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The Briar-Patch Factor


Anyone with an ounce of compassion has been feeling for Reyn Bowman these days. The president of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau, Bowman has tirelessly (some would say obsessively) promoted and protected Durham's "brand identity" since arriving in the Bull City in 1989. Reporters who dare identify Research Triangle Park as being located in Raleigh, for example, can expect a quick and pointed clarification from Bowman and a mention in the bureau's newsletter. The results of his efforts to distinguish Durham from the other points in the Triangle have been mixed, but few have done as much to position the city on the nation's radar screen.

But the barrage of bad publicity attending the latest wave of Durham political scandals has been tough to manage even for Bowman, who could find a silver lining in the plague. The ongoing police chief hiring debacle, City Manager Marcia Conner's questionable dishing of contracts, the forgery conviction of newly elected school board member Jackie Wagstaff and a dozen lesser disasters have outraged residents and given fresh ammunition to the city's detractors. "These are hefty, hefty communications problems to solve," Bowman says. "I don't have any solutions."

Stop, public officials! Don't throw Durham in that briar patch, please!

The gory details have consumed many tons of newsprint in The News & Observer and Herald-Sun, so no need to recount them here. It's clear, however, that when city and county officials speak of the worst being behind them, their thinking is wishful at best. Such is the spin in the wake of Conner's recent comeuppance, when City Council took away her raise, limited her power to award contracts and required her to enroll in management training school. Conner has somehow transformed herself overnight, the story goes, and is poised to lead the city to the heights she was hired to achieve--an angle furthered in a rather bizarre Nov. 24 N&O profile that lauded Conner's "polish and grace" and described her as "motherly."

Many at city hall who seen her short-circuit at meetings or scream at her subordinates are unconvinced Conner's alleged style change has much substance. Especially galling to some staff has been her tendency to deflect blame for project delays or failures on others, even when the problems are clearly her responsibility. "She's a big-time scapegoater," says a high-ranking city source.

"The city government right now is in the worst shape I've ever seen it," says an official with more than 10 years in local government. While the city has always had its share of administrative problems, the official says, "with Marcia it's a completely different level of management incompetence. They need to get rid of her."

No no, Conner critics. Not the briar patch!

The school board, which has struggled gamely through one crisis after another over the years, is again facing a no-win proposition. Wagstaff's forgery conviction is but the latest of her exploits that inspire something less than confidence in her leadership and management skills. But if board members move to prevent her taking the seat, the board will be divided and distracted in yet another battle along racial lines that will cripple its ability to attend to the school system's real needs. After the board voted Nov. 27 to further review the case, Wagstaff threatened war with individual board members if they dared judge her unfit (comments published by the Herald-Sun in its online version but later removed). If it comes to that, expect her to claim once again that she's just doing it for the kids.

Please, Jackie, don't throw Durham in that briar patch!

Regardless of the future prospects for Conner, Wagstaff or whichever other characters next make unwanted headlines, there's no question that certain elements will pounce on the community's troubles and exploit them. Foremost among these are Wake, Lee, Chatham and Orange county real estate agents, long known for convincing potential homebuyers (especially fearful Yankee transplants) that Durham is an out-of-control danger zone overrun by gun-toting psychopaths and subversives. No doubt they're passing around news clips of loathsome Durhamite Milton Twitty, recently arrested for robbing two blind men of their groceries at a bus stop.

The media gleefully pile on, even as they strain to maintain the illusion of objectivity and fairness. The Charlotte Observer proposed changing Durham's nickname from the Bull City to "The City Where Little Goes Right." An Aug. 29 Chapel Hill Herald nyah-nyah editorial found apparent amusement in the repeated refrain "But at least we're not Durham."

Bowman isn't especially worried by such takes. "Chapel Hill and Raleigh have been pounding us mercilessly for years [on such things as] school scores, crime," he says. "But it hasn't worked."

He's right and he's wrong. Bowman can reel off various stats and indicators favorably comparing Durham to its neighbors. The recent decision of the Triangle's premier ad agency, McKinney & Silver, to abandon downtown Raleigh in favor of Durham's American Tobacco complex was a huge boost to the Bull City--and major ego blow to the capital city's economic development interests.

On the other hand, the city and county's residential growth rate, while healthy and steady, has moved at a less frenetic pace than that of its neighboring communities since the boom that started with the development of Research Triangle Park. Over the last 30 years the continued explosion of immigrants has transformed the bulk of Wake County into a suburban wasteland of mass-produced fortress-homes in planned unit developments (the aptly acronymed PUDs) connected by faceless strip malls and big-box retailers. Having used up much of Wake's available turf, developers have fixed their sights on Lee and Chatham counties. While Treyburn and other "master-planned communities" have taken root in Durham, the segments of the Triangle north and west of the airport have grown at a relative snail's pace.

An urban analyst might cite a host of reasons why Durham has so often been overlooked in favor of Cary, North Raleigh, Apex and beyond. The transportation infrastructure is poor. Unlike Cary, which decided in the 1970s it wanted to become the City of PUDs and greased the regulatory wheels to make it happen (until the citizens elected a slow-growth council, 20 years too late) Durham has never clearly articulated a vision for itself. But more than any other single factor, Durham's bad reputation -- for crime, for lousy schools, for corrupt officials -- has kept its growth in check, no matter how exaggerated that reputation may be.

And that's the silver lining in all the notoriety: Durham's rep is its briar patch, and the new round of blots help tend and nourish the thorns.

Though they'd never admit it publicly, the majority of Durhamites who envision the community as something more than Cloneville have long been grateful for their image problem. While much of the attention Durham has attracted in years past has focused on such negatives as the small-business loan scandal, the area has slowly and quietly added substantial acreage to its parklands, redeveloped its downtown, created affordable-housing programs that are easily the most comprehensive in the Triangle, invested political power in its neighborhoods. Had the community had to react to the relentless development pressures experienced outside its borders, it's quite likely that these and other successful efforts would never have taken flight.

The efforts continue. The city and county are in the process of developing a comprehensive planning ordinance that, while years overdue and only a preliminary step, creates the framework for a planning process that should ultimately yield some long-term decisions about growth.

To get there, community leaders will have to emerge who can build consensus on that and various other issues. And they'll have to have the backbone to stick to those decisions, unlike recent city administrations that have happily scrapped their own guidelines every time a big development proposal came down the pike (Southpoint being the classic example).

Therein lies the downside of Durham's reputation: It's hard to imagine that many competent, ambitious administrators in their right minds will be interested in applying for top-level positions in Durham any time soon. The same goes for civic-minded locals who might want to run for office. "I'm deeply concerned about our ability to attract top talent," says Bowman, echoing the sentiments of every source who offered an opinion for this column.

Other communities have certainly benefited from Durham's ill repute. Orange County, especially the parts geographically buffered from RTP by Durham's city limits, has had ample time to map the future and has done a stellar job in preserving its character and charting its own course.

So go ahead, school board, show some fortitude and stand up for basic principals. Play those race cards, Wagstaff supporters. Stagger around the barnyard like headless chickens, city agencies. Expose another batch of embarrassments, enterprising journalists. If the situation appears desperate enough, maybe Durham can buy itself just a little more time. EndBlock

Send your untold Durham scandals to: Burtman@indyweek.com

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