Wednesday marked the celebration of Downtown Durham, Inc's 2010 annual meeting. The event, which serves as a version of a shareholders meeting for those interested and active in downtown's redevelopment, provides an annual re-cap of accomplishments in Downtown Durham's renaissance.
The meeting is also forward-looking, however, and remarks by Bill Kalkhof, DDI's president, and Jim Goodmon, owner of Capitol Broadcasting and the American Tobacco Campus, give the citizenry a picture of the current challenges and opportunities in downtown re-development. A summary of the meeting follows after the jump.
The meeting commenced with an awards ceremony that highlighted exemplary developments that occurred during the last fiscal year.
Included in the awardees were Dorian Bolden, owner of Beyu Cafe, and Greg Rowland, CEO of Mindworks Multimedia. Both were awarded with Outstanding Downtown Business awards. Reynolds Maxwell of Headwall Development received an Outstanding Downtown Development award for his work on the 1000 W Main St building, which houses FiFi's, Nomadic Trading Company, and Uniquities. Also receiving the Outstanding Downtown Development award was Barry Radcliffe, owner of 308 W Main St, the recently-renovated former home of Ringside that is still awaiting a retail tenant for the first floor.
In the public-private partnerships category, awards went to the Bull City Connector and the Corcoran and City Center parking deck renovations.
The largest award of the day, DDI's Visionary Award, went to Andy Widmark of Mark Properties. It was work by Widmark and the students of his graduate-level real estate development class that led to the creation of Downtown Durham, Inc back in 1993. The class was assigned to study what could be done to spur re-development of Durham's then-silent downtown. The class concluded that the largest boon for re-development would be the creation of a single organization focused on all aspects of downtown economic development.
To conclude his remarks, Widmark shared what he believed to be the two largest issues facing downtown over the next decade. The first was the need for a dedicated Business Improvement District, with the second being the need for more city and county investment in affordable housing.
After the presentation of awards, DDI president Bill Kalkhof presented a brief annual update on the state of downtown development. Kalkhof highlighted the ongoing success of DPAC, continued restaurant and retail openings, and the emergence of the Durham Athletic Park as an entertainment district. Also highlighted by Kalkhof was the key role of public investments, especially by the county, in sustaining the momentum of downtown development during the ongoing recession.
Kalkhof then proceeded to outline nine priorities for DDI in the coming years. First and foremost was the need to keep downtown a priority at the city and county level, adding that public-private partnerships should continue when they make sense for the taxpayer. Additional priorities included the need for workforce housing, improved connectivity between districts (especially in light of plans for increased railroad traffic), more hotel rooms and residential units downtown, and an increase in street level entertainment. Kalkhof highlighted the fact that crime has gone down significantly in recent years, but work must continue to make downtown safer and cleaner.
Kalkhof closed his remarks with the reminder that the downtown community must continue to think big. Things that seemed impossible five or even two years ago are happening right now, including the operation of the Bull City Connector and sustained commercial development during the largest recession since the Great Depression.
The final phase of the meeting was a panel discussion featuring Jim Goodmon, owner of the American Tobacco Historic District, and Michael Smith, president of Charlotte Center City Partners. The panel took the form of a question-and-answer session, with feedback from the audience in the form of 'clickers' that recorded individual votes and presented them in a PowerPoint presentation.
During the panel, Goodmon stated that planning for residential development should be a primary focus of DDI in the coming year. By his count, approximately 3000 residential units are needed downtown over the next several years. Goodmon warned, however, that first a residential plan should be drawn up by downtown stakeholders, to ensure that new units added downtown fit with existing and planned developments.
Smith's view of the most important issue was keeping downtown areas clean and safe, as his opinion is that without a clean and safe atmosphere, nothing else could work in an urban environment. Beyond that, a constant focus on economic development and job creation should remain.
The focus on job creation emerged again later, when ways to improve pedestrian activity and walk-ability were explored. Smith acknowledged that street-level retail is an excellent way to increase pedestrian connectivity, but also warned that retail is the hardest sector to recruit. Per Smith, retail is typically the last to arrive on scene, after office and residential development have added feet on the street for shopping and dining.
Goodmon utilized his answers to emphasize the need to simplify traffic patterns around downtown. Many DPAC visitors, for example, don't understand downtown navigation and are less likely to utilize downtown businesses before or after a show.
In terms of most pressing challenges, Smith and Goodmon differed. Smith offered that both Charlotte and Durham must be mindful of upcoming changes to rail corridors in North Carolina. The arrival of high speed rail could be a boon for connections between different cities, but within Charlotte, for example, high speed rail will bring with it a 320-ft long pedestrian tunnel that divides downtown in two. A proposal that includes a tunnel like this will absolutely sever any pedestrian connectivity between opposite sides of the track.
This situation exists in Durham already, although to a much smaller degree. Downtown's railroad corridor divides the American Tobacco District from the city's center. It will take skillful lobbying by downtown stakeholders over the coming years to improve this connection, perhaps with the trenching or elevation of the rail corridor.
Goodmon's thoughts on downtown's most pressing concern were with parking and traffic flow. He did agree that pedestrian connectivity across the railroad tracks must be improved, but he views parking as a more pressing concern. In his view, Goodmon sees a need to capitalize on the market of visitors to downtown. These visitors rely on ease of access and navigation, something that Goodmon sees as lacking in today's Downtown Durham.
In his closing remarks, Goodmon echoed Kalkhof's earlier reminder that downtown needs to think big. Goodmon had a convenient anecdote to support this reminder. Five years ago, he stated, he never would dream of trying to land a publicly-traded, 3,200 employee firm downtown. Now, however, he is working to do just that.
Unfortunately, Goodmon didn't share anything that wasn't already in the public record. It was known that Ambacco was trying to land Red Hat after the story first broke on BCR last month, later being confirmed by WRAL's own Rick Smith. Goodmon's optimism and enthusiasm, however, is a welcome reminder that those involved in downtown's re-development truly believe that Durham is a hub of high-tech creativity.
Here's to hoping we sustain Goodmon's "big mo" (momentum) in the next few years as we exit the recession.