Ashley: Downtown’s success no cue to let up

Dec. 16, 2012 @ 06:27 AM

Perhaps I spend too much time thinking about downtown.

Surely, there are many parts to this community, all important, all occupied by people passionate about or at least comfortable in their portion of the city.

I seldom make the trek to the Streets at Southpoint. It’s a fine example of its mold, the modern shopping mall combined with a somewhat faux-funky exterior set of shops. I like many stores at Southpoint; I just don’t find myself there often.

What I’m drawn to is the city’s core, not just its downtown but its tradition-rich surrounding neighborhoods. It’s easy to love those surrounding ‘hoods that have made major comebacks to the glory days they enjoyed in the first half of the last century, such as Trinity Park. It’s wonderful to see the increased vitality in recent years of resurgent neighborhoods such as Old West Durham, Watts-Hillandale or Duke Park. And the gritty determination to follow that path in Old North Durham, Cleveland-Holloway, Burch Avenue is exhilarating.

Let’s be clear – this community, any community, needs to cater to a widely diverse set of consumer needs and demands.  I cherish the contributions local businesses make to this community, but it would be foolhardy to deny the attraction of major chains and big-box stores to many of our neighbors.

(It also would be hypocritical, as any reader who watches the major-chain inserts tumble out of our Sunday paper would suspect. I cherish and value those advertisers. They help us to bring news and opinion to you each day.)

I don’t live downtown, but in one of the first “suburban” neighborhoods spreading out as the automobile began to transform life in this and every American city. It’s a 10 minute drive from my home to the center of town; that’s about as far away as I want to be.

Downtown is the heart of this or any city more than a few decades old.

Downtown may be hard to find in cities that came of age in the latter part of the 20th century – where, indeed, is the heart of Cary?

But in Durham – or Raleigh, Winston-Salem, Charlotte and hundreds of cities across this country – downtown embodies not just the historic geographic center of town. It was where cities took root and grew into the metropolises they are today.

A city with a hollow center is just that – hollow.

So the transformation of downtown Durham in the past couple of decades is not just coincidental with our economic growth. It is an engine. Downtown Durham Inc.’s recent meeting highlighted the strides we’ve made.

But it also highlighted what still needs to be done. We need more hotel rooms – 700 or more, to realize our potential as a convention center. We have much to draw conventions — but precious few places for those who come to lay their heads at night.

Downtown residential, inching along in recent years, is about to make great strides.  We’ve seen 57 new businesses downtown since 2010, a great start. Food and entertainment are wonderful mainstays, but the nascent retail sector is critically important.

One of our dangers is our success.  It’s easy to think the heavy lifting is over, downtown’s been saved. True to a point – but much more must be done.

Like an athletic team that needs to keep its edge even with a comfortable fourth-quarter lead, we can’t let up. The next decade can cement our position as one of the most fascinating and vibrant downtowns in the state, if we stay focused.

And then we can concentrate on the next decade.


Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can contact him at 919-419-6678 or