MORRIS: Durham Bulls Athletic Park has made downtown a cool place to be

February 8, 2014 

— INSIDE

Bill Kalkhof insisted I meet him for lunch at Tyler’s Restaurant and Taproom in the American Tobacco warehouse district, across the railroad tracks from downtown Durham.

Finished with lunch, Kalkhof gave me a tour of the one-time tobacco warehouses that now feature three million square feet of office, restaurant and retail space and boast 93 percent occupancy. Then it was across the street to view the gorgeous $48 million Durham Performing Arts Center that opened in 2008.

Finally, Kalkhof ushered me through a crowded Tobacco Road Sports Cafe onto the back porch where two office buildings and another under construction provide the backdrop beyond the outfield fences at beautiful Durham Bulls Athletic Park, which is undergoing a $20 million renovation.

“A lot of cities have asked me, what can you directly say the ballpark was responsible for?” says Kalkhof, who was the front man in getting the $18.5 million ballpark built in 1995 when he was president of Downtown Durham, Inc. “Well, I say, everything. Everything from the railroad tracks to the (Durham) freeway.

“In this entire American Tobacco complex, you can draw a straight line and say, the ballpark was the catalyst to get every one of these projects done, period. The theater, all of these office buildings, one million square feet of American Tobacco.”

Kalkhof pauses because it does not end there.

“Equally important is the image, the total image of downtown Durham,” he adds. “It has changed hugely. When you ask people around the region, the first three things they talk about are the ballpark, American Tobacco and the theater. Bing, bing, bing.”

Once considered the dark corner of the Research Triangle of North Carolina, which includes Chapel Hill and Raleigh, Durham long suffered an image problem. As the tobacco industry that drove the local economy faltered in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Durham’s workforce suffered, crime escalated and the city’s education system lagged behind the area.

But in 1995, the 13-member City Council took a bold step. Rejecting the voice of the public, which five years earlier had soundly turned down a county bond referendum to build a new downtown stadium for professional baseball, the City Council decided instead to invest in a new ballpark and surrounding parking garages.

“When you now fast-forward 20 years later, there’s a small group of us who look pretty (darn) smart,” Kalkhof says. “What we’ve had since the ballpark is $1.3 billion of investment in downtown, with about $900 million of that private and about $400 million of it as public.”

Today, Durham is the case study in professional baseball for what a ballpark can do for downtown revitalization. It is the case study Columbia should examine as it considers the construction of a proposed $42 million stadium at the old State Hospital site on Bull Street.

“It’s about quality of life. It’s about image of your community,” Kalkhof says. “It’s about a can-do attitude. It’s about momentum. I know those are kind of apple pie and motherhood words, but they are absolutely critical to increase private investment in your community.”

To understand the impact of Durham Bulls Athletic Park on the Durham community, go back to the early 1980s, when the city had little to offer the Research Triangle area. Raleigh had N.C. State University and the state capital. Chapel Hill had the University of North Carolina and the ambiance of Franklin Street. The Research Triangle Park was booming, but the majority of its employees were establishing roots in either Raleigh and its suburbs or Chapel Hill.

Durham had Duke University, but the relationship was icy at best. The prestigious university operated on an island within the city limits. Any interaction between the two was strictly because geography dictated it. Duke certainly did not boast publicly about being located in a city considered downtrodden in comparison to its nearby neighbors.

Then the Durham Bulls came to town, establishing a franchise in the Single-A Carolina League for the 1980 season and playing their home games at dilapidated — they called it “historic” — Durham Athletic Park.

To the surprise of everyone, including its club owner Miles Wolff, the city adopted the team as its own in grand fashion. More than 176,000 fans watched the Bulls play that first summer. Almost overnight, the ballpark became the community gathering place. Town and gown merged. Duke students and employees became one with Durham’s doctors and street sweepers.

Suddenly, Durham had something it could embrace. Even better, Raleigh did not have professional baseball. Nor did Chapel Hill.

The team continued to draw at least 200,000 fans each summer and quickly outgrew the ballpark, which had virtually none of the amenities of newer stadiums. Limited parking, lines to purchase tickets and crowded concessions began to take away from the park’s charm.

That charm helped attract Hollywood directors for the filming of the 1988 movie “Bull Durham.” The popularity of the movie about life in the minor leagues made Durham a destination for baseball fans during the summer, and the ballpark’s seams had finally split. In 1990, Durham became the first Single-A team in history to draw 300,000 fans in a season.

Wolff needed and wanted a new ballpark.

Durham County residents said not so fast. In March of 1990, a Durham County referendum to finance a new ballpark was placed on the ballot. It was a low-turnout election, and most voters were from outside the Durham city limits. It failed, handily.

