Durham County

Might Durham become the UNC system’s new home? One board member thinks so.

UNC Board of Governors member Marty Kotis, left, has suggested putting a site near N.C. Central University in the mix of relocation possibilities if the board eventually decides to move system headquarters out of Chapel Hill.
UNC Board of Governors member Marty Kotis, left, has suggested putting a site near N.C. Central University in the mix of relocation possibilities if the board eventually decides to move system headquarters out of Chapel Hill. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Moving the UNC system’s headquarters to a site near N.C. Central University is the sort of thing that could become “a catalyst project” to promote redevelopment around the campus and better link it to downtown Durham, a UNC Board of Governors member says.

Greensboro developer Marty Kotis floated the idea as a BOG task force began looking at whether the system should relocate its headquarters from its longtime home in Chapel Hill. He said later it was inspired by hearing NCCU Chancellor Johnson Akinleye’s laments about the current state of connectivity between the campus and downtown.

“Right now, it’s it’s own little island out there,” Kotis said, adding that the advent of the planned Durham-to-Chapel Hill light rail line could change things.

He also said that while Central is a campus on the rise, with research programs in the biosciences that remain under-appreciated, it could benefit from an attempt to “really move the needle” and raise its profile in the region and state.

The system task force convened at the behest of a board faction that wants officials to consider a move in response to long-standing complaints, from partisans of N.C. State University and a few other campuses, that the current placement of the headquarters works to the benefit of UNC-Chapel Hill.

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Whether that’s true or not is highly debatable, as UNC-CH requests and proposals often seem to get more system-level scrutiny than equivalents from other campuses. But the complaint’s been around since the early 1970s formation of the system, and has never truly gone away.

Advocates of the study initially suggested looking at a move of the headquarters to a site in Durham’s Research Triangle Park or Raleigh. Other board members, and administrators like system President Margaret Spellings, have signaled skepticism.

But in floating a Durham site, Kotis put a completely different possibility on the table, and a rather different rationale for having a look at the idea.

“If this were a private-sector business you’d look to locate, you’d look at your general office and how it’s structured, you’d look at where the best place to be located would be and look at how it serves your subsidiaries,” he said. “But in the university and in bureaucracy in general, people assume that whatever you have is the right answer, instead of thinking it through critically and thinking of how it should be.”

Given the prospective light-rail link, the Durham location has the potential advantage of having easy access to two of the system’s 17 institutions, he said, obviously meaning UNC-CH and NCCU but overlooking long-term possibilities with N.C. State if Wake County follows through on its own transit planning.

Kotis’ assessment was striking for his confidence that the rail line will get built, particularly given that he’s a Republican who owes his appointment to the board to GOP legislators who’ve sharply restricted the state’s potential subsidy of the project.

“I think it’s a matter of when,” not if, he said. “Light rail is going to happen in various places around the state.”

And there is precedent for Chapel Hill losing a major headquarters to Durham. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina was once based in Chapel Hill, but after first placing an expansion of its operations in Durham, company executives elected finally to move it lock, stock and barrel.

That resulted from their dissatisfaction with the Fordham Boulevard building the company was housed in, not a recruitment drive from Durham officials, Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce Vice President Ted Conner said.

It “was a maintenance nightmare and became costly for them to operate,” Conner recalled. “They went into something that was much more modern and allowed them to operate much more efficiently.”

Conner said his practice, as Durham’s chief corporate recruiter, is to avoid trying to “take an operation out of Chapel Hill,” essentially as a matter of regional courtesy. If companies there come to the chamber with questions, it’ll answer them, “but we’re not going to reach out to them,” he said, added that that approach would hold if the UNC system proves serious about moving.

“For them to leave Chapel Hill, it’d be a big step,” he said. “We’re just going to have to let the forces that are in play determine the direction that the Board of Governors moves.”

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Development-wise, most of the possibilities around N.C. Central are likely along the N.C. 55 corridor, which was a late addition to the light-rail project. The university intends to build new facilities for its business school on the northwest corner of Lawson Street and N.C. 55, at the line’s proposed terminus. Across the way is a mix of public-sector, owner-occupied and absentee-owned property.

Akinleye’s connectivity laments aren’t new, as the chancellor’s voiced them publicly since his appointment to the job this summer.

He and other officials have invoked them as a reason to build more student housing on campus, and to account for their skepticism of a Durham Housing Authority suggestion that they consider putting the business school on a site in the Fayetteville Street corridor a few blocks north of campus.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg