By Natalie Ritchie.
Durham’s locally owned, independent businesses are not getting enough respect from the city, said Tom Campbell, co-owner of The Regulator Bookshop on Ninth Street.
Campbell opened The Regulator in 1976, making it the oldest store on the street that remains there today. “The Research Triangle had started but wasn’t much yet,” Campbell said. “Erwin Mills” referred to the working textile mill across the street rather than the upscale apartment complex that has since taken its place.
“A lot has changed since then,” Campbell said.
Harris Teeter opened in November. Panera Bread and Massage Envy opened in December. These franchises joined Subway and Jimmy John’s on the west side of the street, further establishing the divide between the large chains and the locally-owned, independent businesses like The Regulator on the east side.
According to Campbell, the new arrivals have not caused major changes yet, but Durham residents will start to notice differences in the coming months.
On November 4, 2013, the Durham City Council chose to dedicate $1,039,687.32 to the Ninth Street Infrastructure Redevelopment project. This was at the request of Chartwell Property Group (CPG), the developers responsible for the new stores. CPG asked that part of the tax revenue from the new development be used to fund lighting and sidewalk improvements on the west side of the street.
Blue markers indicate locally owned business. Red markers represent chain store. Click on the markers to see specific business names. Zoom out to see full street.
During a City Council Work Session in October, City Council Member Steve Schewel said, “All or much of the streetscape improvements are on the west side of the street and the merchants are on the east side of the street, and they have been there for a long time, and they are the reason that the merchants on the west side want to come there.”
Later, however, Schewel clarified that these changes on the west side of the street are actually benefitting both sides. The lighting and sidewalk improvements, for instance, are actually long-term goals of the east side merchants.
Campbell agreed that the changes will make the entire area look better, but added that there are improvements needed on the east side of the street as well.
Prior to this project, he said, the city had not invested in the Ninth Street Shopping District in 35 years with one exception.
“They once moved light poles from one side of the street to the other and drew lines on the ground about 25 years ago,” Campbell said.
The agreement to fund these improvements with the tax revenue also included provisions for CPG to lease the parking lot across from The Regulator to the city.
According to an October 2012 memo, “the City would lease the parking lot for approximately $305,000.00 over a twenty (20) year term.” In other words, the city would pay $15,250 a year to lease the lot from CPG.
In November 2013, however, the city council voted to pay $82,500 a year for a five-year lease. The total cost amounts to $429,055.
Campbell claimed this discrepancy is due to the city’s poor negotiating. The city agreed to spend more than $1,000,000 on streetscape improvements, giving CPG everything it wanted, before locking down the price of the lease.
When it was time to negotiate the price, the city was left without any leverage, Campbell explained.
According to Schewel, however, there had never been an agreement on a lower price. The $15,250 figure was simply the economic development staff’s estimation for some of their original calculations.
“That was simply some preliminary work they were doing, and the developer definitely never agreed to that or talked about that price,” he said.
In any case, because the price of the lease was higher than originally expected, the city council voted in February to begin charging a parking fee of $1 an hour to help offset the cost.
According to The Herald Sun, City Council members expect the parking fees to reduce this value by $308,622, but taxpayers will still have to pay for the remaining $120,433.
“The other alternative is to have the taxpayers at large fund the rent for the lot,” said Schewel. “I think it’s much fairer for the people who park there to fund it through a small parking fee.”
Campbell fought this decision at the Durham City Council Work Session on October 24, 2013. According to the minutes, Mayor Bill Bell was resistant to pay for the lease because, even charging for parking, the city would not break even.
Campbell told Bell to apply the same standard to parking lots downtown. “If you are not in favor of operating a deficit on Ninth Street do not operate a deficit downtown,” he said.
Harris Teeter owns its larger parking lot, so its customers will continue to park there for free. “I’m afraid it will make things all the more segregated here,” Campbell said, in reference to the east-west divide.
In addition to the parking fees, the influx of national chains on Ninth Street will cause rents to rise and threaten the small, independent stores. The Regulator will not be affected by rising rent prices because its owners own the building space, Campbell said.
Still, according to The Herald-Sun, the owners of Charlie’s Pub & Grille and Zola Craft Gallery are expecting to close their businesses soon, and Tip Top Cycles closed in February.
Durham resident Katie Barron is concerned about what these closings mean for the future of Ninth Street. “When I was growing up in North Carolina, Chapel Hill was a mecca of cool largely because of Franklin Street and its indie feel. Now it is just one chain store after another,” she said. “Watching the same thing happen to Ninth Street in Durham is depressing.”
Barron’s husband shares her concerns. “Durham’s imperfect, gritty past has fueled a lot of the modern day creative renaissance, and to try to cover up all the imperfect spots with chain restaurants and nondescript apartments would likely kill the spirit that has attracted so many creative minds and hearts,” Walt Barron said.
“I’m okay with a local Harris Teeter and one or two Moe’s, but let’s make the ratio of future developments 10:1 in favor of local business,” he said.