New leader seeks to continue downtown’s momentum

Jul. 18, 2013 @ 09:18 PM

Geoff Durham, the new president of the downtown-focused economic development group Downtown Durham Inc., said in his first week on the job that his “task one” is keeping downtown’s momentum moving forward.
Durham, 42, was formerly the economic development director of Fairfax, Va., a city of 22,565, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. Fairfax is in the heart of Fairfax County, Va., the most populous county in the state with more than 1 million people. Prior to that, he managed a business improvement district in Silver Spring, Md., which, like Fairfax County, abuts Washington, D.C.
From his downtown office this week, Durham said the job here was intriguing personally because as a father of two, he saw the area as a good place to raise a family. Professionally, he said, he saw challenges as well as “tremendous opportunity,” along with multiple development projects already underway downtown.
“I’m coming in at an opportunity where I can hit the ground running immediately to continue to keep this positive direction in place,” Durham said. “And at the same time, be challenged professionally because there’s still a lot of work to be done.”
Before he starts having any “grand plans” for what he wants to do downtown, he said he’s started on a listening tour. He plans to meet with real estate development and political leaders, property owners, small business owners, city and county staff, real estate brokers and Duke University officials.
“After I go through this listening tour process, we are going to sort of convene as staff and figure out what it is that we do best, and how to do those things most efficiently and sort of strategize that way,” he said.
Durham said he believes a lot of the reason he was hired was because of his work managing a special business tax district in Silver Spring. Last year, Durham city leaders voted last year to approve a new tax surcharge of 7 cents per $100 of assessed value downtown to create a business improvement district there.
For about five years starting in 1999, Durham said he managed a team that worked on programs to keep Silver Spring clean and safe, on marketing initiatives, and that worked to recruit and retain businesses as well as boost entertainment offerings.
“When I first got there … we were just trying to keep the street litter-free and painting over the graffiti before it got tagged again,” he said. “We were repairing broken windows and sweeping up glass and working with the police.”
More recently in Fairfax, he said his job as economic development director was to promote older vacant commercial real estate for redevelopment, to try to retain existing businesses and help them expand, and to recruit new ones.
The city is about 6 square miles in size and has a lot of professional service business and retail, he said. They were pushing for growth in information technology and communication businesses. To help build that sector, he said, he was part of a team that partnered with George Mason University to open and operate a small-business incubator.
“The goal there is, you bring these young, bright shining entrepreneurs out of their basements or in some cases, off of campus, into -- very similar to what we have here – into affordable space and as they grow, and cultivate their business, (ultimately they) relocate and become growing members of the business community,” he said.
On the real estate development side, he said, he worked on a redevelopment project in the historic district that involved construction of new mixed-use office and retail space, a move and reconstruction of a library, and construction of row houses where the library stood. He said businesses recruited to the Old Town included a sports bar and grill, a sushi eatery, a yogurt shop, and others. He said they focused on recruiting unique businesses to try to create a sense of place.
“I think anybody could build a shopping enter and populate it with (drugstores) and do well because people need pharmacies … it was more about place-making and less about trying to create this big throbbing economic activity,” Durham said.
Fairfax Mayor Scott Silverthorne said the new development project came online during the recession. He said “like many downtowns” Fairfax’s struggled, and trying to land new tenants was a challenge. But now he said it’s almost fully leased.
“It’s probably between 90 and 95 percent leased at this point; (it’s) a very positive thing for this city,” he said.