Joe’s Diner in East Durham closed last month, but that isn’t necessarily surprising, nor is it bad thing.
Owner Joe Bushfan’s decision to expand his commissary into the restaurant space could be among a handful of efforts that help build foot traffic in the Angier Avenue-Driver Street commercial district.
Bushfan, who opened Joe’s Diner about five years ago with the help of a $200,000 city revitalization grant and $237,000 in historic tax credits, said he didn’t have enough customers to support the restaurant, while food truck and cart vendors were knocking on his commissary door. About 25 vendors are using the space.
“The community is kind of stagnant right now,” he said. “I am just trying to be a little more creative.”
The area has a new shine after $4.8 million city streetscaping project that provided new sidewalks lined with brick-colored pavers, benches and trees and flowers.
The area is still mostly barbershops, convenience stores and auto body shops. But the tide just might be about to turn with the help of Bushfan’s commissary and two other opportunities.
Self-Help Credit Union has two properties under contract.
The properties include the former bank building at 2116 Angier Ave. and the more than 20,000 square foot (not including the sanctuary) Angier Avenue Baptist Church, in the center of the commercial district.
Self-Help spent three months meeting with an advisory group of 20 business and community representatives on what they would like to see in the area, said Kim Cameron, director of real estate for the Self-Help Credit Union real estate team.
“One of those things we are looking at is putting some East Durham-based nonprofits in the area,” and bringing in other services that the community is interested in like a pharmacy or an ATM, she said. “We are still in the process of trying to just develop that plan.”
While Habitat for Humanity, Preservation Durham, urban pioneers and others have taken care of the housing stock – which has improved significantly over the years – Self-Help is focusing on the economic development space, Cameron said.
While the project wouldn’t come to fruition until around 2017, it could be key to taking the area to the next level for a couple of reasons, supporters say.
First, they have worked with community to pull in stakeholders and deliver something that is wanted. Second, it’s a big step toward bringing in foot traffic every day.
Ever since I did a story on the streetscaping at the end of 2014, I have been so curious about what would bring viability to the commercial district. Stanley Rose, owner of Rose Paint & Body Shop, told me back then he was just waiting for the area to pop, just like downtown. While I was impressed with the new streetscaping and the general progress in the area, it’s hard to ignore that the sidewalks were pretty much empty.
It’s one thing to transform a residential neighborhood with the help of housing organizations and urban pioneers, but a business district is a much larger and more expensive animal - even if the city is offering incentive grants.
In my quest to understand what could make the area work, I turned to Farad Ali, president and chief executive officer at the N.C. Institute of Minority Economic Development.
One way, Ali said, to make that happen is for community leaders to identify the companies they want in the area and recruit them.
For example, the institute was recruited to move from Raleigh to downtown Durham in 1999, Ali said. Initially, the institute was surrounded by vandalized buildings. Fifteen years later, public, private and nonprofit investments have transformed that area into one where people feel safe walking down the street.
So, when I heard about the Self-Help initiative it felt like a realistic path to attracting initial foot traffic. Couple that with Bushfan’s commissary and James Rogers’ plan to renovate a two-story building catty-corner from the church and across the street from Bushfan’s commissary, and the area takes a big step in the right direction.
Rogers, a Durham attorney who lives in Cary, plans to renovate the 7,700 square-foot building to include two apartments on the second floor and four retail spaces on the ground level. Two of those spaces are occupied by a used furniture store and mini-mart. James is eligible to receive up $170,000 in city grant funds for the project.
Meanwhile, Bushfan isn’t completely out of the hotdog business. He still sells hotdogs from a food truck behind his commissary – when it isn’t booked for other engagements. And he’s also thinking about what kind of restaurant might work in the near and distant future.
“Just don’t count us out,” he said. “We are scrappy.”