When Mike Birling came to the Durham Bulls in 1998 – three years after the opening of Durham Bulls Athletic Park in downtown Durham – he had to walk 10 to 15 minutes each day just to get lunch.
Now, his office is surrounded by restaurants of all types, including 11 in the neighboring American Tobacco Historic District.
Birling’s simplified quest to find food is indicative of a Durham transformation that he attributes to the Bulls’ decision to move from the outskirts to the center of downtown in 1995 – a decision that has provided inspiration for officials hoping a new ballpark can have the same effect in Fayetteville.
“We understand that our market is not as mature as the Durham market, but ... one of the models that we would aspire to would be the Durham Bulls’ model,” Fayetteville mayor pro tempore Mitch Colvin said.
American Tobacco has become a 16-acre hub of Durham commerce and tourism in the time since the previously abandoned tobacco warehouses were purchased in 2002 by Capitol Broadcasting Co., which also owns the Bulls. Nearby, 8-year-old Durham Performing Arts Center has become a magnet for traveling Broadway plays.
Just beyond the outfield of the ballpark itself, Tobacco Road Sports Cafe has become a dining fixture, and a pair of law offices, a tax software company and the Durham County Justice Center form an urban skyline backdrop for home runs.
“I can’t say enough about the tremendous impact that the Durham Bulls have had on Durham, and specifically downtown Durham,” wrote Durham Visitors Bureau president Shelly Green to The News & Observer. “The new stadium ... has been a catalyst for positive economic growth.”
Birling said the Bulls have developed a close relationship with the city’s corporate community.
“I can’t tell you how many cities have brought their mayors, brought their city councils to Durham to see what has happened here, and they want to go off to their city and make the same thing happen,” Birling said.
Colvin and other Fayetteville officials did exactly that in 2014, creating one of several connections between the two cities. The founder of Greenfire Real Estate Holdings, which has been an influential developer in Durham’s revitalization, was among a group of investors who purchased the abandoned Hotel Prince Charles (next to the proposed Fayetteville stadium site) earlier this year in hopes of renovating it into apartments.
More recently, the group of Fayetteville officials, including councilman Jim Arp, also visited Columbia, S.C., where a just-completed stadium has created an estimated $500 million in development in the surrounding area.
“While we wouldn’t have as big a venue as Durham or even Columbia, the idea is to build the same kind of quality fan experience,” Arp said. “The complex we’d be building would not just be a baseball stadium. It becomes a placemaker downtown, and it draws people in. … That’s what it’s doing in other communities and that’s our interest here.”
Asked what advice he would give to Fayetteville, Birling echoed Arp’s message, emphasizing the importance of making a ballpark into more than just a facility for baseball.
“When you’re expecting communities to put in tax dollars, it’s very difficult to ask someone, ‘Hey, let’s put in this money to build a stadium, yet we only have 72 home games,’ ” he said. “These stadiums are no longer looked at as just a baseball venue — they’re looked at as a community place.”