Wake County is thinking pretty highly of Durham these days, and that, says Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau CEO Shelly Green, "has been a real, real shift."
Green was showing the City Council results of the bureau's latest "State of Durham's Image" survey last week. Among its findings is that, of about 500 Wake County respondents in a telephone poll early this year, more than 65 percent said Durham had a positive image in their minds. Only 8.1 percent had a negative image.
That's almost a 180-degree flip from 1993, when the bureau commissioned its first survey of how its neighbors viewed the Bull City. Then, 65 percent of Wake respondents reported negative vibes where Durham was concerned, and only 12 percent saw the city in a favorable light.
Same thing with Orange County. In 1993, 44.5 percent of Orange respondents gave Durham a negative rating and just 21 percent a positive. In the latest poll, conducted by the NanoPhrades research firm (whose home office is in Holly Springs, Wake County), 84.9 percent of about 800 Orange residents had good feelings about Durham, and just 8.1 percent saw Durham on the dark side.
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Green didn't try to explain the shift. She did mention Durham's high marks in assorted national "best places" rankings and her agency's efforts to educate workers who come in contact with visitors about the city and county.
She also had a chart that roughly correlated image improvement with the declining crime rate over the past 20 years.
"You can see some parallels," she said.
Durham's own residents have always expressed satisfaction and pride in the old hometown when asked on DCVB's behalf. But Durham residents - at least, those who worried about such things - also have been distinctly self-conscious about how those across the county line perceived them.
That goes back a long way. In his 1925 "The Story of Durham," Duke University historian W.K. Boyd described the city's image in the 1890s: "Durham was generally regarded as a dirty town, its people as uncultivated, its leading citizens as sordid and devoted to the worship of mammon."
In 1887, one of the town's newspapers devoted a full column and a half to refuting Durham's reputation as "one of the most sickly places in the state." More recently, in 1996, the county commissioners went on a budget retreat but spent most of their time talking about what to do about the perceived image problem.
Apparently, things have changed, but not completely. While majorities of both Orange (67.2 percent) and Wake (52.4 percent) respondents said their personal experiences in Durham had been positive, the counties next door diverged in the way people talk.
"Based on the way people talk, what kind of experience would you expect to have in Durham?" one poll question went.
In Orange County, more than half the respondents - 55 percent - said positive. In Wake County, only 32.3 percent felt the same way, and while just 10 percent in Orange County said Durham got bad-mouthing, 29.8 percent said so in Wake.
When Green had finished, Mayor Pro Tem Cora Cole-McFadden had one question:
"How," she asked, "do we get to share how we feel about them?"