Durham News: Opinion

Resolutions for downtowns that go beyond trendy – Lew Myers

Lew Myers
Lew Myers

The holiday season brought people together, and increasingly in Durham and other Triangle metros the place to gather was, once again, downtown. That’s especially gratifying to all of us – such as those here at Downtown Durham Inc. – whose mission it is to nurture and support the vibrancy of our city center.

The holidays are also a time to set goals for the new year and to make plans for achieving them. Certainly, the interest in downtown experiences is not without challenges, from big cities to cozy towns.

First, let’s celebrate. In Durham and around the country, people are rediscovering the joy and energy of urban living, of walking from eatery to shopping spot, of experiencing public and gallery art as well as music and theater, of greeting old friends and meeting new ones.

This trend has business implications. Many of the entrepreneurs at Durham’s American Underground startup hub are here in part for the downtown density and the “creative collisions” it makes possible. In turn, according to the American Underground’s annual report, these startups have created around 780 full- time jobs and in 2016 pumped $1.4 million into local businesses in and near downtown.

Similarly, the Durham Innovation District (Durham.ID) has begun construction on two new downtown buildings to one day host tech and life science companies that, just a few years earlier, might have settled in a far flung office park. Still more workplaces are going up, which, in turn, leads to more housing – as the work at The Brannan near Central Park and other developments attests.

But growth alone is not enough. When groups like DDI mention “placemaking” as an important part of our mission, we’re talking about measures of success that go beyond economic development factoids. In Durham, our vision of “place” includes downtown’s history and heritage, its personality and eccentricities and, importantly, its viability for a diverse cross-section of people.

In 2016, downtown Durham fused past, present and future in buoyant events such as Black Wall Street Homecoming and festivals including Moogfest and Art of Cool. These happenings not only showcased today’s Durham, but manifested important parts of our very DNA – music, innovation, inclusivity. Elsewhere, other downtown advocates are also emphasizing ideas and events that are captivating, yes, but authentic, too – true to the characters of their streets and people.

Our resolutions for 2017 are, of course, specific to Durham but the underlying philosophies apply across metro boundaries and regions. We will be working, among other items, on making it easier for people to get to and around our downtown core; on nurturing the cultural attractions – from museums to buskers – that light people’s imaginations; on helping to spur job creation, especially through the success of local businesses; and on finding ways to ensure that the city center remains a diverse tapestry.

Bottom line: our downtowns should be more than trendy. They should be eclectic, nurturing places that highlight and bring out the best in our communities. In Durham, we’re grateful to be on the job and on pace.

Lew Myers is interim president and CEO of Downtown Durham Inc.