No one person can claim credit for Durham’s positive economic and cultural transformation, but there is one who played a crucial role – Durham Mayor Bill Bell.
Bell formally stepped down Monday after 16 years as Durham’s mayor, but the effects of his surefooted leadership will continue to be seen for many years. During his tenure, the city’s downtown changed from largely deserted in the evening to bustling with entertainment and cultural events. The once-shuttered American Tobacco factory has become a vibrant campus of restaurants and offices, and the Durham Performing Arts Center draws visitors from throughout the region to see top national artists and entertainers.
These developments have been followed by restoration of old buildings into downtown apartments and condominiums, a surge in new restaurants that has made Durham a food capital and a remaking of Durham’s image from a fading tobacco town to a centerpiece of North Carolina’s emerging future driven by universities, high technology and a creative mix of natives and transplants.
Bell’s lasting contributions began with his push to merge the city and county school systems. That merger, as with a similar merger in Wake County, laid the foundation for Durham’s economic growth. After leaving the county board of commissioners to become mayor in 2001, Bell helped the city build on that foundation. Scott Selig, vice president of real estate for Duke University, described the longtime mayor as the conductor of city’s growth.
“Bell doesn’t play the instruments, but he helped give them a tempo and a sense of direction,” he said.
It’s an apt description, for Bell’s greatest accomplishment wasn’t in brick and mortar. It was in setting a tone. In a city where politics can quickly become racially charged, he brought people together by listening and acknowledging that more must be done to help low-income residents share in the city’s prosperity.
As he steps down, Durham’s conductor has rightly received an ovation. Take a bow, Mayor Bell.