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In Durham, Contemporary Attractions Emerge Before An Old South Backdrop

Art, Entertainment, Baseball And Retail Draw Interest From Around The Region And Beyond; Why The Dbap's Veggie Dogs Are Important.

By Lawrence Bivins

      Remember your first trip to downtown Durham?

      If you're like many of us, your initial images of the city may not have been favorable: empty shop fronts, barren streets, gaping potholes.

      Times have certainly changed - and very much for the better - if a late October visit to Durham's downtown is any indication. Avenues are smooth and sidewalks unlittered. Creative firms, eateries, retailers and galleries have brought renewed energy to the city's historic business district. There is ample parking, and friendly, upbeat locals offer welcoming smiles to visitors.

      But there is little that can compare to what can now be seen at the corner of Vivian and Mangum streets. There, sparkling as a symbol of Durham's cultural leadership role in the Research Triangle, is the glassy presence of the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC). The 100,000-square-foot, 2,800-seat entertainment venue is not set to open until December, though it has already generated excitement in Durham and beyond.

      DPAC has been eight years in the making, with local leaders carefully considering market data, funding options and design plans. The city set out to create a performing arts center on a level with that found anywhere in the world. Architects, acoustical engineers, theatrical technology professionals and designers were invited to submit ideas.

      The facility was created with several objectives in mind. There is the hope that it will sustain the momentum of Durham's downtown renaissance, bringing full- and part-time jobs to the city center. But as important, DPAC has been built to enhance Durham's appeal as a destination for Creative Class enterprises and jobs that will complement the city's strong reputation in health care, education and technology. Durham leaders believe the new center will also be an important cultural and economic development resource for the surrounding region, as well.

      In terms of direct job creation, DPAC has already begun to fulfill its promise. A job fair in early October drew 250 applicants from near and far. By the end of the day, DPAC officials had filled openings for box office personnel, stage technicians and ushering staff. The excitement shown by the applicants for DPAC was remarkable, says Adrienne Quick-Wright, director of operations at DPAC. We feel lucky to have been able to fill over 100 part-time positions ranging from event staff to backstage crew.

      Helping mark the center's opening is an impressive slate of entertainers that includes B.B. King, Kenny Rogers and Harry Connick, Jr.  DPAC's annual SunTrust Broadway Series will bring new and revived musicals like Rent, Fiddler on the Roof and The Color Purple.  The American Dance Festival, a 75-year-old educational and performing arts organization that is well known around the country, will also base itself at DPAC.

      But DPAC will likely be an attraction in and of itself. Designed by Chapel Hill architect Philip Szostak, the building is an airy, multi-level collection of right angles and insulated glass panels that draw attention from and to the nearby cityscape. Two dramatic staircases offer audience members a grand embrace. Spanish-born artist Jaume Plensa will also make his mark on DPAC with an edgy modern work known as Bridge to the Sky. Plensa's sculpture includes a massive aluminum disc engraved with the Shakespearean quote Sleep No More and illuminated by a 7,000-watt spotlight beaming up from an underground vault. Theatre staff will switch the light on one hour prior to evening events and shut it off an hour after their conclusion, creating a lighting effect that is expected to be visible for miles. Plensa's work, with its literary theme and links between earth and sky, should constitute yet another symbol of Durham's elevation into higher ranks as a cultural destination.

      If the re-emergence of Raleigh's downtown has been spurred through the leadership of Progress Energy, then Durham's inner-city transformation has come about through the inspiration of Capitol Broadcasting Company (CBC). CBC commissioned Plensa's Bridge to the Sky, for instance, but its leadership in Durham does not end there. CBC owns the Durham Bulls, the storied Triple-A baseball franchise, and led the way toward the construction in 1995 of the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, which is adjacent to the DPAC.

      The Durham Bulls Athletic Park, known locally as the DBAP, was designed by HOK Sport+Venue+Event, designer of Camden Yards in Baltimore, Jacobs Field in Cleveland and a host of other new stadiums. The ballpark, constructed at a cost of $16 million, accommodates 10,000 fans with comfortable seating and an intimate vantage point of the field. It comes as no surprise that games at the DBAP are a family-friendly experience. But the stadium has also been recognized for its animal-friendly eating options. Last year, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) named the DBAP the nation's Most Vegetarian-Friendly Minor League Ballpark in recognition of an extensive vegetarian menu that include garden burgers, veggie hot dogs, salads and black-bean burritos. The DBAP's great vegetarian selection benefits animals and the health of fans, said Dan Shannon, assistant director of PETA, upon making the first-ever award. Animal-friendly and health-conscious fans in the Triangle can enjoy the best vegetarian food in all of Minor League Baseball.

      Both the DBAP and DPAC are located within the American Tobacco District, one of the largest mixed-use redevelopments ever to take place in North Carolina. With more than a million square feet of office and retail space, eateries and residences, the American Tobacco District, has reinvented a defunct cigarette-manufacturing complex into a hip, attractive environment for workers, diners and visitors. The complex, with its colorful streetscapes and generous parking facilities, attracts about a million visitors annually. Among its dining options are a sushi bar, delicatessen, pizzeria and brew-pub.

      Those working at the American Tobacco District include hundreds of employees of Duke University's business office, North Carolina Public Radio, Detroit-based Compuware Corporation, Brightleaf Capital and Capitol Broadcasting Company's Fox 50 television station. Also there is McKinney (formerly McKinney + Silver), a prominent advertising firm whose clients include Sony, NASDAQ and Audi. In 2004, the firm unveiled its plan to move its 140-person staff from downtown Raleigh to a 40,000-square-foot space at the American Tobacco Campus. Its relocation was supported by $100,000 in financial assistance from the City of Durham.

      As American Tobacco District and other downtown assets draw workers, residents and visitors to Durham's inner city, another new attraction is pulling shoppers and diners to the southern end of the city. With the opening of The Streets of Southpoint in 2002, Durham took on a super-regional retail and entertainment lure that stretches 1.3 million square feet just off I-40. The indoor-outdoor complex, rated by USA Today among the Ten Great Places to Spend It All in One Place, boasts a high-end collection of shops and department stores with names from Apple Computer and Bose to Macy's and Nordstrom. Dining choices there include the likes of California Pizza Kitchen, Maggiano's Little Italy and PF Chang's. A 16-screen movie theatre augments a busy calendar of live entertainment by local musicians and street performers. The Streets of Southpoint is owned and operated by Chicago-based General Growth Properties, Inc., a leading retail real estate investment trust with ownership interests and management responsibilities for over 200 shopping malls across North America.


Still Hungry To Explore The Newer Wonders Of Durham?


      Here's a bonus: the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, adjacent the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. The $24 million, 65,000-square-foot structure was opened in 2005 and has drawn large crowds due to its unique permanent collection and innovative exhibits. The museum itself was designed by Rafael Violy, the Uruguayan architect now based in New York City whose portfolio includes the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Brooklyn Children's Museum. The new museum inaugurated its special exhibition galleries with The Forest: Politics, Poetics and Practice, reflecting the museum's focus on contemporary art. The complex is named in honor of Raymond D. Nasher, a member of the Duke's Class of 1943 who went on the become a prominent art collector and philanthropist.

      Don't let outdated memories of a dusty tobacco crossroads stop you from taking in some of the most exciting new attractions in North Carolina. Today, Durham is a rapidly transforming city that, while respectful of its stimulating history, is embracing all that is promising about the 21st Century.

      Mr. Bivins is a writer based in Raleigh.

Reprinted from Carolina Business online.

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