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Mayor Bill Bell and I walk down Main Street, stopping every few seconds to shake hands with or smile at a local Durhamite passing by. We’ve just come from an event at the Corcoran Street parking deck held to celebrate the installation of new electric car chargers. Now, we’re just enjoying downtown Durham. 

“Having the willingness to take the risk [to invest downtown], and feeling like it’s going to come out the right way – that’s what we’ve been able to do,” Mayor Bell says. “I’ve always had a sense that downtown pretty much defines a community.”

Mayor Bell has served the City of Durham as Mayor since 2001. After sixteen years, he has seen Durham through dramatic change. The Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC), the Durham Bulls, and the American Tobacco Campus are thriving centers of art, sports, innovation, and technology in the heart of Durham that have come to fruition during his tenure.

Mayor Bell recalls his early days in office, when he would travel to neighboring cities to see how they built successful communities. At the time, Durham had a reputation for crime and poverty.

“Raleigh, Cary, Chapel Hill: Each of those had their own character,” Mayor Bell says. “In some respects, Durham didn’t come out as good, whether you’re talking about education, quality of life, or things to do. We just weren’t there.” Mayor Bell’s challenge was to get the city on board with his vision of what could be.

“It was not easy doing DPAC,” Mayor Bell recalls. “First of all, why are you going to do it across the street from the jail? It’s across the railroad tracks. What’s it going to do to the Carolina Theatre? Who’s going to come? So that was a very difficult period in trying to keep [the community] together in support of it.”

After years of collaboration with city council members, mayoral staff, and many public partnerships, Mayor Bell has learned to play to the city’s strengths and trust others to lead where he can learn.

“I’d like to say that I knew DPAC was going to turn out as great as it is,” Mayor Bell says, “but I didn’t know that! I thought it was going to do well, but did I think it was going to be one of the top performing theaters in the country? No, I didn’t know that. That’s been successful because we’ve had three ingredients: a great facility, great partners, and people who know how to run a theater and bring in the shows.”

Now, in a remarkable turn of the tide, mayors of cities across the country are coming to Durham to learn from its rise to the No. 1 ranked city for millennials. It’s a high point of contrast for Mayor Bell as his mayoral leadership comes to a close this coming December 2017. But he still plans to remain active in the city and fully support the leadership of Durham’s next mayor. His advice?

“Don’t just let it stay where it is. Make it better.”

Written with Chrislyn Choo

Anne Marie Hagerty

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