinney—which makes ads for national clients such as Nationwide insurance and Sherwin-Williams and gave birth to the Travelocity “Roaming Gnome”—to take the leap. McKinney CEO Brinegar says when employees raised concerns about safety, he pointed to Duke. “Duke can’t afford it being unsafe for its own people,” he told his workers. “They have to make it safe, or they have a big problem.”
McKinney soon was joined at American Tobacco by Glaxo and Compuware, a software company run by Peter Karmanos, who also owns the Carolina Hurricanes hockey team. Glaxo has since left, but McKinney and Compuware are still there, along with about sixty other ventures.
The rebirth of the American Tobacco campus may be the highest-profile redevelopment project in Durham, but it’s far from the only one. In the past decade, several other warehouses and rundown buildings have been rehabilitated, giving rise to dozens of new bars and restaurants and an explosion of downtown residential spaces. The number of people who call downtown home has risen from just 200 in the mid-1990s to more than 1,500 today. Many live in retrofitted lofts that take advantage of the old tobacco warehouses’ quirky industrial architecture.
Duke’s footprint stretches through all this progress. In addition to West Village and American Tobacco, the university has 50,000 square feet of space at Brightleaf Square, a commercial development off Main Street, and houses 500 employees on six floors of the Durham Centre, a fifteen-story building across from the Carolina Theatre. In all, Duke now has at least 1,800 employees occupying more than 500,000 square feet of downtown space. Duke recently contracted to purchase its first downtown facility, the 114,000-square-foot Carmichael Building, where tobacco was once dried and stored.
“Duke became that credit-worthy client that let us get so many other projects going,” says Bill Kalkhof, president of Downtown Durham Inc., a nonprofit that promotes area revitalization. “Duke has easily been one of the most influential players downtown and, in terms of leasing office space, the most influential.”
The boom in office and residential space downtown has provided a foundation for new cultural and entertainment options, including the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, galleries and artist studios at the rehabbed Golden Belt textile mill, and the Durham Performing Arts Center, which opened in 2008 in a strikingly modern glass-walled building near the Bulls park. DPAC’s 2,800-seat theater has become a magnet for Broadway shows and A-list performers, drawing a total audience of more than a million in its first three years. DPAC’s 2011 attendance figures ranked fourth nationally among performing-arts centers.
There’s something else important about all those DPAC showgoers—something just as important to Durham’s renaissance as quirky postindustrial office space: They’re hungry.
Collard greens aren’t hard to find in North Carolina. But for this billowy staple of the Southern dinner table to wind up on a plate served at Magnolia Grill, it must have a slight frosted purple tint to its otherwise green leaves. That’s the telltale sign that the green has been exposed to cold.
“A lot of old-fashioned Southernistas believe collards become sweetest when exposed to frost,” explains Ben Barker, chef and co-owner of the restaurant. “It accentuates the sugars in the greens.”
Ben and Karen Barker opened Magnolia Grill in 1986 at the nadir of Durham’s tobacco age. They set up shop in the old Wellspring Grocery, just down Ninth Street from the beer halls and sandwich shops that bordered East Campus. Their restaurant was different—fancy and pricey with a dedication to local ingredients. But it caught on, and the restaurant’s success would help lay the groundwork for the city’s food revolution.
One of the main things Durham had going for it was geography. Get outside the city limits and you’ll find a ring of active farms growing a wide range of fruits and vegetables. Magnolia’s collard greens, for example, come from Brinkley Farms, a family farm eighteen miles north of Durham in Creedmoor. Barker developed a relationship with the farm over several years through the Carrboro Farmers’ Market, where he shops for the restaurant’s produce. (Brinkley also sells at the weekly farmers’ market in Durham’s Central Park.)
That chef-farmer relationship is an important aspect of the farm-to-fork movement, which emphasizes fresh, local foods produced sustainably. “It’s not cheaper; in fact, it tends to be more expensive,” Barker says of buying local. “But there’s less waste, and you have an ongoing relationship with the person who planted the seed. And it tastes better.”
That combination earned Ben Barker a James Beard Award in 2000 as Best Chef in the Southeast, a top honor in the restaurant industry and one indicator that the Durham food scene was on the rise. Three years later, Karen, the restaurant’s pastry chef, won one. (Note: If the Barkers ever ask you over for dinner, accept.)
