Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Perceiving Sense of Place - Part 2

This essay picks up where I left off yesterday with mention of a pivotal event at the root of Anchorage, Alaska’s unusual sense of urgency about sense of place, something missing from so many much longer established destinations.

But first, for readers new to sense of place, let me try in layman’s terms to explain what that phrase means to me in few paragraphs.

It involves numerous characteristics, that when woven together, reinforce the feel of a particular place.  This is, collectively, what is meant by the term “sense of place.”

Barely a quarter of the way into my four decade career as a community destination marketing exec, I read a new essay by Wallace Stegner that began to connect a lot of dots for me.

But I remain a student and explorer even now in retirement and learn something new about it nearly every day.

The more temporal elements of the sense of a particular place are its soil, geology, terrain, light patterns, wildlife and native vegetation that took shape long before human settlement, even aboriginal.

Long before the nomenclature of place is applied.

Along the continuum of place these are the most real and authentic elements followed by the heritage, culture and values of human inhabitants and then the architecture of the dwellings and buildings being at the more superficial end.

These characteristics need not be entirely unique for it is how distinctively they are manifest when woven together that gives a particular spot a sense of place.

When not the destroyer of sense of place, it is the “built” ingredient that often distinguishes it, not, to paraphrase my favorite architectural author Witold Rybczynski, to “be nostalgic or because history has all the answers.”

But because “freedom from history is no freedom at all.”

Mutual respect by the “built” characteristics across each of the other elements of place, “while linking the past with the present, and seeing the old anew,”  is acknowledgement that “they belong.” That is what  weaves the “sense to a particular place.”

Most visitors, including newcomers, sense it and are drawn to it.  “Stayers” treasure it.  Some people never get it, exposed by their constant dismissiveness of the importance of place.

Anchorage celebrates its first century being designated by that name next year.  It had barely turned 60 when I arrived there.

But what immediately signaled it as a place worthy of love and visitation was that the first public edifice erected was not for performing arts or sports or conventions.

It was a museum to celebrate its local history, values and art.  Erected 10 years before my arrival, it was, in part, to honor the hundredth anniversary of America’s purchase of Alaska from Russia, barely 50 years before that community’s first permanent settlers.

Shown here, its architecture illustrates that lacking the historic architecture of Durham, NC where I have worked/lived ever since, Anchorage’s “built” aspect of sense of place, seeks instead to both open up to and reflect the expansiveness of its setting.

“Stayers” there had first formed an organization as means to preserve artifacts barely forty years after the first settlement, grasping that they tell stories, connect people, capture moments and mark changes.

Anchorage figured all of this out much earlier than most.

In the words of Elaine Gurian, formerly the overseer of what was then all 14 Smithsonian museums, “These objects are the touchstones to bring memories and meanings to life.”

Not coincidentally, a part of the Smithsonian is now embedded in the Anchorage Museum, conducting ongoing research as well as bringing home priceless exhibitions of Alaska artifacts, art and history.

On average, most communities figure out this piece by the time they are 60 years old.  That’s about the stage when the founding generation here in Durham began to treasure and preserve its history.

But it took Durham twice as long as Anchorage to recognize the wisdom of a local history museum, an ambition that is still unfulfilled, or at best, piecemeal.

Instead, despite unparalleled public support for a local history museum over any other cultural facility, for nearly eight more decades in Durham, we’ve left priceless symbols and stories of Durham’s history at risk of being lost forever, while leapfrogging that important step with fantasy and amusement instead.

In the meantime, the Anchorage Museum has already completed its third expansion, two since my decade promoting that community.

What makes that museum even more significant is that it opened just four years after Anchorage was nearly destroyed by a massive earthquake that dropped one side of its main street ten feet lower than the other, liquefying much of a popular neighborhood and closing the International Airport.

At the time, Alaska had only been a state for five years.

This signature natural event sparked a sense of urgency to preserve and tell the Anchorage story so lacking in other much longer established communities.

It also quickened concern across all aspects of sense of place there.

Several weeks before I arrived there in 1978, Nellie Brown died.  In 1912, she and her husband, an American Forest Service ranger, had been dropped off as the first permanent settlers of Anchorage.

