Tuesday, March 10, 2015

An Unsung Hero

There were only three of us who knew the untold story behind how Durham, North Carolina saved the Bulls.  Now only two of us remain and it is time for me to keep a promise.

Legends are a type of myth that combines fact and fiction in a way that re-harmonizes or re-narrates stories to contemporize them.  This is how villains become heroes and prodigal sons are redeemed.

This happened to the story of how Durham saved its beloved Bulls baseball club, even official accounts and with news stories often quoting people who were not yet in the room.

My purpose in fulfilling this promise to the late Chuck Grubb is not to set the legend straight.  The story as re-narrated is still worthy and the heroes as recast well deserving.

Chuck wanted a fragment of fingerprint left so that generations to come, when harmonizing is less important than it is today, will have some sense of just how close Durham was to losing the team and how the actions of a very few turned that around.

He asked me because I was there from the beginning and the only one of the three of us still living from that time who has remained rooted in Durham.

My role was extremely minor, even reactive. 

My chronicle begins when Chuck brought three of us together after a disheartening meeting took place on March 16. 1990.

That meeting had been less than 24 hours after voters had narrowly rejected a proposal intended to keep the soon-to-be new owner of the Bulls from moving the team from Downtown Durham to a location in Raleigh across the county line.

It had included a few others representing the city, county, chamber of commerce, the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau (DCVB) and one or two others.

It would be three more years before Downtown Durham Inc. would exist.

The meeting was short.  Everyone was exhausted, angry and out of ideas. The consensus of those who could bear to talk believed the cause was lost and wanted to give up.

I had been in Durham less than 9 months, recruited to jumpstart DCVB, Durham’s first official community marketing organization, an organization intended to become, in part, the guardian of sense of place including assets such as the Bulls.

While at the table, it was too soon to be able to fill that role.

Heavily spending to narrowly sway Durham voters against a stadium proposal, the new owner from Raleigh had commitments there to use prepared food tax revenues, newly granted by the state, but denied Durham, to build a new home for the Bulls.

Soon he would complete an option to buy the Bulls.

As purely a business venture, it was reasonable even though a college student survey project of fans had shown that even fans from Raleigh would be less likely to attend without the authentic, warehouse setting of the old Bulls ballpark in Durham.

Chuck would say I called him.  I thought it was the other way around but we talked later that day and agreed to meet.  I brought along one of my new stakeholders who had been calling me repeatedly about what our fledgling organization could do and encouraging me not to give up.

Ray Hobbs, who after all these years still keeps in touch from time to time had returned to Durham as a hotelier six months after I arrived.  He had traveled here first as a kid when his father was undergoing treatment at Duke.

Ray had previously managed another hotel in Durham in the mid-1980s as Miles Wolfe was resurrecting the Bulls and simultaneously Minor League Baseball overall.

But when I arrived in 1989, Ray was managing a hotel down in Raleigh, while trying to make his way back to Durham.  There he had got to know another hotelier named Hobbs, Jim, but no relation.

When Chuck and I met that day with Ray, I was still far too green to know my way around or what to do, but Ray offered one last “Hail Mary.”

He volunteered to check with Raleigh hoteliers to see how they felt about the new prepared food tax being used to poach tourism assets from other communities.

He found it didn’t set well at all but then as now any real organizational clout of hotels had migrated from local and state to the national level.

But soon the “Hobbs boys” as he calls them connected with T. Jerry Williams who then-headed the powerful North Carolina Restaurant Association and whose ascent had paved the way for Raleigh and Charlotte and their respective counties to have the new food tax.

The “Hobbs boys,” with DCVB cranking out form letters for hoteliers and restaurateurs in both Durham and Raleigh to use, began a letter writing campaign to legislators protesting misuse of the tax to poach the Bulls, while serious threats of a lawsuit were made.

The joint publicity campaign worked.  Raleigh officials, fearful the food tax would be repealed, withdrew the stadium funding.

It is our fault that this part of the narrative is now lost.

Once a turning point is achieved and a change of course seems imminent, anyone behind the scenes in a controversy is usually on pins and needles to ensure redemption of those involved.

The owner of the Bulls now jokingly tells audiences that he was the first to call and offer an olive branch to Durham officials because they were saying such nasty things in public about him.

I recall that Chuck made that call.  But what matters most is that these two individuals became friends and began to work together on a new stadium proposal in Durham resulting in the Durham Bulls Athletic Park (DBAP.)

Ray soon moved on to manage hotels in other communities, eventually heading a chain in the Caribbean and becoming a sought after consultant.

A few years later, the owner of the Bulls called me down to where he was sitting along the first base line during a game with his then-corporate counsel and quizzed me about who owned the old, abandoned Lucky Strike Factory across the street.

Today, DBAP is part of over $100 million in public infrastructure invested in the district encompassing it, while the Bull’s owner has leveraged even more than that amount including invaluable historic tax credits to create a showcase of adaptive reuse that the owner calls the American Tobacco Complex surrounded by newer office buildings and soon a new hotel.

Oh, and the historic Durham Athletic Park that had been home to the Bulls on the other side of downtown since the 1930s and favored by voters who had turned down a new stadium. It has been nicely renovated and serves as home to the NCCU Eagles.

To illustrate how far people will go to re-harmonize a story, a few years ago, until corrected, a person speaking to a group of Minor League Officials went so far as to intimate that the Bulls had built the DBAP to save Durham, completely inverting what actually took place.

This is how legends evolve.

Legends are a form of folklore.  They are ways people make meaning of their lives.  It is a natural form of healing and redemption that stories such as this are re-narrated and harmonized over time.

Heroes are evolved over time to reflect changing cultural values.

Dr. Lynnette Porter, author of several books about heroes, reminds us that King Arthur is an example of a “literary hero who has been reconstructed over time.”  Others such as Galadriel, a royal elf in The Lord of the Rings, worked behind the scenes for world salvation.

So it is equally important that future generations understand complexities and never forget the crucial but quiet, unsung contributions of heroic individuals at pivotal points in a community’s history.

In time, I suspect Ray Hobb’s contribution to Durham’s story will be rewoven back into the narrative of how Durham saved the Bulls.

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