In 2006, Gourmet named Magnolia Grill one of the top fifty restaurants in the country. But the wealth was spreading. Young chefs, attracted by Durham’s low rents and burgeoning food scene, flowed in. Magnolia itself turned into something of an incubator, training a number of chefs who went on to open their own kitchens. Now the city serves up everything from duck confit at a French bistro to beef tongue tacos from a takeout taqueria to Chinese dumplings and Korean barbecue from trucks that tweet their location each day.
“There’s no pretentiousness in Durham,” says Sam Poley, a former chef and current director of marketing and communications for the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau. “You either like it or you don’t, and those who like it don’t care that other people don’t. That’s attractive to chefs.”
Durham’s rising foodie profile has not gone unnoticed. In 2008, Bon Appétit tabbed the Durham-Chapel Hill area “America’s foodiest small town.” The New York Times also has written glowingly about Durham’s food scene three times since 2010. One Times article from 2011 declared that from a former “ghost town… an exciting, unexpected food hub has emerged.” Another quoted former coowner of Pop’s and current owner of Six Plates Wine Bar Matthew Beason, who reflected on the days a decade earlier when he drove to the airport to retrieve a weekly shipment of duck confit and pâté from New York. “Now, virtually every place in town makes its own,” he said.
As a social issue, Durham residents take the farm-to-fork movement seriously, says Chris Reid, a contributor to Carpe Durham, a local food blog. If it was once a bonus for a restaurant to use local ingredients, it is now practically a requirement, Reid says.
“There’s a lot of farmland within thirty miles, so the farm culture in North Carolina is helping fuel the revival,” she says. “With every restaurant that opens now, that has to be the focus. I think we expect it.”
If, on a sun-splashed afternoon, you sneak out of work a little early for a cocktail or two at Tyler’s Taproom in the American Tobacco complex, you might luck into some live music. Or maybe the hosts of the Durham Bulls radio show are talking baseball at its makeshift studio outside Tyler’s front door. Or perhaps, if you beat the crowd, all you’ll hear is the soft gurgling of the man-made stream that runs down the middle of the campus, twisting this way and that and looping under a pedestrian bridge. The scene is both idyllic and urban, busy and serene. Overhead, the cigarette factory’s original white water tower, 175 feet tall and still emblazoned “Lucky Strike,” strikes a long shadow.
If you’ve been around Durham for any length of time, you still shake your head at the turnaround, considering how far this place has come from its ragged years of abandonment. The renaissance has been neither perfect nor complete. Downtown still has its share of vacant storefronts and dilapidated buildings, and too many city residents suffer in poverty.
But the progress of the past decade was not an accident, nor was it a product of Duke’s investment, Jim Goodmon’s vision, or the leap of faith taken by businesses such as McKinney. It was a confluence of factors, a three-legged stool of government action, business leadership, and grassroots activism, with each leg dependent on the others for support.
“What we had ten years ago was determination, money, and opportunity,” says Trask, the Duke executive vice president. “I’m not sure the opportunity was really there before then.”
Or perhaps since. Had the American Tobacco project come along in a rockier economic climate, like, say, today? “It couldn’t have happened,” his Duke colleague Selig says.
And the buildings themselves played a crucial role. American Tobacco is a complex of more than a dozen century-old buildings, all used at first to manufacture and store cigarettes. Flush with money at the turn of last century, American Tobacco built them to last, with strong construction and distinctive detailing. They’re huge, wide, and for the most part rectangular— perfect spaces for myriad businesses.
“These buildings worked 100 years ago, they work now, and they’ll probably work 100 years from now because they’re big, open boxes,” Selig says. “It couldn’t have happened without the bones of buildings this well-built.”
Once decrepit and dreary, this complex now buzzes with activity. You can get your hair cut, have a slice at the pizza joint, or learn to make a soufflé at a cooking class at the Art Institute. You can even get married there, at Bay 7, an all-purpose banquet hall sandwiched between the local public radio station and some offices.
Across the complex at McKinney, Brinegar remains pleased with his decision to relocate his advertising agency to Durham. The space has worked out nicely. The firm’s 147 employees are spread out over two floors; their old offices in Raleigh had them splayed on five different floors. There, they had space for a single conference room. Now they have a dozen.
But there’s something more that has changed since those first days in 2003. When McKinney relocated, Brinegar was the only McKinney employee who lived in Durham, a sole believer in a brighter future ahead. Today, he’s got company: About 100 of the company’s employees now call Durham home.
- Ferreri is a former reporter for the Durham Herald-Sun and the Raleigh News & Observer. He now writes for Duke’s Office of News and Communications. This is his first story for Duke Magazine.