Friday, December 19, 2008


JFK, after a failure, coined the phrase “Victory has a Thousand Fathers, Failure is an Orphan.”

People have widely adapted it as “Success has a Thousand Fathers.” The quote has come to mind several times recently during the various opening festivities around the spectacular new Durham Performing Arts Center.

But there are five people who aren’t saying much, and each of them had to say yes at various critical milestones for the project to happen. The person who deserves credit for the idea of the theater is the late Senator Terry Sanford, also former Governor and President of Duke University.

He proposed the idea and Ted Abernathy, then head of the City Office of Economic & Employment Development, now heading the 13-state Southern Growth Policies Board based here in Durham, identified the site, a former maintenance facility for transit buses.

When the Senator passed away, a couple of folks in Durham picked up the idea and fused it to the future of the public-private adaptive reuse of the Old Lucky Strike Factory, now the namesake for the American Tobacco Historic District where the theater is also located.

But these five people below controlled the destiny of the project, not necessarily because of what they did or didn’t do, but because their job was much harder than just pushing for the theater. They had to overcome objections, broker compromise, and make sense of things. Each of them, at different times, could very simply have quietly derailed this project. They have mostly stayed in the background as the curtains have opened:

Duke EVP Tallman Trask – Tallman is first for two reasons. Duke already had a similar theater as part of its plans for Central Campus near Ninth Street. Pulling those plans cleared the way for DPAC. But Duke was also pivotal in the end by closing a critical gap in funding.

Former two term Mayor Nick Tennyson – Caught in between City managers and Economic Development directors, Nick was the first person in authority to champion the project. He repeatedly cleared the way and tempered zealots to broker consensus.

Then Chair of the Board of County Commissioners, MaryAnn Black – Because the State Delegation required unanimity between the City and County and because ultimately given State approval, the County has taxing authority, MaryAnn, now with DUHS, was pivotal in securing BOCC approval to seek a tax increase prior to the public process.

Then Senator Wib Gulley – When proponents sought State authorization of a tax to pay for the theater, prior to vetting the project with the public, Senator Gulley brokered a compromise and ensured due process prior to the Delegation taking it to the General Assembly.

Mayor Bill Bell – The Mayor came into office with the project facing significant hurdles and some controversy. He personally moved it through each remaining obstacle and insisted that individuals fulfill promises.

Others played important roles including the Tourism Development Authority when asked by legislative committees for affirmation to increase the tax on overnight visitors (paying for 90%+ of the construction debt) but without typically reconforming the other uses of Durham’s occupancy tax to state legislative guidelines.

Or Downtown Durham Inc. for doing the lion’s share of lobbying and the architect and director of economic and employment development for creatively overcoming serious obstacles during planning and construction . Or even Nederlander/PFM for partnering on this venture as the operator and booking entity of the theatre ensuring a business model that would work in a public/private partnership.

But the five people above, looked beyond the heated and win/lose push and shove of power politics to gently and quietly sheppard the project to fruition. The reality of the DPAC comes down to their commitment, proactivity and approval at pivotal points in its evolution.

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