A year of ‘positive outcomes and surprising opportunities’

Dec. 30, 2013 @ 12:03 PM

In the past year, there have been signs of economic improvement including double-digit year-over-year increases in home sales nearly each month in the Triangle. Also, preliminary estimates had the unemployment rate in the Durham-Chapel Hill metropolitan statistical area at 6.1 percent in October, the lowest rate reported for the area since December 2008.

The year brought news of layoffs by some large tech companies that have operations in the Research Triangle Park, as well as expansions by companies with local operations such as GE Aviation and agricultural biotechnology companies. Also this year, new office space opportunities opened for entrepreneurs in downtown, and some redevelopment projects moved forward.

Bob Geolas, president and CEO of the Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina, said he believes the year was full of “positive outcomes and surprising opportunities.”

“I continue to be impressed by the great entrepreneurial spirit that is Durham, and I think the biggest story is how that spirit drives so much of the city today – in restaurants, retail, government and business leadership,” he said in an email. “Economic factors for such success come from where they always have: our people. Supporting and partnering with education and research provides us with the tools we need to drive success.”

Here are some of the highlights of the business-related stories from 2013:

Downtown development

Downtown Durham continued to make headlines in 2013 as new construction projects took shape, key pieces of real estate changed hands, and new developers stepped into the limelight.

The Durham-based real estate owner and development firm Greenfire Development sold some of its downtown holdings, including the tower on Corcoran Street known as the SunTrust Tower or the Hill Building. Michael Lemanski, a partner with Greenfire, said in an email that the firm is still involved in all of its core redevelopment projects, however.

A Kentucky company, 21c Museum Hotels, bought the SunTrust Tower ad has started started work to redevelop the building into a hotel.

Across the street from the tower, Greenfire also sold a vacant lot once occupied by an F.W. Woolworth Co. store. As part of the deal, it sold several nearby buildings that front on Main and Parrish streets. The buyer, Colorado-based Austin Lawrence Partners, got approval from the Historic Preservation Commission for a certificate signifying that its development plans fit within historic district guidelines in 2013.

Also, Greenfire sold a 1970s-era building on Main Street known as the SouthBank building to Austin Lawrence.

And a limited liability company connected to Greenfire entered into a contract to sell the Liberty Warehouse property to Chapel Hill-based East West Partners Management Co., which plans to redevelop Liberty Warehouse into a mixed-use development.

Separately, Greenfire sold another property on Willard Street for a new apartment complex. The project is a partnership with Virginia-based Armada Hoffler.

Two separate apartment projects are under construction downtown -- one on West Chapel Hill Street near Durham police headquarters, and another on West Morgan Street near West Village.

And closer to the American Tobacco Campus, the largest office tenant moved into Capitol Broadcasting’s new Diamond View III office and retail building downtown.

Changes to Ninth Street landscape

On what was a grassy field near Ninth Street, new development took shape in 2013.

A new Harris Teeter grocery and a new Hilton Garden Inn hotel have opened on tracts bounded by Main and Ninth streets and Hillsborough Road. Pre-leasing began this year for a new, upscale apartment complex called Crescent Ninth Street, and businesses including Panera Bread and Massage Envy Spa have opened on the western side of Ninth in renovated buildings.

The development is across Ninth from where many independent businesses are in operation such as The Regulator Bookshop, the first location of Chubby’s Tacos and coffee shops and restaurants.

Some business owners were excited about the potential for more foot traffic as a result of the construction, while some voiced concerned about parking. Some residents welcomed the new businesses, and also had concerns about competition from new chains for the existing independents.

Affordable Care Act implementation

The year was a big one for the implementation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Republican Gov. Pat McCrory signed legislation in 2013 blocking the expansion of Medicaid in the state. The law also prevented the state from setting up a state-run health insurance exchange.

The year saw the opening of online exchanges where people can buy insurance offered by two different health insurers: Coventry Health Care of the Carolinas, which is now part of Aetna, and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of the North Carolina.

But the federal online marketplace opened with glitches, impacting residents’ ability to sign up and their ability to find out how much they quality for in subsidies.

Also this year, in reaction to cancellation notices individuals received for existing health insurance plans that did not meet the law’s higher standards, President Barack Obama announced companies can continue offering policies if insurers and state regulators allow. Blue Cross was the only insurer in North Carolina that sought approval to extend those policies.

And Durham business owners got a delay in a provision of the law requiring businesses with 50 or more full-time employees to provide health insurance benefits for full-time workers or face a penalty. Employees are considered full-time if they work more than 30 hours a week.

Ag-biotech companies expand

Agricultural biotechnology companies launched expansions and upgrades to their Research Triangle Park operations in 2013.

In May, Syngenta Biotechnology, a subsidiary of the Swiss company Syngenta AG, unveiled a new $72 million greenhouse in the Research Triangle Park. Later in the year, the company also announced plans to invest $94 million in a new administrative and research and development facility in the park and to add 100 more jobs.

