Walltown Rec Center groundbreaking looks back to past -- and forward to desired aquatic center
BCR's Daily Fishwrap Report for March 23, 2009

DPAC: Drawing regionally; helping regional perceptions to boot?

Have you ever visited a business or a municipal building with a cornerstone or dedication plaque that says something like "1928" on it, and winced, thinking, "Wow, what bad luck to have opened right before the Great Depression."

We're nowhere near that level of economic misery, but many might wonder someday the same thing about Durham's $45 million-plus performing arts center, opening in the first fall of America's economic malaise.

To date, at least, the DPAC's numbers have looked pretty good, it seems, according to the N&O's feature today looking at Raleigh's new competition in performance venues.

In many ways, DPAC is fascinating from a market-niche perspective. At 2,800 seats, it outranks its Raleigh big sibling (Memorial Auditorium) by almost 500 seats, as the N&O notes -- making it more profitable for the blockbuster shows that can sell more seats in the larger space. (The N&O also points out that DPAC's alignment with Nederlander doesn't hurt, either, as the DPAC has better access to the top shows.)

On the flip side, the low cost of the DPAC compared to other cities' facilities makes it easier for the city, and its contractor management, to turn a profit; DPAC GM Bob Klaus notes in the N&O article that many shows can be profitable at the 1,500-seat sales level.

This, though, is perhaps the most interest aspect of the N&O's reporting to me:

If early attendance patterns are any indication, DPAC has had more success at drawing patrons from Raleigh than Memorial has had at drawing people from Durham. Klaus says that DPAC's regionwide draw is comparable to the Durham Bulls baseball team -- 50 percent from Wake County, 30 to 40 percent from Durham and Orange County and 10 to 20 percent from farther away.

As for Raleigh's Memorial, Krupa says that fewer than 15 percent of its ticket-buyers come from Durham. Instead, Memorial draws most of its patrons from inside the Raleigh I-440 Beltline and along corridors to North Raleigh, Cary and points east.

What makes this so interesting? It's certainly no secret that part of the DPAC strategy was to draw regionally, even superregionally, from the Virginia line to the Sandhills, and west to Greensboro and beyond. And given the fast-growing western Wake suburbs, for which a trip to the DPAC may be faster and more convenient even than a drive to downtown Raleigh, the theater would be crazy not to draw from a broad base.

Part of this has tendency has been framed as a financial boost to Durham, both from the direct benefits of the relatively small financial return to the city on the structure, but indirectly as well in support restaurants and cultural amenities.

But there's a larger impact as well: the ability to draw visitors to Durham in a way that catalyzes downtown's revitalization to date, and possibly helps to change impressions about the Bull City.

Many will note that the Bulls have been drawing hundreds of thousands of people to Durham for years to see a game in the classy Durham Bulls Athletic Park. And they'd be right -- as far as a point on a map goes.

But if the DBAP draws from a wide geographical base, it deposits folks into a fairly narrow funnel. After all, going to a ballgame is all about the ballpark itself. You arrive there in a car or a bus; you enter the facility and buy your food there; the park disgorges you at game's end, and you return to your hometown.

For years the DBAP did so by necessity; across the street from it sat some old factory, fenced up and boarded up and generally unhospitable. Now revitalized as American Tobacco, its restaurants and bars certainly play a big role in pre- and post-game festivities, but as much due to their waystation role between parking and the ballpark as anything else. It's a veritable black hole of spending and interest.

Contrast that with the Durham Performing Arts Center -- which, by both its single-purpose nature and its marketing, has the ability to make Durham broadly a destination for traffic, as opposed to the locus of the ballpark just to its south.

Take this email, which ended up forwarded to elected officials earlier this week, from a non-Durhamite describing their experience at DPAC; she came to Durham to see "Fiddler on the Roof" this week, and ended up losing her sunglasses. The process of getting them back led to an interesting profile on the couple's DPAC trip:

I received an e-mail the week prior to the show to get me thinking about where we might have dinner and enjoy some time with my husband prior to the show.  Because of this e-mail, I asked my husband to leave work early day of the show.  Without the e-mail the day would have come and we would have rushed out the door and made it just in time for the show.  Because of this suggestion I was prompted to make it more of an evening and experience.

When we arrived in Durham I had the wrong parking deck in mind (because I did not read the info provided).  Because of signage and helpful people it took no time for us to find where we should be.  After parking we were asked if we needed help finding anything and were pleasantly guided to many good options for a light bite and a beverage.  Even who I believe were Security Guards asked if they could help us when we were looking at the directory!!!

After a nice meal with my husband we enjoyed the short walk to DPAC and Upon arrival were greeted and directed pleasantly...

After the show I received [a customer satisfaction] survey and truly feel like you care about my feedback.  Too often people ask for opinion but do nothing with the feedback provided.  I have all the confidence in the world that you will take all feedback into consideration and act appropriately.  An e-mail from the General Manager and Office Manager over something like a pair of sunglasses is the type of service people desire.  My request for help could have so easily been ignored or pushed aside but instead you took the time to communicate.  Even if you had not found my glasses I would have been equally impressed because you made the effort.

