Previous month:
January 2011
Next month:
March 2011

February 2011

Durham's Startup Stampede to host new ventures this Spring

With over fifty startups now calling Downtown Durham home, it's easy to see why Durham's getting more and more national press for its startup scene.

So much press, in fact, that the Obama Administration is beginning their "Startup America" roundtable tour right here in the Bull City.  The tour, which visits Durham on March 3, is meant to gather input from small business owners in an effort to reduce barriers to entrepeneurship and innovation.

Durham is one among a list of eight innovation hubs on the tour, including traditional stalwarts such as Boulder CO, the Silicon Valley, and Austin.  Durham's historically been the startup-friendly town of the Triangle, mostly due to the availability of cheap office space.  With commercial leases at class A spaces like American Tobacco now running the highest in the region, however, it takes something else to sustain Durham as a hub for new ventures.

This 'something else' could easily be the entrepeneurship support from groups like the Center for Entrepeneurial Development, the NC Institute for Minority Economic Development, and Bull City Forward, all of which call Downtown Durham home.  Additionally, Durham now has several incubators up-and-running, including Joystick Labs and Launchbox Digital in the American Underground space at AmBacco.

Added to the mix this Spring will be Durham's Startup Stampede, a project that aims to host fifteen startups in downtown.  The project comes with many sponsors, including the City and County of Durham, Self-Help Credit Union, and the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce, among others.

Participants of the program will get free office space, parking, and associated support services like internet access.  More importantly, though, is the mentoring and support that differentiates traditional incubators from shared office space arrangements.  The Stampede promises access to lawyers, economic developers, web designers, marketing experts, and more, in an effort to give entrepeneurs a burst of business growth.

The Stampede is soliciting proposals through March 11.  As of yesterday, 25 enterepeneurs have already applied.

RTP's Rick Weddle departs for the Mouse House while strategic plan development continues

Weddle Sitting at the gate at RDU a few weeks ago waiting for a flight, I noticed Rick Weddle's face on the TV screen. He was being interviewed on CNBC, explaining with a smile how the Park was creating jobs with startups and luring larger employers alike -- even as the Chyron on the bottom of the screen popped up factoids like the +/- 25% vacancy rate at the well-known research site.

Even as the closed captions shared his words, though, it looks like Weddle was getting ready to spend some time at RDU, too. Lining up flights, that is, to the old McCoy AFB and Jetport, better known these days as Orlando International Airport.

The Research Triangle Foundation announced this week that Weddle would be departing, and soon; he starts as metro Orlando's chief economic development booster next week. And the circumstances couldn't be odder:

  • He's taking a six-figure pay cut, according to one media outlet;
  • He doesn't appear to be talking to the media, at least based on the lack of comment back from the N&O's inquiries; and,
  • At least one RTF board member was surprised by the move, again per the N&O.

Hell, LinkedIn sez that Weddle's already checked out for O-Town.

Most crucially, the move comes just as Weddle and the Park have been on the verge of releasing the fruits of its master planning labor, something that's been long-promised to propose a transformation of RTP, whose long-held successes seem one of the best proofs of the old canard that what got you here can't get you there.

Continue reading "RTP's Rick Weddle departs for the Mouse House while strategic plan development continues" »

Willowdaile's old Harris Teeter looks set to become home to big-box chain Ollie's Bargain Outlet

Those of us who've lived in New England may be familiar with deep-discounters like Building 19 or Ocean State Job Lot -- big box stores that offer discount prices on overstocks, slightly defective items, merchandise purchased out of bankruptcy situations or, in some cases, literal fire sales. ("The warehouse caught on fire, but these items are fine!")

These stores fill a quirky niche in retail; they offer deep discounts but tend to have some pull across the economic spectrum. After all, people just love a bargain, and these retailers give an outlet for that garage-sale mentality seven days a week.

Still, such stores typically find their way to points of economic opportunity, spaces that come on market and might be hard to fill.

Olliesbargainoutlet That's almost the dictionary definition of the former Harris Teeter store at the Willowdaile shopping center at Guess Rd. and Horton Rd. in north Durham. With a brand-new H-Teet across Horton on the site of the old movie theater and a Food Lion across Guess, there's no appetite for another grocer to fill the 28,000 sq. ft. pad that Harris Teeter once had.

Into that space, it would appear, enters Ollie's Bargain Outlet, a Pennsylvania-based firm that's, by its own description, "the Mid-Atlantic’s largest retailer of closeout, surplus, and salvage merchandise."

Continue reading "Willowdaile's old Harris Teeter looks set to become home to big-box chain Ollie's Bargain Outlet" »

New "Durham Hoods" site showcases neighborhoods, listservs across Durham When Philip Bost's car was broken into in the Duke Park neighborhood, Bost got mad.