Wolff threw up his hands and sold the team to Jim Goodmon, the owner of Raleigh-based Capitol Broadcasting. Goodmon’s initial plan was to move the team to the Research Triangle Park and get several municipalities there to build a stadium.

That is when Kalkhof and his Downtown Durham, Inc., stepped in. He began lobbying then-mayor Harry Rodenhizer and City Council member Chuck Grubb to keep the one aspect of Durham the city’s pride was most associated with. Goodmon was on board if the city would build a new stadium.

City leaders visited Baltimore to see what Camden Yards, the home of the baseball Orioles, had done for that city’s downtown. They liked what they saw, and by May of 1992, the City Council approved a plan to fund construction of a new stadium with Certificates of Participation, a form of debt that did not require voter approval.

“There were a lot of people saying ‘Why are we building a ballpark and parking garages for a Raleigh business guy?’ ” Kalkhof says. “But the guy was a regional leader and became incredibly invested in Durham.”

The site of the new ballpark was an abandoned parking lot once owned by American Tobacco Company. Three years later, in 1995, the 7,000-seat Durham Bulls Athletic Park was opened for business. Three years after that, the Bulls were such a hot commodity they jumped to the Triple-A International League as an affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays.

Moving up two steps in baseball’s level of play meant the stadium needed to be expanded to 10,000 seats, and Goodmon was on the hook for the $3 million addition of the right field grandstands.

It proved to be only the beginning of Goodmon’s financial commitment to Durham. Goodmon’s son, Michael, is the vice-president of Capitol Broadcasting and says he is committed to the same principles as his father.

“As a company and a family, we have a fundamental belief that our company cannot be successful unless the community around us is successful,” Michael Goodmon says as he sits in his office located in the middle of the American Tobacco Campus.

Capitol Broadcasting first built in 2001 the Diamond View office building beyond the right field wall at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. Then, in 2004, it purchased the abandoned American Tobacco warehouses across the street from the ballpark. Soon, restaurants began to move in as tenants. Mostly, though, the buildings became office rental property.

Recognizing that 500,000 baseball fans were coming to the ballpark every spring and summer, companies took to the idea of locating their offices nearby. Burt’s Bees natural skin care products, McKinney+Silver advertising, fhi 360, Bronto Software, Square 1 Bank, the Art Institute of Raleigh-Durham, Sun Trust Bank and the investment firm Intersouth Partners, among others, rented space.

“It made Durham go from the lowest rents and the highest vacancy in the Triangle, to the submarket with the highest rents and the lowest vacancy in the Triangle in the span of less than 10 years,” says Scott Selig, Duke University’s associate vice-president for capital assets and real estate.

Duke went from renting 70,000 square feet of office space in 2004 to renting one million square feet. The university employed 150 people downtown in 2004 and now employs 2,600 in downtown. Duke did it because it was important to the university to be a vital cog of a vibrant community, according to Selig.

“It’s absolutely critical,” Selig says. “We are competing with Palo Alto (Calif.) and Boston and cities like those for the best faculty, staff and students in the world. It doesn’t matter that we can give them similar facilities on campus. It matters what they can do afterwards and on weekends.

“If they can have a higher quality of life and yet have the same educational facilities, we tend to now win the competition for the best and brightest faculty, staff and students. Plus, we live here. We want that interesting thing going on, on more than just the campus.”

The rebirth of downtown Durham has not just happened around the ballpark and the American Tobacco Campus. There are seven downtown districts, including Main Street, and all are bustling with retail shops and restaurants. A music and bar district has blossomed beyond the center field fence of the old ballpark, which was renovated and now serves as home to North Carolina Central University baseball.

Durham has become the cool place to be and be seen in the Triangle.

“The downtown stadium has kicked off so much for downtown Durham to where we now have national magazines writing about our entrepreneurial culture, our start-up culture, the ‘foodiest’ town in the southeast, the most tolerant community,” Goodmon says. “That started with the ballpark. ...

“The interesting thing about that ballpark, a lot of our leaders and a lot of people who were on that City Council who made the decision to build it, lost their jobs. They lost their jobs. But you can’t find anybody now who says the ballpark was a bad idea.”

One of those who lost his City Council seat because of the vote was Chuck Grubb, who probably was the council’s biggest proponent of building a new ballpark. Grubb now is with Magnolia Management Group in Pittsboro, N.C. He has had 22 years to reflect on what his vote has meant for Durham, and to determine if he would vote the same way today.

“Absolutely!” Grubb wrote in an email this week. “The Bulls, specifically the movie, put Durham on the map, and the new ballpark has kept Durham there.”

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