It was one of two neighborhood revitalization grants the city council awarded Monday night; the other was another restaurant project with different property owners on Angier Avenue.
Wendy Woods and Stacey Poston originally requested $170,000 in grant funding to supplement the $722,000 in private investment for the project. The city’s Office of Economic and Workforce Development lowered that amount to $100,000, and the council approved the grant 6-0.
The West End is a “targeted area” for these types of economic incentives, said Chris Dickey of OEWD. “And this is a homegrown business.”
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Woods and Poston live nearby in the Burch Avenue neighborhood. “We’ve been trying to invest in a business in that area for a long time,” Woods told the council.
The new restaurant will create 36 jobs over three years, all of them paying a living wage. The menu prices, Woods added, would also be moderate and affordable to those living in the area.
Councilwoman Jillian Johnson asked Woods if she was committed to hiring from the neighborhood.
“Absolutely,” Woods replied. “I was brought up in Durham and will support my community.”
The city invested in this neighborhood in 2014, awarding a $220,000 streetscape grant to Kent Corner; the money came from neighborhood revitalization funding and revenue from the sale of a city-owned parking lot on West Chapel Hill Street.
Projects funded through Neighborhood Revitalization Grants are expected to help revitalize an area, include private financing, create and retain permanent full-time, jobs that pay a living wage, and to make those jobs accessible to lower-income neighborhood residents, including the unemployed.
However, there was some concern over whether a restaurant project in Old East Durham would accomplish those goals. Migrate Property 2, LLC, requested $100,000 in grant funding to convert a vacant 1930s Gulf gas station into a restaurant at 2201 Angier Avenue.
The council approved the request, but because of concerns over gentrification, not unanimously. Members voted 5-1 for the project. Johnson voted no; Councilman Charlie Reece was absent from the meeting.
Cameo Voorhies, who lives on East Knox Street in Duke Park, asked the city for $100,000 to renovate the brick building. Her company, Migrate Property 2, is looking for a tenant to operate a restaurant, cafe or coffeeshop. According to city documents, the historic structures would be kept intact. The canopy space would be enclosed to increase the square footage from 1,200 to 1,623 square feet.
Migrate bought the building in March for $95,000, according to county property records.
Johnson said she was concerned about whether the new restaurant would benefit the neighborhood — revitalizing it rather than gentrifying it. The area is 69 percent African-American, with a median household income of just $23,000 a year, well below the county’s median of $67,000 annually. More than half of renters are “cost-burdened,” meaning more than 30 percent of their gross income goes to housing costs.
“There is nothing in your plan with specific job benefits,” Johnson said. “And who would be served at the restaurant?”
Voorhies told council that she would encourage a tenant to hire employees from the neighborhood. “Ideally it would be a local business wanting to do a second location,” Voorhies said. “We’re still in that process.”
However, while a tenant could be encouraged to hire from the neighborhood and pay a living wage, Voorhies acknowledged she ultimately could not control those decisions.
Migrate Property has bigger plans for Old East Durham than the restaurant. In its proposal to the city, the company wrote that, “We see Old East Durham and the Angier-Driver Corridor as the next Geer Street area, but more beautiful.”
Migrate owns other buildings in the neighborhood, including 2110 -2114 Angier Avenue. It houses a trophy shop and barber. Two storefronts are vacant. According to county property records, Migrate bought the commercial strip for $240,000 last December. Ten years ago, the sale price was $85,000.
One of the storefronts is slated to become a small family-owned pharmacy this fall, Migrate wrote in its proposal. The company also plans to work with a Durham muralist to paint the east side of the building to be “an additional signal of change to the neighborhood.”
‘Cuts both ways’
Aiden Graham, a community organizer, told the cuncil that while he’s long pushed for a neighborhood stabilization program in Old East Durham, the proposal for 2201 Angier Avenue “looks like a gentrification project that would further contribute to displacement of people in the neighborhood.”
Mayor Bill Bell countered that since the building has been vacant, “I don’t consider this a case of gentrification. We’re trying to create an economic opportunity for businesses.”
There is a precedent for neighborhood revitalization grants in this neighborhood. Joe Busfan, whose building housed Joe’s Diner and the TROSA grocery at 2100 Angier Avenue received a $200,000 from the city in 2010. It also received $237,000 in historic tax credits. Last year, the diner became a commissary that isn’t open to the public; the grocery closed in 2012.
Councilman Eddie Davis added that this is “an issue that cuts both ways.”
“I’m not sure if we would want to veto a proposal that would bring some kind of renewal to a certain area,” he said. “We also have to do everything we can to bring commerce and economy to a neighborhood that has’t had that. We have to balance the discussion between revitalization and gentrification.”
While supportive of the project, Councilman Steve Schewel advised Voorhies that city staff will work with the company to find the right tenant, and “we’ll be holding you accountable for that. It’s not a passing interest. It’s not insignificant to us.”
Lisa Sorg is a correspondent for The Durham News and the blog Bull City Rising, where this article first appeared. It is reprinted with permission.