American Tobacco’s decade

Jun. 25, 2014 @ 05:12 PM

Ten years is not all that long – barely two presidential terms, a few years less than the passage from kindergarten to high school graduation, one-fifth the time The Rolling Stones have been making music.

But what a lot has happened in the life of Durham since the American Tobacco Campus ushered in the first tenants of its modern incarnation 10 years ago this week.  The complex had been vacant since American Tobacco shut down cigarette manufacturing here in 1987. Its abandonment pretty much typified the desolation of downtown in that period.

The Durham Bulls Athletic Park, to be sure, had revived spirits and stirred positive activity since it opened in 1995. 

But when the folks from GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical giant, began settling into the strikingly renovated building, downtown’s doldrums were still broadly evident. There were no trendy bars or restaurants, virtually no evening activity, a handful of residents and precious few office workers outside of city and county governments which had, to their credit, stuck with downtown through the lean years. One of the most conspicuous buildings was a jail.

What a difference a decade makes. Downtown is awash with popular eateries, creative-class entrepreneurs are clamoring for space, thousands of people work there and growing numbers of people live there. Hundreds more residential units will come on line this year.

The Durham Performing Arts Center, successful beyond the loftiest expectations of those who conceived it and made it happen, rivals venues in much larger cities for attendance.  

It’s hard to overstate the catalytic effect American Tobacco had in what has been a meteoric revival.  Had the complex continued to sit idle, the depressing effect would have been inescapable. Had it been razed and replaced, even a successful new development is unlikely to have had the magnetic cachet that it and our many other imaginatively repurposed tobacco and textile factories have brought the city.

A fortunate coalescence of imagination, capacity and tenacity in the public and private sectors – and in institutions like Duke University and Self-Help – birthed American Tobacco, aided by state and federal tax credits to foster historic preservation.  Now, more people work there than at its peak as a manufacturing behemoth.

As Mike Hill, a former general counsel and vice president at Capitol Broadcasting, the campus’s visionary developer, observed that “it required some people … to take a leap of faith.”

Bob Ingram, the GlaxoSmithKline executive who committed his company to the new development and, with Duke, Compuware and McKinney, provided the critical mass of tenants for the project to proceed, alluded to that need for faith.

“You have to think back when it started, it wasn’t nearly as vibrant an area as it now has become,” he told The Herald-Sun’s Laura Oleniacz this week. “And I couldn’t have ever predicted just how successful it was.”

We suspect few would have. But as it begins its second decade, we have every reason to believe the downtown resurgence it helped launch will only continue to accelerate.