When it comes to marketing Durham on a national stage, the focus has shifted in recent years from highlighting the city’s food culture to shining a light on the burgeoning startup culture that has percolated here.
The increasing stature of the tech and entrepreneurial scene, led by the downtown tech incubator American Underground, has brought the city waves of positive attention in the past few years, even as House Bill 2, the so-called “bathroom bill,” marred the state’s reputation across the U.S. in 2016.
The city’s startup culture has really taken off since 2010, a time when downtown was beginning to start its current renaissance of development. Since then more than 300 startup companies have formed within the city’s boundaries —of which 257 are located in one of American Underground’s three campuses.
The Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau (DCVB), which acts as the city’s marketing agency, honored Durham’s entrepreneurial activity at its annual luncheon on Wednesday at the Durham Convention Center.
Many business and political leaders were present at the event, and the keynote speaker was MapQuest and The Startup Factory founder Chris Heivly.
“I think it’s constantly evolving, what we highlight and what we pitch (about Durham),” DCVB Chief Executive Officer Shelly Green said. “About eight or nine years ago we were really pitching food … (now) we are doing more on entrepreneurship.”
Much of what DCVB does revolves around narratives. Besides working to bring conferences and events to the city, the organization pushes to get positive stories about the city in national media outlets. Positive profiles of the city in the media hopefully drives an increase in the number of visitors to Durham.
The city’s entrepreneurial scene has helped it continue to spread a positive message despite HB2. In 2016 alone, American Underground-headquartered companies were featured 179 times in the national media, which was more than a 500 percent increase from the year prior.
With HB2 repealed last month, Green sounded optimistic about the city’s prospects of attracting large events in the future. Most notably, HB2 was the reason the Atlantic Coast Conference decided to move its annual baseball tournament away from Durham Bulls Athletic Park in 2017.
“One of the most important things (the repeal) did was we got back the ACC Baseball Tournament in 2018, and that opens the door to sports that was essentially closed,” she said.
Because of the national attention HB2 caused, many event planners became hesitant to reach out to DCVB in the past year.
“Why would you bother with us?” Green said. “It’s really hard to measure when your phone doesn't ring and what lists you’ve been taken off of — now, there are more opportunities (in bringing events to Durham).”
New opportunities for events will hopefully increase tourism, which brings a significant amount of money into Durham every year.
In its most recent annual report — which tracks data up until the end of 2015, before HB2 was passed — 9.7 million people visited the Bull City in 2015, which was up from 9.3 million in 2014, according to Green.
All of those visitors spent about $831 million in 2015, which resulted in $47 million in tax revenue for local governments, according to the DCVB’s estimates. Green said the tax revenue tourism generated equaled an equivalent tax savings of $787 for each Durham household.