Nellie was an Eyak from the Copper River Delta area, east across Prince William Sound around Cordova.  Alaska natives were not given U.S. citizenship for another twelve years, five years after the Anchorage area was withdrawn from the national forest.

Of course, before the Brown’s, there had been humans temporarily inhabiting Anchorage for 6,000 years including seasonal Dena’ina fish camps.  A few Russians had transited by the early 1800s, then by the late 1800s by a handful of transient traders, surveyors and gold miners.

But Nellie’s passing helped me realize just how much had been done to preserve Anchorage’s sense of place in such a short span including the first efforts to set aside park land little more than a decade after settlement.

About 30 years after the first setters, this playful map was created, and by then, Anchorage had already started on what would become four protected forested greenbelts stretching along streams running the Chugach Mountains down to the sea some connecting to a later trail along the coast.

These stretches are home to 200-300 Moose who live year round in the most populated area, joined by another 800-900 during the winter.  Altogether, Anchorage has set aside nearly 14,000 acres this way.

But Moose in the summer are just one of the 52 kinds of mammals including bear, wolves, beaver and Dall sheep.

Anchorage is also home to five salmon species and 230 bird species as well as Marine mammals, including beluga whales, all highly regarded by more than 80% of residents and to visitors as part of the community’s sense of place.

Anchorage was heavily forested before settlement compared to just 30% of Alaska.  Today, 59% of Anchorage remains forested, ranging from nearly 78% in Chugach State Park to 68% overall in other parks.

The canopy in populated areas ranges from 35% overall to 38% in residential areas and just below 10% in commercial areas. Overall the most populated area has lost 50% of its tree cover.

But similar to here in Durham, 97% of Anchorage residents “strongly agree” that forests are important to the community’s quality as a place, more so than any other infrastructure, even education.

Until recently, like Durham, local government there paid attention only to street trees and the property it owns.

But unlike Durham, thanks to grants, Anchorage has completed a comprehensive tree inventory, assessment and management plan covering the entire Municipality.

It notes that it is impossible for municipalities to reach forest canopy objectives let alone preserve this pivotal aspect of sense of place by planting on city property alone.

Anchorage residents are energized in other aspects about preserving its sense of place.  Corridors leading north and south along the Municipality are now parts of two state/national scenic byways

Not only is the community home to a repository of historic aircraft, but citizens have worked hard there to preserve and adaptively reuse a signature part of its more recent past.

When I lived in Durham, I would frequently encounter remnants of two of the three Nike Surface to Air Missile sites deployed during the Cold War.

One in walking distance from my first house when I lived there had been conveyed to Anchorage and converted to Kincaid Park, a heavily forested peninsula that points into Cook Inlet, dividing it into Knik and Turnagain Arms.

One of the bunkers for the missile site there had been converted to an alpine ski chalet.  Another that wasn’t taken out of service until the year after I arrived was visible when silhouetted by moonlight high on a peak in the Chugach Mountains behind Anchorage.

Now it is being preserved as a historical site called Nike Site Summit.

In conclusion, one aspect of Anchorage’s sense of places is art, not just because many artists live there but because its sense of place is so often the subject of their creations, perhaps spurred by the unique patterns of light there.

None has been more prolific than Byron Birdsall, who just created a print to commemorate the Centennial for Anchorage next year (as shown above in this essay.)  I treasure an original watercolor he and Tennys Owens presented me on behalf of the community as I left.

Tennys’ delightful eastern North Carolina accent would be more familiar to me now.  She had founded Artique Ltd. several years before I arrived and became a governing board member of mine, good friend and one of our biggest supporters.

The watercolor they gave me features a beloved old Porsche of mine, which a friend totaled shortly after I arrived in Durham, sitting on the Anchorage shoreline with Cook Inlet and the Alaska Range as as a backdrop.

We had worked with the gallery and with many other local artists over the years to feature their works on the covers of annual Anchorage Visitor Guides which were also framed and given to me that night.

This two-part essay and memoir has been useful, I hope, to those trying to get their heads around the sense of place where they live, if it hasn’t already become extinct that is and accessible only to archeologists.

Sense of Place, once woven, is also extremely fragile.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Weaving and Reweaving the Anchorage Story – Part 1

When writing about “sense of place,” I often focus on the “built” aspect because to those for whom the concept remains illusive, it is just the easiest to illustrate.

At dinner a short while ago, a friend who visited Alaska recently asked me to describe “sense of place” there, particularly around Anchorage, from the almost-decade I lived and worked there in community marketing.

His description is “expansive,” a very astute observation because he otherwise seems to view destinations more through the filter of activities and events.

But even for visitors seeking entertainment, the destination is the first consideration with activities falling fifth.  For those seeking recreation, the destination is first and activities second.

But studies of activity/attractions visitors show that three-fourths prefer real or authentic experiences to themed or fantasy experiences.

Even among the latter, say theme parks or casinos, 7-in-10 prefer real or authentic experiences.

But people who are into fantasy such as Disney are often disappointed in Alaska because they expect the vegetation to be lush and towering like the coastal Pacific Northwest or the mountains to be densely carpeted like the Rockies.

Parts of Alaska, including Anchorage, have those attributes too, but they take a backseat to how incredibly expansive the view shed is.

From Anchorage, in any direction, the views are of towering mountains, including ranges and active volcanoes hundreds of miles away, yet they seem to loom so close.  I never grew habituated to it during my near decade of community marketing there.

And it never leaves you.

When I was recruited there in early 1978 my challenge, though, was to flesh out other equally distinct aspects of Anchorage’s sense of place and weave or reweave them into a more inclusive yet ever-evolving story.

These included the quality of the light there, geology, values, history including built and natural, vegetation and wildlife, as well as the work of simplifying logistics for visitors to be able to explore all of the above.

But different than Durham a decade later where a deep and broadly embraced sense of pride was under external threat from jealous rivals, in Anchorage we had to enlist many Anchorage residents there by giving voice to the passionate corps that already felt that way.

As a legacy theme, the CLIO-winning campaign, “Wild About Anchorage” is still in use today.

Anchorage at the time was slightly larger than Spokane, WA where I had been stationed before, but 74,000 people larger at the time than Durham, NC where I would go next, even 24,000 larger at the time than North Carolina’s capital and second largest city, Raleigh.

But at the time, the population of Anchorage represented more than 40% of all Alaskans.

However, half of the population of Anchorage had lived there only six year or less and 20% less than two years.  Only 8%, whom I quickly sought out, had lived there 25 years or more.

About 17% at the time had come there from other parts of Alaska, 30% from the West coast and 14% from the Plains or Rockies.  But 18% had come from the South or border states and 13% from the Northeast including the upper Ohio Valley.

I was among the first to realize this transience when someone made sure I was among the first to receive a copy of new report published in the first few weeks after my arrival there by researchers for the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

Many moving there seemed either a bit condescending about Anchorage and Alaska’s scenery and sense of place or uncomfortable with their expansiveness. Some 25,000 were projected to move out the year arrived while 32,000 would move there like I did.

My arrival came within months of the first oil to flow down the Trans-Alaska Pipeline and only a few years after other transformative changes including unification of the City of Anchorage, then less than 40% of the surrounding Borough’s (akin to a county) population, along with other smaller towns into the Municipality of Anchorage.

It was also only a few years after settlement of Alaska Native claims along with a vote to move the State Capital from remote Juneau to Willow, about 80 miles northwest of Anchorage, which was made moot when four years after my arrival voters rejected the cost.

When I arrived, it had also been less than a decade since the oil discoveries at Prudhoe Bay and just two since its discovery down Cook Inlet to the south and west of Anchorage.

But in 1978, Alaskans were bracing for a loss in population from departing pipeline workers only to be saved by the revolution in Iran the following year and skyrocketing oil prices.

I was just turning 30 years old as I landed there but selected in part to complete start up of Anchorage’s community marketing organization.

But also because my sensibilities were as much or more to integrate tourism into Anchorage’s sense of place as it was to complete the integration of Anchorage into tourism.

Of course, not everyone was a boomer or raider or saw themselves as a transient migrant.

I fell in with a core “stayers” and long-time residents, who in small bands, were already hard at work there preserving historic buildings, local history and culture, open space and trails, nature areas, tree canopy and beautification.

I realize now that when it came to sense of place they were catapulting Anchorage far in advance even today of much older and more established communities in North Carolina where I live in retirement.

My job was to work with these groups to be visitor-ready and weave all of these elements into a coherent Anchorage story that yet preserved other historical identities prior to unification.

Many were rightfully suspicious of tourism interests as being narrow, superficial, stereotypical, short-sighted and overly commercial, which most were and still are across America.

The groundwork laid prior to my arrival, while expert, had largely reinforced this perception.

Bridging those two perspectives is a role far too many DMOs fail to grasp or accept even today.

As was customary at the time, if at all, many in Anchorage only traced sense of place there to establishment of a 1915 tent camp erected by speculators for railroad construction workers less than three years after a couple working for the US Forest Service became the first permanent settlers.

There was both curiosity and disbelief when our fledgling organization quickly enriched the story of Anchorage to include earlier periods.

Dena’ina people who numbered 3,000 there as early as 1650 long before contact with Russian missionaries in the 1830s or even when Captain James Cook’s ship sailed to what is now Anchorage, two hundred years to the month before my arrival.

Soon a historical park organized around a 1830s log Russian Orthodox Church and the colorful Dena’ina burial spirit houses north of downtown, joined midway with the Alaska Native Heritage Center envisioned by several of us during my tenure.

I smiled when just before I retired in Durham, Anchorage officials named a new civic and convention center there after the Dena’ina, a northern relative of the Navaho and the only such group who lived along the coast.

The symbols of Anchorage’s earlier history were still being revealed as we began an inventory, including the still-producing 1896 Crow Creek Mine, dating to when there were only two hundred or fewer Americans beyond southeast Alaska.

For nearly a decade after my arrival, Cynthia Toohey, an emergency room nurse and transplanted New Yorker who eventually became head of my governing board and one of our biggest fans, began an ongoing restoration with her family.

I was astonished at its significance and how little known it had been prior to being added to the National Registry of Historic Places a few weeks after my arrival.

All we had to do was be attentive, curious and willing to reweave it into the emerging Anchorage story.

The illustrated  map shown above as an image in this post dates to 1945.  It was brought back from Alaska by the father of a Durham journalist friend of mine in 1948, the year I was born.

Possibly a place mat used in restaurants, it is precious because it captures the names of the businesses along the bluff above Ship Creek at a time when there were fewer than 30,000 residents.

It also marks a time a decade before Congress would grant Alaska statehood which had been finalized less than two decades before my arrival there in 1978.

It had only been a little more than a decade since the legislature had even organized eight portions of the state into boroughs.

In only the fifth year of my career, less than three since being minted a destination marketing executive, I was too green to realize at the time that our task of illuminating sense of place and weaving a story around what had become Anchorage was as fresh in concept as the new organization we were still polishing as its guardian.

Equidistant during that span since statehood and my arrival would occur a natural event of such magnitude that it would forever shape Anchorage’s sense of urgency about sense of place giving it a unique perspective on what is historical, both long past and near past.

More on that in tomorrow’s post.

Monday, September 29, 2014

On A Somewhat Lighter Note

Regular readers often ask me questions via social media. Two recently were requests for elaboration on two essays I posted over the summer.

The first inquiry was regarding lifestyle changes I was making and the second asked what works to get “centered” other than reading from those I have long-used and noted in an essay on reflection and renewal.

Well by August I lost 25 pounds and have maintained it.

No, I’m not one of those skinny old men.  I’m still 10-15 lbs. over what I weighed in 1972 when I graduated from college or as I started my career in community marketing the year my daughter was born more than four decades ago.

But I’m back to what I weighed when I arrived in Durham more than twenty-five years ago and considerable lighter than when a tummy role was memorialized nearly five years ago when I retired (smile.)

I was already low carb so the secret for me was finding my equilibrium was 1500 calories a day not 2,000 and identifying some items in my diet, such as mixed nuts, that were disproportionately high.

I thought it wouldn’t be noticeable, but my daughter’s reaction when she saw me at the lake tells me that extra weight is obviously first apparent in my face.  That gives me an easy place to audit each morning as I shave…okay maybe every other morning (smile.)

My goal after the weight loss was to get my body mass index down below 19% which it has been this month.  My new dietary pattern was so agreeable, it has become the new norm with a steak night once each week.

The app My Fitness Pal helped me calibrate to exactly the number of calories per day where I maintain and feel best and my partner and I are continuing to walk briskly each morning for at least 30-40 minutes or about 2 miles.

Keeping up that diary of what I eat is now part of my daily routine and the app automatically incorporates reading from my scale and exercise tracker.

So, “drum roll,” did all of this change achieve the objective?  Yes, triglyceride levels are normal as is blood pressure and cholesterol and I’ve reduced the pressure on my knees by 100 lbs.

Observations along the way?  Jeez people eat—and restaurants serve—an immense amount of starch and low grade carbohydrates.  My favorite restaurant now kids me when I substitute what I call the “Golden Corral set-up,” (three types of different vegetables…chef’s choice.)

As for alternatives to the books I read a page or two from each morning to get “centered,” a habit I formed when I was 20 years old, here are some other alternatives I also use.

I also use a flip comment a friend of mine made in front a group with which I had been enthusiastically sharing a recent finding while waiting for others to arrive.

“Ok, now that we all know how smart you are.”  It wasn’t my intent, and he was kidding, but it crosses my mind often as I begin writing each day, a reality check on my motives.

“All mindfulness is” as blogger David Roberts described it recently to USA Today, is the ability to intercede in your own life.”  It is also what I mean by getting “centered.”

But in addition to the books I mentioned which all relate to ethics, I also rotate in some songs including hymns sung when I was a kid such as Come Thy Fount of Every Blessing (pardon the annoying and misleading ad running by a North Carolina politician.)

Another song that centers me is one that first hit the air waves a month or two after I was drawn to Durham 25 years ago.  Ironically its singer-songwriter had a hard time finding a co-writer who understood what he wanted to convey.

The song, If Tomorrow Never Comes, is a reminder that whatever comes our way, every moment must be treasured as if the last.

As a wise and mindful old woman told me when I wondered if my visits to my daughter when she was very young were intrusive, “she can’t have too many people in her life who truly love her.”

Friday, September 26, 2014

How Impact Gets Exaggerated

When early during the last stop in my four-decade career in community marketing, we began to use input-output analysis to benchmark the impact of visitor-centered economic and cultural development, our organization was quickly asked for more.

The request was from Duke University asking us for visitation inputs to what has become a similar periodic computation of its impact on Durham, North Carolina, where I still live in retirement.

I remember initially having to go back and forth to explain why the University couldn’t just add up attendance at its various venues for sports, performing arts, museums and nature areas and trumpet it as generated by the University.

Airports similarly make mistakes on economic impact studies if they are not careful to net out the impact from residents and visitors not drawn just for the purpose of being at the airport such as people there to do business with the airport itself.

I explained that while the University did generate some of that activity, a good portion was from visitors here for other purposes who happened to also take in an event or feature at Duke.

Many are also the same visitors taking in more than one event or site and to merely tally them would be duplication.

This portion qualifies as “participation” in economic activity but not economic “value added.”  At the time, we settled on terming it “generated and participated in.”

But the same clarifications had to be made each year and possibly still do.

The same is true of destinations that might try to leverage more respect by aggregating attendance of all features.  Without an input-output analysis of spending, even if they remember that resident spending never qualifies as visitor impact, the gross numbers do not equal value added to the economy. 

Many of the attendees are the same visitors taking in different events while here for other purposes.  To lump them together may create a short term wow factor but it will also backfire and lesson credibility.

Research in Durham, for example, measures not only participation levels by visitors in various activities but the percentage of visitors for whom that was the main purpose versus the percentage taking in the activity on a trip for another purposes.

For example, the latter represents a third of performing arts attendance, 40% of shoppers, 20% attending sports events and 60% of those attending festivals overall.  This is even true of those attending conventions and meetings.

Organizations are under a lot of pressure from governing boards and sponsors to justify their efforts.  But rather than gloss over these distinctions, it is better to educate these overseers on the following:

  • Drawing visitation is in part a collective effort.
  • A part of that effort is the community’s overarching marketing both to lower barriers to visitation, get on the list for future consideration and generate circulation.
  • It is smart to cross promote and also go after low-hanging fruit, such as visitors here for other purposes including visiting friends and relatives.
  • When non-residents are hired or sponsors and vendors from out of town used, it subtracts from economic impact as leakage.   It also undermines organizations that provide underwriting from taxpayers.

For example, local officials are often perplexed when they see cars from out of town dealers displayed in front of city-owned facilities because they know the sales tax on vehicles sold here represents a significant amount of sales tax revenue used to provide local services.

I’ve tried to smooth this over by explaining that this is one of the results when 75% of attendance at these facilities are visitors, which is a good thing.

It is natural for out of town dealers to buy up sponsorships because they are trying to reach the visitors attending the event.

Local dealers aren’t interested because only 25% are residents.  They aren’t interested in the visitors because contrary to what purveyors of advertising on or in news outlets want us to believe, people rarely commute to by cars.

Still, officials also have a point.  It signals to resident taxpayers that the facilities and events that do this aren’t very loyal.  It undermines support for future facilities, even the so-called “back end” incentives to spur developments.

Those negotiating the latter often fail to stipulate behaviors that will leverage more economic bang for the buck, such as using local vendors or jawboning the importance of hiring locally or making sure new hires relocate here.

Durham’s marketing agency is considered a best practice now by accreditation standards, in part because it not only employs input-output metrics but it has learned to do them for local facilities and events.

In reports such as the one recently published and shown in the image above, the agency gives examples of leakage as well as creates a chart that breaks down why communities that fail to take this factor into account are also guilty of grossing up impact.

For example, Durham visitation creates nearly a billion dollars in spending but only $766 million is spent here in Durham.  But because of leakage such as using out of town vendors, employing non-residents and visitors misdirected while they are here only $560 million is “value-added” to the Durham economy.

In other words, local business practices, if tweaked, could result in another $200 million for the local business climate and a percentage increase in local tax revenues generated from visitors alone.

Policy makers in Durham are taking heed, although they may need to talk to American Tobacco a little bit.  Even just a little jawboning can be very rewarding.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Edifice Envy - Questions Not Asked

A friend who was standing in a long line caught my attention recently as I exited the restroom during opening night intermission of the London musical, Dirty Dancing.

We exchanged mixed feelings about the increasing use of video in such productions and reminisced that the movie upon which the musical is based featured North Carolina as a stand-in for the Catskills.

Then, noting that some cities seem eager to replicate the Durham Performing Arts Center where I live, he asked rhetorically as we parted what I thought they might be missing.

It gave me food for thought as I returned to my seat.  In my experience of meeting over the years with scores of cities on such field trips, it isn’t what they ask but what they aren’t asking that often makes the difference.

DPAC is one of hundreds of large-scale venues that have opened in just the last decade.  Even before it opened, consortiums of consultants, funders and managers began wringing their hands about the consequences.

Many researchers have begun digging into this but it will take a decade or two for any correlations of the impact on local cultural ecosystems to be established.

Cities looking with envy to replicate performing arts, sports or convention centers usually take these field trips to reassure reluctant stakeholders.  Durham initiators took one to Greenville, South Carolina for example.

But rarely are the right questions asked that will drill down into what may be anomalies.

Durham’s new theater has been a huge success so far but the reasons often go unexamined during these field trips, especially factors that are serendipity.  For example:

1) Durham’s success is not because it lured Nederlander and the company’s equally exceptional non-profit partner PFM as operators, but because Nederlander came knocking.

The company, one of the largest owners and operators of theaters in the world, was eager to fill a geographic gap between other theaters it operates, and in the process, eliminate or undermine a competitor.

Everyone here was flattered and relieved.

2) Only 25% of the center’s patrons are local residents, give or take a point, the same percentage of Americans in the nationwide Census who take in concerts and plays, something that hasn’t changed for more than a decade.

Having more and larger facilities does not generate more participation.  It just means it is spread thinner.

In Durham as a whole, 29.8% of the adult population attends live performing arts each year compared to the 24.9% attending popular entertainment such as concerts and clubs, which is right at the national average.

The former is less than a point higher than and the latter the same as Greensboro which recently visited Durham and announced plans to emulate our large-scale venue.

Wake County, which lost its Broadway series due to the startup in Durham, still draws only 1.2% fewer residents for performing arts overall and the same percentage as Durham to popular entertainment including concerts and clubs.

3) As a result, Durham’s large-scale venue is heavily dependent on day trip visitors for patrons, something made possible because the metro area it centers is near another anchored by Raleigh, North Carolina’s second largest city, which quickly shut down its touring Broadway series after DPAC opened.

But Durham visitors beyond 50 miles still don’t participate any more in the performing arts than they did prior to the opening of a large-scale venue.  Never has having more capacity changed the percentage of visitors interested in performing arts.

For any large-scale theater to succeed, it must draw visitors, including a good share who come to a community for other purposes.  Without being so close to a another major population center, Durham would be in big trouble.

But if the hundreds of communities that just built new large-scale venues are in the same predicament, something will have to give and usually that is a hollowing out of local arts creation.

4) Durham also negotiated a very favorable revenue sharing arrangement, supplemented by seat fees and special event parking fees in decks used.  What doesn’t show on that bottom line is tens of millions of dollars to relocate prior tenants and subsidies for nearby development.

5) Durham has a highly “accredited” community destination marketing organization known to be far more successful than its well funded counterparts and willing to try and defend smaller, more indigenous but equally valuable elements from bullying or erosion. 

Visiting officials also often fail to ask what Durham could or would have done differently, for example:

1) The center was apparently built on the cheap, forcibly in part, because initiators boxed themselves in with a tax funding formula to avoid voter and state scrutiny, thus, those extraordinarily long lines for the rest rooms.   The architect performed a miracle.

2) A pivotal opportunity was missed to weave the theater into the fabric of Durham’s “built” sense of place.

While there is a great view of ingredients to Durham’s sense of place from its spectacular glass lobby, it will likely be blocked by future development. The community missed an opportunity to make DPAC more “Durham.”

At the last minute, brick was added to the exterior at the insistence of the Mayor, but the building could have been designed coherent with its setting by picking up architectural details

Look, for example, at the National Historic Landmark just across a quad or either of the two surrounding National Historic Districts.  The interior could have been made to seem more temporal by using historic images of other theaters or performances here.

Or the new theater could have picked up the remarkable lines of the historic Austin-Heaton Flour Mill formerly on that site or evoked the beloved Durham Union Station that had stood across the track.

The design of the theater has grown on Durham residents but like the Detention and Judicial centers to the east, it isn’t coherent to its context.  As noted recently by one architectural expert:

“Cities have their own patterns of building, influenced by the pace of life, the quality of light, historic traditions or simply the materials available.

Buildings that acknowledge these patterns reinforce the sense of a particular place — they belong.”

Those on these inter-city visits, or inspection tours, also neglect to ask if the theater was a priority at the time or did it leapfrog higher cultural priorities?

They could also ask where Durham fell at the time in comparison to similar communities in the number of theaters or in overall visitor participation compared to averages.

Also questioned could be why philanthropic sources weren’t willing to fund the proportion of costs born in the other communities that were evaluated such as Greenville?  Was that a reflection of other community needs?

Was there any reason to build an additional performance hall prior to having a cultural master plan?

All of these questions go far beyond the questions usually asked during these familiarization tours and get at the overall question of “knowing what we know now, what would or could Durham have done differently” and still achieved similar or even better outcomes?

The problem, of course, is that to many people, questions are criticism.

Among those considering such a facility, anyone raising them might be ostracized as critics or naysayers because questions can be threatening to those who may have already made up their minds with very little information.

In turn, it is probably much too soon for even outspoken Durham to be introspective or if has, then forthcoming about what it would have done differently or volunteering that its success may have been been as much circumstantial as exceptional.

Regardless, history tells us that when provided such objectivity, enthusiasts have often dismissed it, even shopping around for consultants who would say yes after others concluded no.

It takes a truly exceptional community to put ego aside and pass up a challenge.

It took two or three decades after similar spates of overbuilding of other kinds of large-venue facilities before experts and researchers were able to truly and accurately assess the ramifications.

Even then there were outcries and choruses of angry denials.

Judging by studies and papers already underway such as the study “Is Bigger Better? The effect of capital facilities investment on non-profit financial vulnerability,” by Dr. Joanna Woronkowicz now under review.

Consortiums that began meeting under the aegis of Americans for the Arts nearly a decade ago, maybe those involved in the performing arts, will enlighten more quickly.

Or by then, will the devotees of such facilities as a means to achieve tangentially related but very different objectives such as “anchoring” turn to overbuilding yet another type of facility, hoping to feed what Architect Magazine columnist Aaron Betsky calls an “edifice complex?”

The history of such overbuilding over the last century suggests the latter.