Getting even? Not so much. Getting neighbors informed? Yes, please.

Bost decided to reach out to his fellow 'hoodsters to let them know about what happened to his car. "I felt like I had an obligation after that event to notify my neighbors and my community that this type of thing was going on, and I was also curious about whether I was an isolated case," Bost said. "It felt personal, but now I know that it's not. These things happen."

He hadn't previously been signed on to or active on Duke Park's listserv, which is one of the more engaged and active in the Bull City.

(For the uninitiated, it has fewer bizarro flame wars than some other central Durham lists I could name -- discretion is the better part of valor for local bloggers -- though delinquent street sweepers and drivers bypassing the vehicular barriers to the neighborhood's namesake park should beware the e-wrath they'll find.)

Bost's venture onto the Duke Park listserv to share his crime experience got him wondering. How many other neighborhoods had listservs? How active were they? And, where could you go to find out more about all of Durham's sometimes-charming, sometimes-exhausting email lists?

His concern grew when a missing child report hit the police and Old North Durham listserv recently, but the email's author didn't know how to get the report passed along to the Duke Park list, despite the girl disappearing less than 50 yards from the neighborhood boundary.

The result?, Bost's new site featuring a Google Map mashup of all the Durham neighborhoods he could identify, complete with links and engagement data on neighborhood associations' lists.

Continue reading "New "Durham Hoods" site showcases neighborhoods, listservs across Durham" »

Another W. Main St. building returns to life as non-profit MDC relocates HQ to Durham

With the opening of so many new restaurants, retailers and entertainment venues downtown in the last few years, it's possible to forget the years in which downtown Durham was a veritable wasteland, a dead spot of energy where no businesses were interested in setting down roots.

307-w-main While everyone from local governments to Downtown Durham Inc. chipped in towards improving the city's core, non-profit financial institution Self-Help has long deserved -- and earned -- special credit. (Recent devotees of the Bull City may not know this nugget of history, but the prospects for downtown were once considered so bad that less than a decade ago, cash-rich, privately-owned Capitol Broadcasting couldn't get a conventional loan for the American Tobacco project, leading Self-Help to step in and save the day.)

Besides lending, Self-Help has a successful history of rehabbing a number of buildings in the downtown core, from structures on both sides of the Main/Corcoran intersection to the gorgeous building a block to the west that's the home of the Center for Responsible Lending. And they've typically made these office spaces available to a range of businesses and non-profits.

Now Self-Help has teamed up with Chapel Hill-based non-profit MDC to purchase the historic John Sprunt Hill building, a beautiful Georgian Revival structure on W. Main St. between Self-Help's headquarters and the Five Points district.

Continue reading "Another W. Main St. building returns to life as non-profit MDC relocates HQ to Durham" »

NC billboard lobby to state legislature: let us build billboards wherever we want

From the didn't-see-that-coming department, Ray Gronberg from the Herald-Sun writes this morning about a new development in the fight between North Carolina's billboard lobby and cities across NC.

Gronberg broke the news this morning that the NC Outdoor Advertising Association is working on a bill to prohibit municipal regulation of billboards.  From the H-S:

"We have been told there will be a bill to basically prevent local governments from having restrictions on digital billboards or any kind of local ordinance," said Molly Diggins, executive director of the N.C. Sierra Club.

Many will remember August's long City Council meeting that ended in a unanimous vote against loosening Durham's long-standing ban on new billboard construction.  After failure in the city, Fairway Outdoor Advertising, the original applicant for looser billboard regulations, withdrew its application for the same from the Board of County Commissioners in September.

In recent years, there has been a push by billboard companies to allow construction of digital billboards.  These digital billboards are essentially large, ultra-bright digital displays that change message every eight seconds.  Opponents of digital billboards cite numerous reasons to prevent their construction, including blight, safety, and a lack of energy efficiency.

Even scarier than the attempted run-around local zoning regulations on billboards is the possibility of a precedent for side-stepping local planning departments with a request to the state legislature.

If the state decides where local governments must allow billboards, then what other traditionally-municipal zoning issues will the state take up next?  This concern is highlighted by Morrisville Planning Director (and former legislative head of the American Planning Association's NC chapter) Ben Hitchings in today's Herald-Sun piece:

"The big concern is who decides about community appearance and whether billboards are sited in a community, and how visible they are," Hitchings said Wednesday, explaining why he raised the alarm. "It's a key question of local control: Will communities still be allowed to control the appearance of their own community, or will that be something dictated [to them], in this case by the billboard industry?"

Stay tuned for more on this issue, both here and from local newspapers, as it develops.