I feel valued as a customer.  I have a large network of friends that I share information with, they know I do not refer or recommend lightly so I believe they pay attention when I make a suggestion.  Later today I will send an e-mail to my network and share my WONDERFUL experience at the DPAC and the Tobacco Trail district.  Thank you for being part of that positive experience. 

I'd think of this as sui generis -- except I've seen similar tales to this on an Internet message board I frequent that has discussion about the various parts of the Triangle. Before DPAC, I can't say that I remember many questions about where to go eat in downtown Durham -- and where those questions arose, they often focused on Brightleaf Square and Ninth Street, or American Tobacco.

Since DPAC, I see more and more questions about where to eat in downtown within walking distance of the theater. The pre-show email seems to be a big part of that, giving guests a sense of where they might go to eat before the event and encouraging more dining dollars to be spent in the Bull City.

I've also seen plenty of positive comments and feedback about the facility and individuals' experiences at the show. The small detail of greeting and welcoming visitors at the door goes over very well, as does the post-show survey, for instance. It's a small matter of making guests feel welcome, something that should be part of basic customer service training for everyone in the public eye.

(It always amazes me, for instance, that airlines have been around nearly a century yet only one, Southwest, goes out of its way to deliver outstanding customer service every flight, from every employee. Not surprisingly, it's the most profitable airline in the U.S. most years.)

Certainly the Carolina has been around for a couple of decades; I'd be curious, though, to see from whence they draw visitors for shows. I might tend to suspect it's a Durham- and Chapel Hill-centric crowd already familiar with downtown -- though that's pure speculation on my part. And the Carolina, to put it mildly, doesn't seem to take the same approach to customer service as the DPAC, perhaps seeing the crux of the experience as the artist performance itself as opposed to the broader characteristics of the visit.

Whatever the core reasons, my hunch from the conversations I see online about DPAC shows is that the theater is, somehow and in some way, managing to engage its visitors more broadly with Durham's core, in a way that the Bulls and the Carolina may not have been able to do over the years.

Is this a good thing? Arts aside, to the extent that Durham wants to continue to grow and nurture its center city, to create a destination for tourist dollars that drives more storefronts, more dining and entertainment choices, and to generally revitalize its image -- absolutely.

Some Durhamites love the arts choices at the DPAC; others eschew them, preferring the selection at the Carolina or community arts organizagtions. No matter which camp one falls into, though, the benefits to taxpayers resulting from a more positive reputation for Durham is undeniable.



Good stuff Kevin.

One minor quibble with the N&O reporting: I don't really see how the attendance numbers show that the DPAC has had more "success" drawing from Raleigh than Memorial has had from Durham. Wake County is 3.2 times larger than Durham County. That's essentially the same ratio as DPAC's 50 percent draw from Wake County to Memorial's 15 percent draw from Durham County. Throw in the fact that there are a lot of households in Wake County equidistant from downtown Durham and downtown Raleigh and the fact that the median household income of Wake County is quite a bit higher than Durham County (62K to 48K) and those numbers do not show any particular proportional regional success for the DPAC over Memorial.

Ross Grady

Yes, the DPAC sends surveys after every show, and every time I cringe a bit, especially at the page of questions asking me to rate the smiles of the staff members (and yes, I generally skip that page).

There's also a page or two asking about the parking experience, but *NOTHING* about the walking experience. I always have to wait until the end of the survey, for the little free-text input box, to provide my feedback about how *non*-welcoming the DPAC is for people walking from downtown.

First you have to navigate the stretches of Mangum or Corcoran between the loop & Pettigrew, where they cross the train tracks. Though there are sidewalks along the rest of those streets, the only thing you have at that awkward grade crossing is a little strip of asphalt set off by some painted stripes.

Then, once you get to Pettigrew, you can obviously see the DPAC clearly, but it's not immediately obvious how best to get there. Do you continue to walk along Corcoran & kind of navigate between the parking cars, or do you cut across the grass & head straight for the DPAC?

Both times we've elected to cut across the grass (as well as the weird little parking lot immediately in front of the building . . . hardly improves the appearance of the otherwise elegant facade).

So sure, I give them points for appealing so well to the car-and-driver set, but I give them major MINUS points for not doing more to appeal to those of us who might actually want to WALK to the thing.

Kevin Davis

@Erik: Sound points on the numbers. I was going a different direction myself on those (looking at them more on the sense of the amount of Wakers drawn to DPAC) but your feedback on the N&O's conclusion is well warranted.

@Ross: Interesting perspective. I've never encountered the same thing, but then, I work downtown and walk downtown a lot, so I'm probably not the best judge there. For the Morrissey show, we parked on Parrish St. and walked down Mangum to get to the DPAC and had no trouble with the train track crossing, which I think is relatively fresh.