In June, Syngenta Biotechnology researcher Mary-Dell Chilton was named as one of three 2013 World Food Prize Laureates. In the 1980s, she and others at Washington University at St. Louis successfully used a bacterial plasmid to insert DNA from yeast into a tobacco plant's DNA, creating a “transgenic plant.”

Bayer CropScience announced in October that it had launched a $33 million renovation of its North American headquarters in the Research Triangle Park. The subsidiary of the Germany-based Bayer AG also broke ground for a bee health research facility where it plans to attract outside researchers to do bee-health-related research. The company is a maker of chemicals in a class of pesticides that have been restricted by the European Commission as a bee protection measure.

Also in 2013, German chemical company BASF showed off a $33 million expansion to its RTP facilities that include space for greenhouses for genetically modified crop research as well as new offices and labs.

Most new construction is planned to house employees who are part of the company's plant biotechnology division, which moved its global headquarters here from Germany after facing opposition in Europe to genetically modified crop development.

NC’s Blue Cross to vacate Chapel Hill HQ

The state's largest health insurer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina, announced in June that it plans to vacate its longtime Chapel Hill headquarters and to consolidate its Triangle operations in Durham.

The insurer paid $10 million for an additional two buildings on a campus on University Drive in Durham where it already occupied six buildings. The insurer plans to create a central campus there and to reduce its operating costs.

Darcie Dearth, a spokeswoman for the insurer, said in an email that renovations are under way. She said 200 employees have already moved into a building that opened in September.

Most employees are expected to relocate to Durham by the end of 2014. The fate of the insurer's headquarters building, which first opened in 1973, is not yet clear.

Quintiles stock publicly traded (again)

Durham-based Quintiles Transnational Holdings Inc. went public in May. The biopharmaceutical services company, whose major business is in the contract management of clinical trials, employs about 2,300 people in the greater Triangle and about 2,600 in all of North Carolina, according to an email from spokesman Phil Bridges. Globally, Quintiles has a workforce of about 28,000 people.

Quintiles’ public offering in May was the second public debut for the company, which first went public in 1994. The company was taken private again in a stock buy-back led by company founder Dennis Gillings, a former biostatistics professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“The Quintiles IPO is an iconic moment in the company’s 30-year plus history, and something our employees can take pride in,” Bridges said in the email. “At the same time, we have operated the company very much as if it were public for some time before the IPO, so the evolution to becoming public was not drastic for us. It was mostly a recapitalization effort.”

RTP redevelopment effort continues

Next year is expected to be the year for action to redevelop the Research Triangle Park, but work continued in 2013. Park officials have launched the effort to entice a younger generation of workers and to keep existing companies.

Bob Geolas, president of the nonprofit Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina, revealed this year that the redevelopment effort would start with 50 acres at Davis Drive and Cornwallis Road. That’s one piece of the larger, planned mixed-use development cluster dubbed "Triangle Commons"  slated to include residential, office, retail and hotel development.

In December, the foundation purchased a longtime hotel, the Radisson Hotel, that’s in the Park Center area. The foundation plans to demolish the hotel, built in 1972. Erin Monday, a spokeswoman for the foundation, said in an email that the hotel’s purchase closed  earlier this month.

Downtown leader Kalkhof steps down, Durham steps up

The long-time leader of the downtown Durham-focused economic development organization Downtown Durham Inc. stepped down in 2013, and a new leader stepped in to take his place.

Bill Kalkhof retired after 20 years as president of DDI. Geoff Durham, the former development director of Fairfax, Va., and the former manager of a special business tax district in Silver Spring, Md., started in the role with a stated goal of continuing downtown’s forward momentum.

Car dealers plan moves and launch expansions, upgrades

Local car dealerships were on the move in 2013, planning expansions and upgrades, and plotting moves.

Hendrick Automotive Group, a Charlotte-based automotive dealership group, announced plans to open a Mercedes-Benz dealership near The Streets at Southpoint mall and to move the downtown Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Cadillac dealership (the Hendrick Durham Automall) onto the same site.

To pave way for the development, the auto group bought land in nearly 100 separate deals around Fayetteville Road near Southpoint for a total of about $20.1 million.

And along Durham-Chapel Hill Boulevard, two other car dealers launched expansions.

Work has begun on the former RoomStore furniture store on the boulevard where Mark Jacobson, owner of the Toyota dealership in Durham, plans to expand.

And, David E. "Sport" Durst, the president and CEO of Sport Durst Millennium Automotive Group, launched renovations of his Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram and Hyundai and Mazda vehicle dealership facility. He also bought a property down the road for an expansion of the dealership’s operations.

Changes at Chapel Hill’s University Mall

University Mall in Chapel Hill got a boost in 2013 from new leases signed by retailers vacating University Square, the strip retail and office development that’s to be demolished and redeveloped on West Franklin Street.

The mall is also set to lose its longtime tenant Dillard’s, but mall and town officials announced that the anchor department store would be replaced by a boutique movie theater operated by Silverspot Cinema, a division of the Venezuela-based movie theater company Cines Unidos.