It was hard to believe the transformation.
In the early 2000s, I spent a lot of time in East Durham while working for the local newspaper. Prostitutes walked the streets as men in cars circled the area when children boarded school buses in the morning and when they got home in the afternoon. Dilapidated houses haunted almost every block and served as a havens for the homeless and the strung out.
It was a different place when I visited last month. Houses were being built and renovated. A completed $4.8 million City of Durham streetscaping project transformed a two-block commercial area with new streets and sidewalks near the intersection of Angier Avenue and Driver Street.
Impressive? Very much so. Will that, as one of the small-business owners suggested, equate to a transformation over the next three years like the one near the intersection of Geer Street and Rigsbee Avenue? That’s hard to imagine at this point.
The area still has a long way to go in terms of bringing in foot traffic that many small businesses need to survive.
Ideally, the Driver-Angier area needs an employment or economic development center, said Farad Ali, president and chief executive officer at the N.C. Institute of Minority Economic Development.
Something that would bring people in every day and help attract the density needed by other business models.
One way, Ali said, to help make that happen is for community leaders to identify the companies they want in the area and recruit them.
The institute was recruited to move from Raleigh to downtown Durham in 1999, Ali said. Initially, the institute was surrounded by vandalized buildings. Fifteen 15 years later, public, private and nonprofit investments have transformed that area into one where people feel safe walking down the street.
Does the East Durham community have the same potential?
“I don’t know,” Ali said. It depends on the community’s velocity and intentionality in driving progress, he said.
Mary Speight, assistant regional director at SBTDC’s N.C. Central University office, said city investment and incentives might make it more conducive to attracting certain businesses.
Businesses considering moving into East Durham could be eligible for a neighborhood revitalization grant, which would cover 50 percent of the capital investment – up to $500,000 per project – for companies that would positively impact the area, according to information provided by city officials.
The affordable rents might be appealing to companies that require a lot of production or storage space, such as a manufacturing company, a bakery that delivers to other restaurants or a printing company, Speight said.
LaShon Harley, director of the Small Business Center at Durham Tech, said the area might also be appealing to owners who want to be near downtown, but don’t want to pay downtown prices.
That could be lawyers, accountants, consultants, florists or nonprofits. a florist.