Raising the recognition of a key player downtown

Oct. 05, 2013 @ 12:31 PM

On April 6, 1995, the Durham Bulls played their first game in the Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

Four months later, Tallman Trask III settled into his Allen Building office as Duke University’s executive vice president, its principal administrative and financial officer.

Each of those events was to have a tremendous impact on a downtown Durham that, moribund then, nearly two decades later is full throttle in a renaissance that could hardly have been comprehended at that time.

The ballpark has been a high-profile, widely touted and immensely visible engine of that renaissance.

Trask, not so much.

By happenstance, community oversight or design – or perhaps by some of each – Trask’s role and Duke’s in general, have not had nearly the public recognition that I’ve long thought they merit.

Thursday evening, the Boy Scouts of America took a crack at rectifying that. Several hundred people gathered at the Washington Duke Inn to see Trask receive the Occoneechee Council’s Terry Sanford Citizen of the Year Award.

The linkage with the award’s namesake is apparent. Sanford’s presidency and Trask’s tenure together have spanned almost 35 of the university’s past 43 years. Each has had outsized roles in its rise to international renown.

The scout connection may be less widely known, but is highly appropriate.

As Thursday’s program noted, “Dr. Trask comes from a long Scouting history. Both of his parents were Eagle Scouts. His grandfather was appointed in 1919 as the original Scout executive of the Pasadena Council…The Trask Scout Reservation in the mountains northeast of Pasadena was named in his grandfather’s honor in 1972.”

While there was much talk of that long scouting heritage Thursday, the focus was Trask’s leadership on campus and in the community.

Jim Goodmon, the chief executive of Capital Broadcasting whose ballpark and later American Tobacco redevelopment are cornerstones of downtown’s resurgence (and, yes, have earned him the right to be called a “Durham developer”), lauded Duke’s role in that resurgence.

Here’s a key benchmark. Two decades ago, when Trask arrived at Duke, the university leased perhaps 30,000 square feet of office space in downtown Durham. Today, the university leases 1 million square feet.

Their approach to leasing that space was intentional, strategic and effective.

“Duke said, ‘here’s what we can do,’” Goodmon recalled. The university promised that if someone had a viable plan that Duke concurred was important, Duke would lease space.

“That’s how you get it done,” Goodmon noted. “You need a credit-worthy tenant and a long-term lease.”

Goodmon didn’t mention another key part of Duke’s strategy.  When it committed to lease space, it stipulated that a developer had to garner leasing commitments for at least an equal amount of non-Duke space. Duke would be a key tenant – it didn’t want to be the tenant, with all that would imply.

The pantheon of people who have transformed downtown Durham is large – many were in the room Thursday, including the also under-recognized Martin Eakes of Self-Help Credit Union, which has provided key financing at critical stages.

Certainly the roster includes the two Duke presidents Trask has served, Nan Keohane and Richard Brodhead.  City and county leaders committed key public support; the just-retired Bill Kalkhof brought messianic passion to uplifting downtown. I could list dozens more and still slight others who should be included.

But Trask comes as close as one can to being an indispensable player.

As Bob Ingram, the retired CEO of GlaxoSmithKline said Thursday, “when you look at our community, you will see Tallman’s influence. Durham is a better community for having Tallman Trask as a leader.”

Bob Ashley is editor of The Herald-Sun. You can reach him at 919-419-6679 or bashley@heraldsun.com.