Downtown Durham Inc. shares city center’s dramatic 25-year turnaround

Destination and downtown Durham were words rarely used together 25 years ago.

Desolate was a more apt description.

But now with more people living there, more businesses opening and more visitors taking it all in, downtown Durham has become a destination.

That’s the message business owners heard Wednesday during the second annual State of Downtown Durham presentation by Downtown Durham Inc. They gathered in the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Building on Chapel Hill Street, which is being renovated and will anchor the Mutual District when the project is completed.

Downtown Durham Inc. CEO Nicole Thompson presented numbers to back it up.

More than 7,200 people live downtown now, compared with barely 1,500 in 1993.

Downtown businesses currently employ more than 21,300, compared with fewer than 4,000 workers a quarter-century ago.

Office occupancies now are greater than 91%, when 25 years ago they were at a paltry 70%. And not much of it then was true Class A, she said. About 470,000 square feet of new Class A office space came available last year and nearly as much is slated to be offered this year.

“Without your involvement, the city, the county and the private sector, downtown in terms of growth over the past 25 years could not have been as robust, innovative or purposeful,” Thompson said.

So what’s changed?

Downtown Durham has been rated as an “emerging downtown” by the International Downtown Association, which has studied 24 downtowns across the United States.

Cathy Lin of the IDA said downtown Durham has many desirable qualities and ranks high on livability. But Durham could improve its downtown bike and transportation options, she said.

Investment in downtown Durham started in earnest during the 1990s.

When the Durham Bulls Athletic Park opened in 1995, redevelopment of the American Tobacco Campus was still years away. And so was the construction of the Durham Performing Arts Center. The restaurants and bars were nothing more than ideas that dreamers scribbled on napkins. Now they draw visitors and workers downtown. DDI estimates 3.1 million visitors now traipse through downtown annually, according to a report.

Other parts of downtown have perked up, too.

Life inside the Downtown Loop has emerged as more businesses have opened on Main Street and the numerous sidestreets cutting through downtown.

Downtown saw 16 new shops and restaurants open last year, increasing the total to 167. Thompson said nine more are on the way.

What’s next?

Renovating the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Building is one of many ongoing projects.

New buildings are being erected on Mangum Street near the ballpark.

Former Mayor Bill Bell, who was in office when downtown redevelopment took off, said these successes need to spread throughout Durham.

“I love to talk about downtown Durham,” Bell said. “But we live in the city of Durham, the county of Durham. And I think we have to extend this to other parts of Durham. There is no question we can do this. We speak of Durham as a place where good things happen because of the people who are in this room.”

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Joe Johnson is a reporter covering breaking stories for The News & Observer. He most recently covered towns in western Wake County and Chatham County. Before that, he covered high school sports for The Herald-Sun.