Fifteen Duke students got a taste of Durham’s history and economic evolution last week, from the shutdown of tobacco warehouses and textile mills to investments in downtown projects like American Tobacco Campus and Durham Bulls Athletic Park.
The students heard from a panel of city and university leaders on June 7 in a Smith Warehouse classroom as part of DukeEngage Durham, a summer-long service program in which students volunteer with community-based organizations and learn about economic development in Durham, N.C., and Durham, England.
The panel consisted of Dr. Phail Wynn Jr., Duke’s vice president for Durham and Community Affairs; John Schelp, former president of the Old West Durham Neighborhood Association; Tucker Bartlett, an executive vice president at Self-Help, a nonprofit bank and developer based in Durham; and Durham Mayor Bill Bell.
The speakers shared how decades-long partnerships between the city, county, Duke University and nonprofit organizations such as Self-Help have spurred the city’s reinvention and growth after the demise of the city’s two biggest industries, tobacco and textiles. Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company, a big source of well-paying jobs in the city, closed in Durham as recently as 2000.
With Durham’s investment in revitalizing its downtown as well as adapting abandoned tobacco warehouses and mills into fresh commercial, office and residential spaces, Bartlett with Self-Help said Durham played to its strengths and paid homage to its history.
Durham had “great potential, grit,” Bartlett said of the city’s economic reinvention. “The city recognized that its greatest asset was being Durham, being true to itself.”
The speakers also discussed how Duke and Durham have worked together for decades to move forward commercial redevelopment projects, improve relationships with neighborhood residents, and bring Duke employees downtown.
Bell, Durham’s mayor, described how he worked closely with four Duke presidents during the course of his Durham political career, from Terry Sanford to Richard Brodhead.
“With each administration, I’ve seen an improved relationship between Duke and the city of Durham,” Bell said. “The type of revitalization that is taking place (more specifically in downtown Durham), in my opinion, could not have happened without Duke’s involvement.”
About 3,500 Duke employees now work in downtown Durham, inhabiting about 1.3 million square feet of office space.
Wynn, who was appointed to lead Duke’s Office of Durham & Regional Affairs in 2007, said he spent the first year in his new role holding conversations with community stakeholders, from neighborhood association presidents to Durham Public Schools educators. He uncovered three main Durham challenges that required Duke’s further investment: the revitalization of downtown Durham, concerns about student performance in Durham schools, and how to connect with youth ages 16 to 24 who weren’t in school or working.
“Those issues formed the basis of the plan of work that we’ve had in Durham & Regional Affairs,” Wynn said. “We have committed ourselves to a sustained, engaged partnership with the city of Durham, with Self-Help, and with the neighborhoods to make sure, working together, we can address these issues that will lead to a higher quality of life, even as the city continues to expand and revitalize downtown Durham.”
During the DukeEngage conversation, speakers brought up examples of how the Duke-Durham-Self-Help partnership has spurred economic development in the city, to include:
The panelists brought up two of the city’s most pressing current challenges: affordable housing and gentrification. The Durham housing market has seen a boom in people looking to live near downtown, which means the housing prices in surrounding neighborhoods have skyrocketed.
“We need the best minds to think about these things,” said Bartlett with Self-Help, issuing a call to action to the DukeEngage students about finding solutions to gentrification. “It is challenging, and I don’t think we have the answers perfect yet. You all need to continue to learn the lessons for us and come up with new ideas.”
“I truly believe that the most valuable asset that Duke University can provide for the city of Durham is the ‘Double I’ and ‘Double E’ of Duke undergraduate students,” Wynn added. “The ‘Double I’ is your idealism and your intellect. The ‘Double E’ is your energy and your enthusiasm, and your commitment to making a difference. That’s most important for Durham.”