Monday, September 10, 2012

The 1980s - Durham’s Pivotal Sense-of-Place Decade

In 1984 then-Durham Chamber of Commerce exec Bob Booth was inspired to hire Jeff Downin, who had just earned a Master’s degree from Duke Divinity School, to head up a new Chamber division, then called government affairs.

The roster of those who went on to head public policy for this business-advocacy organization in Durham, NC, where I live, is stellar and none more so than John White, who currently holds that post.

Maybe it was divine influence or maybe it was the timely board leadership of the legendary Travis Porter, a friend whose image is shown in this blog and who passed away a few years before I retired after having served as an ex-officio on the Chamber’s board for nearly two decades.

Together in 1984, Porter, Booth and Downin, who would move on a couple of years later, can be credited with the Chamber’s wise assent to Durham’s decision nearly thirty years ago to ban and remove billboards along its roadsides in defense of the community’s scenic character and I believe, in an effort to preserve the sanctity of its signature trees.

W. Travis PorterPorter was a gravel-voiced lawyer, a tough former Marine and a practical, old-school North Carolina progressive who blended business community concerns with larger-community concerns.  He understood that a chamber’s role is as much to advocate on behalf of the community to businesses, many owned or managed by non-residents, as it is to advocate on behalf of those businesses to the community.

Forward-thinking chambers back then were already eschewing the antiquated notion that nothing noteworthy happened in their communities unless the chamber was a convener.  Instead they had begun to grasp that is far better to focus on being included at the table as equals with other strategic partners in the community.

These were also the days before so many chambers began to be neutralized by billboard representatives (or their surrogates) who began, as well documented by internal correspondence, to strategically infiltrate committees and even boards of directors banking on the hope that cronyism could protect them from revealing conflict of interest and serve to divide chambers from the best interests of their communities.

Also in 1984, the Durham Chamber nodded approval as community leaders germinated two other actions that have proven equally pivotal to fostering and promoting Durham’s sense-of-place.  One of these was the formation of a committee charged with shaping community consensus for a zoning overlay to protect I-40 along its path through this community which including prohibition of billboards as well as a wide range of actions to preserve and plant trees along that roadway.

Durham also laid the groundwork back then for the 1986 passage of state legislation including a provision for formation of the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau (DCVB) as the community’s official destination marketing organization, envisioned, in part, as the “defender of Durham’s image and brand and guardian of its unique sense of place” and the start-up of which brought me to Durham in 1989.

Coupled with the 1981 and 1985 emergence of Durham’s first adaptive reuse of historic, brick factory buildings, this troika of 1980s initiatives signal the genesis of the bedrock of sense-of-place into the reinvention of a community which has evolved to its resurgence today as one of the most highly ranked communities in the nation across a wide and diverse number of benchmarks, earning the signature “where great things happen.”

Booth continued to make inspired choices to guide the Chamber’s public policy and government affairs efforts.  When Downin moved on he was replaced by Frank Smiley, a native returning to North Carolina after serving a career as a city manager in the Great Lakes region.

Smiley, who past away down east the year I retired, made certain with the leadership of Wayne Hays, then head of the Chamber board, that DCVB, the organization I was recruited to jump-start in 1989, would be formed as an independent organization and that its mission and resources would be safeguarded and not siphoned off as they often had been in prior decades by some chambers or local governments in other parts of the country.

As the 1990s emerged, Booth also tapped another inspired choice when Smiley moved on.  Nick Tennyson, another Duke grad and a former developer headed that Chamber division for a several years before moving on to head of the homebuilders association that represents three of the four counties that make up the Durham metro area and serving two terms to end the decade as the Mayor of Durham.

No one deserves more credit than Tennyson for paving the way for the massive American Tobacco Campus, one of many successful projects which ride on the shoulders of those 1980s adaptive use pioneers including West Village, Peabody Place, the campus of Measurement Inc., Golden Belt and now several adaptive reuse projects in the City Center such as 21C and a few more in the organic but unofficial NoCo district, each fostering the “built aspect of Durham’s sense of place.

But It is important to never forget that the path for these successes along with the preservation and promotion of far more temporal aspects of Durham’s sense of place was laid in that pivotal decade of the 1980s.

1 comment:

baxter said...

Thanks for the references.