He's about as far as you get from an ex-Special Forces soldier who struts around with a cigar hanging from his mouth. But Durham native Dan Hill does have a few attributes that have garnered comparisons to Col. John "Hannibal" Smith of the 1980s TV series The A-Team. "I always like seeing a plan come together," said Hill, echoing the character's catchphrase. "Especially plans that just don't look like they can be done."
Like the cult television icon, Hill also has come up with a few far-fetched schemes that have bewildered even his closest allies. In the 1990s, Hill and two associates bought the broken-down and financially troubled Orange County Speedway, sight unseen. On another whim, he invested in a barge that hauled grain up and down the Mississippi River.
His latest endeavor: spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring the TROSA Grocery, Godspeed Internet Cafe and Joe's Diner to a nearly deserted East Durham business district. And here's the kicker—he knows full well that he's unlikely to get much of his money back.
"He poured not only funding, but he also poured his soul into it," said Wendy Nol, manager of the TROSA Grocery. "He just wants to see Durham and this particular community thrive. He also knew what it was in the past, and the potential that it has."
Business projections showed Hill it was financially imprudent to open a shop next to a row of dilapidated storefronts blighted by plywood and steel bars—a place where most passersby would rather hasten their steps than test their luck. But long before the intersection of Driver Street and Angier Avenue became known as East Durham's fulcrum of prostitution and crack vending, it was the center of a flourishing working-class community, with successful banks, clothing stores and a popular soda counter. But when the tobacco and cotton mill jobs started to move out, so did most of the workers, the churchgoers, the banks, businesses and repute.
Hill, the 66-year-old founder of the Hill, Chesson & Woody insurance company and a member of the board of directors for Yadkin Valley Bank, wanted to do something to revive that pride.
"What I've found in most communities is that there's a lot of conversation about what needs to be done, but to actually have it happen on the ground is really difficult to do," Hill said.
In his lifetime, Hill has done a lot of both. He worked to shape public policy through a term on City Council 10 years ago, and through Durham CrimeStoppers and The Durham Roundtable, which is known for its efforts to block bail reductions for dangerous offenders and track the re-arrests of people out on bail for other offenses.
And when he saw enough smart young boys waste their potential by tuning out at school, he helped start the Durham Nativity School, a tuition-free private middle school for low-income boys. The nine-year-old school serves about 40 students and uses small classes to foster boys' social and academic confidence, preparing them to attend some of the country's best private high schools. Hill belongs to the board of directors and is one of the school's top funders, according to annual reports.
Although the school is now near downtown, it used to be housed at the Angier Avenue Baptist Church, across the street from the business strip Hill is hoping to revive. In previous years, he tried to lure developers back to the business corridor. But investors would take one look at the location and pass up the opportunity, he said.
Then Hill met Joseph Bushfan, a former entertainment-industry bodyguard turned hot dog vendor who had aspirations of running a business. To Bushfan, who grew up in one of the roughest Boston suburbs, any danger of crime in East Durham—perceived or actual—was minimal by comparison. Realizing a bank would be unlikely to make a loan on a high-risk project in a high-risk location, Hill fronted the money for the project. He wasn't investing in the business, he said, but in Bushfan and his wife, a well respected couple with a presence in the community and the desire and potential to do even more.
"This is really about trying to help a community back on its feet," Hill said. "You've got to have the right people in place to do that."
So Hill loaned Bushfan the $150,000 to purchase three buildings in the 2000 block of Angier Avenue and put up another $600,000 for renovations that kept their pressed tin ceiling, mosaic tile and pine floors. Hill received tax credits and a city grant, but has earned less than half of his money back. He receives no revenue from the businesses or the buildings, which Bushfan owns.
"I've never had anyone say, 'Here, this is yours,'" Bushfan said. "I'm still at awe with it."
Hill also persuaded Kevin McDonald, president and founder of the TROSA substance abuse treatment program, to start the grocery that now inhabits the storefront two doors down from Joe's Diner.
Before TROSA Grocery opened, there wasn't fresh produce or meat within a mile, said Nol, the manager. Now residents have access to affordable, local food six days a week. Hill made it happen, she said, because he also gave generously to stock the store's shelves with more than 800 products, from salad dressing to dish soap.
"His investment is his belief in Durham, and especially for [this] neighborhood, and for the kids that need help," said McDonald, who also serves on the Durham Nativity School board. "He's just a heck of a man. He doesn't do it for publicity. He does it because it's the right thing to do."
Hill's faith in East Durham has been well timed with other private and public investment, including an influx of homeowners who are renovating their houses and $3.5 million in street and sidewalk improvements. Increased police patrols have also drastically cut crime in the neighborhood.
Hill hasn't just been a financier, but a mentor and hands-on campaigner for Bushfan's business. When Bushfan spent 11 days last month peddling hot dogs at the N.C. State Fair, including an indulgent one-pounder, Hill was there enticing potential customers with samples. When Bushfan sets up his hot-dog stand at Duke University home football games, Hill's there, too, before the game and at halftime. He also frequents Joe's Diner.
"He'll be sitting there eating lunch and then he'll jump up and bus dishes," McDonald said. "That's the kind of work ethic that's being lost in America—that you do anything to make it work."
Though only 16 years separate them, Bushfan said Hill has become a father figure to him.
"Where I'm from, you don't really ask for help. You just go through what you're going through," Bushfan said. "But he's been right there asking, 'What do you need?'"
Looking at the two of them—Bushfan, a hulking black man who spent 20 years as an intimidating bodyguard for musicians such as Earth, Wind & Fire, and Hill, a silver-haired white man who spends a lot of time in formal business meetings and boardrooms—they might come across as an odd pair. But putting their experience together, they hope to be a complementary combination. It was Bushfan, after all, who started calling Hill "Hannibal" and himself "Mr. T."