A testament to the economic significance of sense of place

Mar. 08, 2014 @ 01:22 PM

Durham is undergoing another wave of hotel development in response to increased visitation spearheaded by community-destination marketing.

Of the 10 or so in various stages of development, half of this wave is downtown where they are needed most and where some of the projects are especially intriguing.  One is incorporating a beloved historic façade, another is a classic adaptive reuse boutique that was able to secure Hotel Durham as a name.

But none is more confirming of Durham’s overarching strategy for visitor-centric economic and cultural development over the past 25 years than 21c, a boutique hotel chain founded on sense of place.

The founders are a couple of art collectors and preservationists, one of whom is an heiress to generations of Kentucky bourbon distillers originating from George Garvin Brown in 1870, which produces iconic brands such as Jim Beam and the small-batch premium Woodford Reserve, a personal favorite.

The couple founded 21c in 2007 as a means of preserving five historic tobacco and bourbon warehouses in Louisville, Ky.  It’s interesting to note that their hotels are galleries for their 1,600-piece-plus modern art collection that just happen to have hotels and conference space attached.

Adaptive reuse of the historic CCB bank building in downtown Durham will open as their fourth hotel with a fifth following soon after in Lexington, Ky.

Beyond historic preservation, the founders also once described the ambience of a 21c to a journalist as the “union of genuine southern hospitality, thoughtful design and culinary creativity anchored by world class art.”

Fittingly, George Watts Hill, the Durham native who built CCB into a formidable force (now a part of SunTrust), is also famous for having collected thousands of pieces of art both as a means of decorating his branches and helping emerging artists.

Like Hill did in northern Durham, the founders of 21c started their preservation efforts by saving famous farms and breeds surrounding Louisville before making their now famous connection between historic preservation of historic buildings and culinary and visual art.

21c is aiming to have 15 hotels within 10 years, each contributing to the preservation of the sense of place of the communities in which they are located.  The public areas of each hotel, including conference rooms when they are not rented, are open to the public as art galleries.

Adaptive reuse of the buildings themselves into hotels stands as a testament to the economic significance of historic preservation and fostering unique sense of place.

While sense of place is the overarching strategy at the center of its remarkably successful community destination marketing arm, Durham officials have a spotty record over the years, often seeming to either take sense of place for granted or selling out in fear of losing a project.

They seemingly fail to understand that the spark that ignited downtown revitalization was struck by historic preservationists taking a valiant stand in the mid-to-late 1970s.

Hopefully, we take a cue from 21c.  Experts refer to visitor-centric economic development as “demand-driven” because visitor-related facilities are built in response and to harvest -- not as a speculative means to create -- visitation.

But without a “there-there” it becomes just another form of shopping as it is in so many communities that have sold their soul.

Reyn Bowman retired as head of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau.