Saturday, August 30, 2008


We have a dilemma in our community. On the upside, we have more signature festivals and events than communities much larger. We’re also fortunate they have earned national reputations and leverage the Durham brand.

There are some members of our community though, who are intrigued with securing more and more events. I don’t think it is that they don’t value the events we have. They just don’t realize how fragile festivals are.

You see, festivals compete. Not with one another as much as they compete for time slots, underwriting and sponsorship, volunteers, locations, media attention and audience with all of the other leisure options both residents and visitors have here.

What Durham needs to do is worry more about how to make existing festivals and events sustainable, not recruiting new ones. A lot of communities have generic events…or events so ubiquitous that they don’t add to a community’s distinctiveness.

My opinion and the opinion of the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau is that as a community we need to focus on retaining and making our existing events better as well as protecting them as much as possible from the events from the United States of Generica.

Thursday, August 28, 2008


Maps like this are why so many people are confused about the location of Research Triangle Park. This world class business park for research and development is located 4 miles from Downtown Durham, nestled in SE Durham County and encompassed on three sides by the City of Durham.

Yet this map places it only in the Southeastern United States. Durham isn’t even on the map but Raleigh, two towns away from RTP, is shown, giving the impression the Park is in Raleigh.

It isn’t one of those things like they only had room for the large cities. Winston-Salem, a city smaller than Durham in the last census is on the map, but not Durham.

It isn’t done to intentionally slight Durham, but the result is the same. No wonder people get confused. More to come…


I’ve noted before that a friend of mine once told me that “politics is personal, not logical.” And maybe that’s what the news media has become. I know reporters always seem more interested in the anecdotal than generalizable. That’s why it only takes one comment now on a blog or listserv to spawn a news story, e.g. “activists are concerned.”

But have you listened to the news coverage of the Democratic National Convention? It’s just like high school. “She really doesn’t like him!” “She was ambiguous.” “She didn’t apologize.” “She raised money for him but he didn’t for her.” “Inside sources tell me...”

All that’s missing is “he hurt her feelings.” Geezzz! Isn’t there something on which to report that is more substantive than that? And whatever happened to verifying fact? No wonder politics is personal.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


A hundred years ago, two African American gentleman with differing viewpoints spawned two different movements to achieve racial equality. They were both frequent visitors to Durham.

The two leaders, of course, were Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois. One argued for equality through economic development and the other through social change. From reports at the time, it seemed they didn’t always get along and people seemed to take sides on the issues. But one thing was clear: there was a tolerance of ideas, debate and public discourse evident then.

In Durham, at the dawn of the 1900’s a group of African American leaders appear to have fused a both/and approach adapting parts of both movements. It was then that Black Wall Street was spawned, the Sit-In Movement took root in the basements of Durham churches, and organizations like the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People were formed.

Sometimes it is hard to tell if that same tolerance for ideas or fusion of ideas still exists across the United States. I remember the puzzling and seemingly intolerant reaction to Dr. Shelby Steele’s The Content of Our Character and his more recent book, White Guilt. And similarly to Bill Cosby’s 2005 speech at Howard University.

I’m now reading a new book recommended by friend and colleague Bill Geist, written by one of his former Board members, Dr. John Yancy Odom. It is very insightful and full of useful ideas that I’ll leave for you to read for yourself.

But I wonder if his Saving Black America; An Economic Plan for Civil Rights will receive the same response as Dr. Steele’s books or if the inspiration of Presidential Candidate Barack Obama will lead us back to the positive and open debate about racial equality that Washington and Dubois had.

Friday, August 22, 2008


When Tom Bonfield (new Durham City Manager) and I got a chance for extended conversation during his first week on the job, we touched on something I’ve mentioned before. I got the impression he agreed and will take it into consideration.

Currently, when local government annually reports the performance of a cultural facility or event, a very narrow definition of cost and revenue is reported. Even though these quality of life facilities were never intended to pay for themselves, it minimized their impact to not show revenue leveraged by more than the revenues generated inside the facility.

When local government invests in a public/private venture like adaptive reuse of the huge American Tobacco Complex, it takes a what appears to be a much better approach and compares not only revenue specific to the three parking decks or the Ballpark or soon the new theater but also the spending and property taxes leveraged by ATC’s increased value and those investments, public and private.

To me, it has makes sense to treat cultural facilities the same way. The sales tax alone generated by visitor spending surrounding use of the Civic Center or Museum of Life or Science or Carolina Theater or Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, is far greater than what is spent just inside the facility or event. Not to mention the increase they spur in surrounding property values.

When DCVB analyzes these facilities, the full impact of the facility on generating tax revenues is applied, not just the revenue generated at the door. We hope we can work with City and County officials to apply a consistent standard.

Friday, August 15, 2008


DCVB has Global Insight periodically quantify the impact of visitors on Durham. In July a panel at a conference discussed an article in the Journal of Travel Research entitled, "Economic Impact Studies; Instruments for Policitical Shenanigans."

I've distilled out below some points maded in the article along with some comments by Ken McGill, an EVP for Global Insight:

Six Reasons Economic Impact Studies are Best Practice:
  • Assessing return on investment (ROI) from tourism promotion and infrastructure investment.
  • Monitoring and benchmarking performance vs. destination competitors.
  • Setting priorities for economic development and infrastructure.
  • Determining whether concession or sponsorship requests for events/attractions/meetings are worth it.
  • Informing public policy decisions including those involving tax burdens.
  • Informing and reporting to residents and other stakeholders.
Analysis like this also informs answers to these 5 questions:
  • Is the community spending enough on both tourism promotion and infrastructure and do revenues generated cover costs?
  • Which are best economic development targets and are concessions worth it?
  • What is the ROI on public tourism capital investment and government support?
  • How can we benchmark against destination competitors?
  • How is the full value of tourism communicated to policy makers, businesses and residents?

Pitfalls to Avoid:

  • Including resident spending in the impact.
  • A sponsor that shops for a study that will confirm what they want to hear.
  • Multipliers being used without netting out leakage.
  • Vendors who never tell communities what they don’t want to hear.
  • Communities or developers that hide studies supporting the other side of the story.


An economist posted the following on the Bull City Rising blog. It is an excellent clarification of a term that is used loosely by lay folks:

I'm not taking a side on whether the prepared meal tax is a good idea or not. But as an economist who studies poverty and inequality, I was surprised to see the tax described as regressive.

A regressive tax is one in which lower-income people pay a higher proportion of their income towards the tax than do higher income people. According to the Consumer Expenditures Survey, households in the bottom quintile of the income distribution (who average $9,974 in income) spend 5.2% of their income on "food away from home" (the CEX category that approximates "prepared meals"). The next quintile (average income: $26k) spends 5.5%. The third quintile (average income: $45k) spends 5.8%, and the fourth quintile (average income $71k) spends 5.9%. For the highest-income 20% (average income $151k), the percent drops back down to 5.4%, but is still above the percent of income spent by the poorest group. You can see the numbers here:

So by the traditional definition, this is a--slightly--progressive tax. Of course, exempting the first $8 of the meal, as someone suggested, would certainly make it more progressive.

The other question I was curious about is, how progressive is this tax compared to the other main means of revenue-raising in Durham, the property tax? A look at the same table, on the line for "housing expenditures," reveals the following [note that economists believe that renters also pay property tax, because landlords raise rents proportionally when property taxes rise]:

Bottom quintile: 39.8%; second quintile: 36.3%; third quintile: 34.3%; fourth quintile: 33.1%; top quintile: 31.9%.

Since the share of income spent on housing falls dramatically with income, while the share spent on food away from home rises slightly, a prepared food tax is significantly more progressive than a property tax. (It's also much more progressive than an overall sales tax, which is highly regressive.)

None of this is to say that the proposed tax in this case is a good or bad idea--but it's not regressive, either absolutely or in comparison to other means at Durham's disposal for revenue-raising.

Monday, August 11, 2008


A journalist down the road in Raleigh jumped all over me once for using the term “virulent” to describe a small part of the population there and in other surrounding communities who drive negative word of mouth (NWOM) about Durham.

vir·u·lent (vîr y -l nt, vîr -)

2.Bitterly hostile or antagonistic; hateful: virulent criticism. See Synonyms at poisonous.

3. Intensely irritating, obnoxious, or harsh.

But I’m hardly the first person to use the term in regard to NWOM or for that matter, word of mouth in general.

For years we’ve been tracking the origins of an underlying current of negativity about Durham reported by both visitors and newcomers.

  • First, surveys were used to rule out Durham residents as the source or genesis of the negativity.

  • We’ve also confirmed that while reports of the negativity are widespread, it is actually fueled by a relatively small, 10-12%, of the adult population.

  • Early on our collaborator, Catevo Group, ruled out the news media as the source, explaining that “while journalists are exposed to the same negativity in their every-day lives, and it may seep into content through tone or headlines, members of the media are more often victimized or contaminated than they are the source.

  • We also learned early on that no amount of advertising can “out-gun” the power of negative word of mouth. It takes a far more intricate and sophisticated approach of playing up positives while empowering people who are positive with information to confront water-cooler fables. This presents what blogger Gordon Hotchkiss calls a moral hazard and that is the biggest inhibition to negative word of mouth…risk of looking stupid.

  • NWOM artists want to be seen as “in the know” and they appeal as Hotchkiss blogged late last year in Out of My Gord, to “the darker side of nature of human nature 0f building oneself up at the expense of others.”

  • We’ve isolated the population who are “carriers” and volunteer negativity about Durham around the “water cooler” and to visitors and newcomers. Research reveals both the carriers and the sources are largely located in nearby communities and the origin seems internal because so many people commute from those communities to Durham to work.

  • Finally, we’ve narrowed the carriers down to slightly more than 1 to 1.5 out of every 10 adults. They are the ones you read gratuitously trashing Durham online with comments at the end of news stories or in blogs and in chat rooms.

    Amazing how much economic damage so few people can wreak.


Coverage of this story involving Durham by two news outlets based in nearby Raleigh, NC provides a perfect example of what I mean by imbalance.

Both stories cover the same topic and both are technically accurate. Both written by good reporters. But one reveals the Durham MSA has surpassed the Raleigh-Cary MSA and the other skits that observation by focusing attention only Raleigh-Cary’s percentage of growth. percentage.

Of course you may be wondering if perhaps the one outlet tended to always cover stories about rankings that way. But if you check out this story from the same paper a week earlier you’ll see that’s not the case.

Not only is the Raleigh ranking heralded in both headline and stories, this reporter took some things I was saying about Durham’s rankings (such as the statement I made about feelings of superiority leading to complacency) and used them out of context as if I somehow was bitter that Raleigh had received recognition.

The reporter also failed to correct my revelation to him that the early ‘90’s ranking he attributes to Raleigh was really one given to 6 counties and more than a dozen cities and towns including Durham. Maybe he missed that point or maybe an editor thought it muddied the story.

My only beef is that had the story been troubling, it would have emphasized Durham as the location while skirting or generalizing the location if Raleigh was the location such as the troubling event such as happened recently with coverage of a huge gang riot at a mall there. Just compare that to coverage of events at malls in Durham where attribution is not only specific to Durham but repeated.

We’ve consistently been told by the Raleigh paper, repeated by the Raleigh AP office that by policy they seldom acknowledge the location of very positive stories emanating from SE Durham, the location of Research Triangle Park. They claim these are “regional stories.” They may be regional, state, national or international in interest, but the fact is they occur in Durham.

Can you can imagine the outcry if Durham began referring to the “State Capital" separate from Raleigh just because it has “regional or state” significance?

All any community can ask is that attribution be consistent and accurate and the standards applied equally from community to community, regardless of whether the content of a story is positive or troubling.