Ashley: Making Durham ‘simply irresistible’

Feb. 16, 2013 @ 12:13 PM

The gentlemen sitting next to me at a luncheon last week had a familiar story.

A native of North Dakota, he’d moved to the Triangle a decade ago from Detroit. Unfamiliar with the area, he’d initially settled in Morrisville. But within a couple of years, he and his spouse were looking at houses in Durham because they liked the city’s vibrancy – then, just beginning to hit the stride we’ve become so familiar with in the past few years.

When they completed the purchase of a home here, friends asked, only half-jokingly, if, when you closed on a home purchase in Durham, they gave you a gun.

Off-base then, even more off-base now, the image of Durham that we agreed still lingers in the eastern rim of the Triangle haunts us still.

But as speakers at the luncheon we were attending – the annual meeting of the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce – waves of evidence counter it.

An important part of our new reality was reflected in the exhortation by Casey Steinbacher, the chamber’s president and CEO, to go online to vote for Durham as the South’s “tastiest city.” One of 10 nominees for that title by Southern Living magazine we were, late last week, apparently neck-and-neck with Memphis for that title.

Our reputation as a food Mecca extends to mid-town Manhattan. A few weeks ago, The New York Times noted our restaurant scene in one of it “36 hours in….” travel features. And that’s just one of a half-dozen shout-outs to Durham in that national newspaper in recent years.

Our food culture, our increasingly eclectic music scene, our cultural amenities which in just the past decade have grown to include a top-tier art museum and a top-tier performing arts center, all make this an attractive place to live, work and play.

Outstanding universities attract top-notch students and faculty, and our medical centers offer us some of the most advanced and innovative treatment options.

Sports fans? One of the best minor-league ball parks in the country with Triple-A players one step from “the show,” one of the most iconic college basketball arenas, a professional hockey team just a few miles away – and soon, for those of an esoteric bent we’ll have a curling rink.

Not to be overlooked is a retail scene that includes long-time locally owned shops – The Regulator, Morgan Imports, Stone Brothers and Byrd come quickly to mind, along with many others. But it also includes nearly the full sweep of national chains – hey, Raleigh may have Saks, but we got Nordstrom’s.

Not to be overlooked in our quest to be a magnet for creative, ambitious, innovative folks is our passion for diversity. Few chambers of commerce can cite as an accomplishment a bullet item in the summary the chamber distributed Thursday – public opposition to Amendment One. The chamber’s principled opposition helped lead this community to reject that amendment banning gay marriage by an overwhelming margin that was the mirror image of the overwhelming margin by which, sadly, the state as a whole adopted it.

For all those reasons, and others, Michael Schonfeld, the chairman of the chamber’s board of directors, could say unequivocally Thursday that “talent loves Durham.”

Talent loves lots of other places, too.

Given that, it’s important to embrace the challenge Schonfeld laid down Thursday.

We must work to “develop, recruit and train a vibrant work force,” he said.

We need, he said, to make Durham “simply irresistible.”

We have a strong start. Let’s do it.

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