Thursday, May 10, 2012

Protecting Sense of Place from Mobs With Torches and Pitchforks

With a 1.5 to 1 favorability ratio nationwide and 39% unsure, Baltimore is evidence that it takes much more than a revitalized downtown and a trend-setting retro baseball park to fully rehabilitate a community’s reputation.

It is also one of the latest testaments to how tourism often kills the things it loves when a convention hotel, which a sports columnist in the region terms a "cruel cubist joke on a previously perfect ballpark," recently rose to block out the coveted view of the skyline there from Camden Yards.

That’s why, as a 40 year veteran of entities responsible for curating community sense of place to external audiences such as community-destination marketing organizations, I am relieved when I see thoughtful, data-driven and critical analysis being used to inform decisions and exhibit reservations such as those recently about the impact of cruise ships on Charleston, South Carolina or mega-casinos on South Florida.

I was just arriving in Durham in 1989 to spearhead an image turn-around here, where I still live, as construction was breaking ground for Camden Yards.  Little did I know as I marveled at the sense-of-place genius of building it in a warehouse district, that a move was afoot that in less than a year would try to relocate the Durham Bulls.

A proposal was on the table to relocate the team to an adjacent city and county willing to subsidize the building of what journalist Steve Rushin describes in a lyrcal  Sports Illustrated tribute to Boston’s Fenway Park as “state-of-the-art stadia …symmetrical quadruplets, multipurpose, multi-parking-spaced…” which displaced historic facilities around the country through the 1960s, 70s and 80s with concrete look-alikes.

“Stalked by baying mobs – of real estate developers, government officials and even proprietors - bearing metaphorical torches and pitchforks, wanting to do away with the beast…” as Rushin notes, historic and beloved facilities such as the historic Durham Athletic Park (DAP) were being displaced to a 65-acre geography of nowhere.

Durham was shell-shocked by the proposed loss of the Bulls, just months after the DAP, the team and the community had starred in the hit 1988 movie Bull Durham, still rated one of the top sports movies of all time and what historian John Thorn calls the “gold standard” of baseball movies.

Even the purported convenience of the proposed new location didn’t make sense. A student survey by North Carolina State University had confirmed that, without the warehouse ambiance of the old DAP and downtown Durham, the 60-70% of fans who commuted in from other cities were less likely to attend games.

Proving less and less differentiation, the era of customer satisfaction was already in its twilight and the era of customer experience was beginning to emerge.  People were drawn to be in environments that make them feel genuine and authentic.

Fortunately in Durham, the “baying mob” didn’t include one brave City Council member, Chuck Grubb who rallied community opposition, found funding and persuaded the teams new non-resident owner to support and, to his credit help shape a new-to-look-old “Camden Yards style” ballpark.

The city-owned Durham Bulls Athletic Park opened in the mid-1990s, still in downtown Durham, became the catalyst for the adaptive reuse of the historic Lucky Strike and Bull Durham tobacco factories into creative class offices.

The district now anchored by DBAP delivers on the overarching Durham brand including the slogan “Where Great Things Happen” and hopefully any new construction will never block out the skyline.

It is also unlikely that Camden Yards in Baltimore would have become what it is without the teamwork of long-time mayor and then governor, the late William Donald Schaefer and then-Baltimore Oriole president Larry Lucchino,who credits the look for the ballpark to “his best off-season acquisition”, Janet Marie Smith, an urban park planner.

At the turn of the century Lucchino became part owner and CEO of the Boston Red Sox and with principal owner John Henry and chairman Tom Werner rescued historic Fenway Park from the wrecking ball that had threatened it every decade or so beginning in 1958.

Fenway was last declared dead in 1995 just a year before as DBAP was set to open in Durham.  As Rushin notes in his Sports Illustrated tribute, Fenway dodged a bullet because the real estate magnate who proposed a new complex then turned out to be Frank McCourt who went on to bankrupt the Los Angeles Dodgers.

In fully renovating, restoring and updating Fenway to serve another century, Luchinno and his partners again brought in urban park planner Janet Marie Smith to work her magic on Fenway before she eventually returning to Baltimore and a role in renovating Camden Yard.

Sense of place is about much, much more than buildings but ballparks such as DPAB, DAP, Camden Yards and Fenway illustrate an important role and  Fenway illustrate something even more important.

Such a facility doesn’t have to be new to be “major league.”

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