The Corcoran example is interesting; the crossing at Pettigrew is better than it was, with fresh pavement and markings. I don't know if the parking lot is that confusing; a benefit to being a pedestrian is you can go whatever way you want, though I agree I've never felt "comfortable" walking across the lot.

On the flip side, the parking lot will eventually be transformed into midrise residential, as will the Diamond View park area temporarily donated and still owned by CBC. That should provide a clearer "funnel" down Vivian -- whoops, *Avenue of the Arts* (snicker).

Reyn Bowman

Actually for years, Durham has been able to draw 60% to 70% of its attendance from visitors. It has held true for not only the Bulls but some Broadway plays Duke produced prior to DPAC, Carolina Theater, Museum of Life & Science, Festivals and many restaurants.

So it isn't any surprise that DPAC would do the same or more. When we survey day-trip visitation Durham performs extremely well as a draw in a 100 mile radius.


Regarding walking to DPAC. Good points Ross. I cannot think of a better way to promote/encourage finding your cool (via GPS vs. signage and crosswalks) in Downtown Durham if you can easily park in downtown, walk to Rue Cler or Revolution for dinner, a drink at Pinhook and then stroll safely down to DPAC for a show. Pedestrian (and bicyclist) connectivity will really light up the economy and sense of safety in the evening (more so than a light saber).


Good stuff Kevin.


I think DPAC is fantastic, but it seems like perhaps a missed opportunity with regard to the siting of the building. I had the chance to walk by there recently and was dismayed that it is set back from Petigrew Street & has front-door parking. This may contribute ultimately to Ross's point about lack of ped connectivity.

Kevin, you mentioned a future development site... you are talking about the surface lot and grassy area fronting Petrigrew? I would think folks will balk at blocking the beautiful DPAC exterior with a structure at a later date, no?

Kevin Davis

@ChiefJoJo: You could be right about some public grumbling down the road over development near the DPAC. Frankly, they'd be dead wrong, and I'd be the first to say so.

Bottom line, part of the point of DPAC is to contribute to the revitalization of downtown. In large part, that happens by filling in the lacunae of open surface parking lots and grassy areas.

Capitol's plans for Phase III have been well-known throughout the design phase of the project. I'd be surprised if City leaders would show any interest in discouraging density and residential development on those sites just for "view" purposes -- when adding bodies downtown is the surest way to create growth and support for local businesses and services.

For that matter, it's worth remembering that the City didn't fund the green space just to the west of the DPAC (also future CBC development site.) Capitol did -- under no obligation to the city, out of their own pocket, to the tune of well into the six figures ... all to improve a site they'll bulldoze, again, to build on in a few years.

S Gwaltney

I attended Rent and Fiddler on the Roof. I think that the location for parking and ped traffic was great. It is essentually the same location as the Bulls if you go down the third base side. I also had a great experience with the staff. They were helpful, smiled, and would even talk to us.
In the elevator on the way down from teh parking deck, a Cary resident kept complaining about there being no Olive Garden in Durham. Unreal.
The only real complaint I have with the DPAC experience is that they do not do a good job of getting cars out of the parking deck. It is about a 30 minutes wait from deck 5.

Michael Bacon

A word to the wise: do not, under any circumstances, park in the "east deck" (the one on Mangum) for a show at the DPAC. It is a terribly designed deck and impossible to get out of.

The North Deck is almost as convenient (off Pettigrew, just west of Ambacco) and far easier to get in and out of. There's an opening right through the middle of Ambacco that you can just walk through very easily.

Kevin Davis

I'm officially an idiot for saying this, since I make use of this parking all the time for DPAC shows, but: the best place to park is the downtown loop between Chapel Hill St. and Corcoran. Plenty of on-street parking, free after (I think) 6pm. Closer than the South Deck to boot.

Doug Roach

@Kevin Re: Development in front of the DPAC, I'd much prefer to see that area enhanced as a public "gathering space" (ala the Peace Center in Greenville, SC.) Residences will do little to enhance the experience of visitors and may well exacerbate a potential parking problem.
Encourage walking. Don't encourage yet more building.

Kevin Davis

Doug: I have to disagree with you on this on a few counts.

1) If we're going to continue to have population growth -- and given that the US is forecast to add 100 million people over the next generation, that's hard to question -- I'd much rather them be added downtown, in the urban core, than on the periphery.

2) Visitors are one part of the equation, but not the only part. In any event, would visitors prefer today's still-somewhat-deserted downtown, over one with more bustling buildings and activity on the street? Sure you can see all the way from Corcoran/the Loop to the DPAC. Does that make it more inviting or walkable?

3) Since my pal Barry is on a blogging hiatus, I'll take up his mantle for the parking thing. Besides there being plenty of parking decks already, I'd hope that in 20 years more of our residents are taking transit downtown -- or already live there and walk to the DPAC.

In the end, I don't see more building and more walking as being at cross purposes. If anything, they support each other. More energy, more eyes on the street, more life.

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