"The big concern is who decides about community appearance and whether billboards are sited in a community, and how visible they are," Hitchings said Wednesday, explaining why he raised the alarm. "It's a key question of local control: Will communities still be allowed to control the appearance of their own community, or will that be something dictated [to them], in this case by the billboard industry?"

Durham's getting a new incubator -- this time 'round, for food trucks and foodies

One of central Durham's newest business ventures is an interesting portmanteau of two different hot memes in recent years here in the Bull City and the Triangle.

The-cookery-logo In one corner, you have the idea of the incubator, the concept that provides affordable space for start-up companies, mixing in support services, mentoring and access to other help that a new business needs.

In the other corner, you've got Durham's foodie scene, the mix of locavore demand, nearby organic farms and affordable costs that led first to a boom in locally owned restaurants and, in quick succession, food trucks. 

Food trucks in particular have boomed in the Bull City, thanks to looser regulations than in other nearby cities -- though the requirement that a mobile eatery has to be tethered back to a brick-and-mortar commercial kitchen has created at least a bit of a barrier to entry.

Enter into this scene The Cookery, a self-described "culinary business incubator" opening up this spring on West Chapel Hill St. in the building that once housed the Durham Food Co-op.

Continue reading "Durham's getting a new incubator -- this time 'round, for food trucks and foodies" »

Bearish DPS budget projection foreshadows another year of job cut, local tax debates

Members of local PTA groups and the school advocates of Durham Allies for Responsive Education (DARE) gathered last night at Hillandale Elementary to hear the bad news and the bad news about this coming year's school budget.

Yep, that's right -- the bad and the bad.

The first bad news? The end of federal stimulus dollars that Durham Public Schools have used for the past two fiscal years to plug holes in the budget driven by recessionary drops in state tax coffers. 270 DPS employees including a number of teachers are paid out of this $14 million source of funds.

But that's not all. The state of North Carolina is looking to shave north of $2.4 billion from an $18 billion budget this coming year. And while Gov. Bev Perdue has promised to spare education the brunt of cuts, with K-12 and higher education taking up more than $10 billion a year in the state budget, it's hard to figure how to close the budget gap without education cuts, given a newly anti-tax climate in the General Assembly.

There's not much light at this stage of the tunnel for DPS' financial coffers, and that illumination ahead isn't the tunnel's end, but a speeding freight train bearing down on the district this year.

Continue reading "Bearish DPS budget projection foreshadows another year of job cut, local tax debates" »

DPS school turnaround plan gets positive reviews at the halfway point

Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning is on a mission to transform North Carolina’s schools, and during his years overseeing education litigation he’s proven that he’s willing to hold people accountable. 

Manning is overseeing North Carolina's Leandro case, which led to a landmark state Supreme Court ruling that every child has the right to a “sound basic education.” The judge is charged with ensuring compliance with that standard at the state and district level.

Durham Public Schools had its turn in the spotlight last spring, when Manning hauled DPS officials into his courtroom for answers on how they planned to turn around a number of perennially low-performing schools.

Prior to that appearance, DPS rolled out its Design for Accelerated Progress, a program that — while in some areas reinforcing existing district policy — still promised renewed energy in meeting the goals.

Manning’s still watching. And so is Durham’s school board, which heard an update in committee last week on how the district’s implementing its much-vaunted turnaround program.


Continue reading "DPS school turnaround plan gets positive reviews at the halfway point" »

Downtown BID could improve, transfer some muni services -- will it be a fit for Durham?

Last week's announcement by Downtown Durham Inc. that they would seek the approval of local governmental leaders to create a Business Improvement District (BID) in the downtown area is the culmination of several years' worth of discussion about whether the special tax district could be the right solution to improve the frequency and quality of services in an increasingly visible downtown core.

The idea of a BID -- found in more than 90% of larger cities nationally, and more than fifty NC cities including Raleigh and Greensboro (with Chapel Hill in the wings) -- is to levy a surcharge on taxable properties and to have the extra funds raised dedicated to additional services, from waste cleanup to sidewalk ambassadors, that serve as a common good for all of downtown.

In Durham's case, the proposed BID would bring in just short of $400,000 per year, and would be met by a requested increase of $250,000 in funding from the City over the combined $202,000 in economic development dollars that City/County officials provide annually. That extra quarter-million dollars would be in exchange for Downtown Durham Inc. absorbing, funding and overseeing a number of services that are currently provided by the local government.

In that way, the BID also would be an interesting model in a city where politics are participatory, and often a contact sport: the assumption by a private organization, under time-limited contract, of some public functions.

Continue reading "Downtown BID could improve, transfer some muni services -- will it be a fit for Durham?" »