Durham County

Durham and Cary got the same grant. One’s going into the sewers.

A Charlotte-based developer has submitted plans for hundreds of new apartments in downtown Durham.
A Charlotte-based developer has submitted plans for hundreds of new apartments in downtown Durham. zeanes@heraldsun.com

Durham and Cary are among 35 cities getting Bloomberg grants for their innovative ideas to fix urban problems.

In Durham, that’s downtown parking.

In Cary, that’s the opioid crisis.

The two cities will receive up to $100,000 to test their ideas as “Champion Cities” in the Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Mayors Challenge. They were among 320 cities to pitch their urban innovations.

Durham’s problem

Too many people drive alone in their cars to downtown Durham, and the city wants to find alternatives to driving and parking there. The city’s parking and street maintenance departments can’t keep up, negatively affecting about 30,000 downtown employees and residents, according to the city.

Durham applied for the Mayor’s Challenge grant when Mayor Bill Bell was in office. City Manager Tom Bonfield said whenever there is a grant opportunity, they brainstorm what the city’s pressing issues are. In this case, it’s downtown parking, he said.

Durham’s idea

The city will test incentives for not parking, helping people plan their daily commutes, and lotteries for free GoDurham bus cards, among other ideas.

Maureen Devlin, a city transportation planner, said they’re constantly working to improve services and promote alternatives to parking, including riding the bus, biking and walking.

“Durham is a city that’s really trying to figure out how to have successful multimodal transporation,” Mayor Steve Schewel said. “We don’t want to have a city that’s car dependent.”

Ryan Smith of the i-team said Durham, like many mid-size cities, is growing and outgrowing its infrastructure. That’s why the city is looking at how to change commuter’s behavior now.

“We are looking at a skyline rapidly going up,” Devlin said. Because people see parking as a pressing need, they want to look at how to use available city land for issues like affordable housing rather than more parking garages.

Durham has received money from Bloomberg Philanthropies before. The city is already part of Bloomberg’s Innovation Teams program. It’s in the first year of a three-year $1.2 million grant to help people re-entering the community from prison.

This week, the city also got a behavioral fellow-in-residence, Joseph Sherlock, from the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University. There’s no cost to the city for Duke’s help thinking about how local government can apply behavioral science.

Cary’s problem

North Carolina has had a 800 percent increase in lethal opioid overdoses over the past decade and needs timely data for public health efforts to solve the crisis. Cary Mayor Harold Weinbrecht has made fighting opioids a priority.

“Opioids are a problem in Cary,” said Cary Deputy Town Manager Mike Bajorek. In 2017, the town had 46 opioid overdoses, six of which were fatal. That’s a 70 percent increase from the year before, Bajorek said.

Downtown Cary. N&O file photo

Cary’s idea

The town will generate geo-localized opioid consumption data by measuring opioid metabolites in sewage to enable proactive interventions. That means collecting, monitoring and testing metabolites in wastewater.

Rather than collecting from the wastewater treatment plants, the town will put a collection device in manholes. That gives them a sample size from 4,000 to 5,000 people. The data will give public health officials a clearer picture of what’s going on in their community, Bajorek said. And the testing could be expanded to more cities.

Biobot Analytics in Boston will do the chemical analysis. While metabolite testing isn’t new, testing specifically for opioids in Cary is.

“We’re very excited. There are places with much worse opioid problems than Cary, but [Weinbrecht] wanted to get involved because we have the poeple, the financial backing and really have the will to do something about this,” Bajorek said.

What’s next

Over the next six months, the 35 cities will test and adapt their ideas. In March, teams from each city will go to Bloomberg Philanthropies Ideas Camp in New York City, and then they’ll get the money and support to work on their innovations. In August, they’ll apply to be one of four cities that will get $1 million, and then one of those will get $5 million.

Durham and Cary are competing with cities such as Boston; Washington, D.C.;Pittsburgh; Phoenix; Philadelphia; Los Angeles; Miami; and Detroit.

The 35 “Champion Cities” were picked for their idea’s vision, potential for impact, implementation plan and potential to spread to other cities. Former Ambassador Caroline Kennedy and former Xerox Chairman and CEO Ursula Burns chaired the selection committee.

Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan: 919-419-6563, @dawnbvaughan