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Downtown Durham club: SOS!


Ringside, in Durham - PHOTO BY LISSA GOTWALS
Michael Penny put a sign up in the window of his club the other day. It says, “No streetlights, no sidewalks for over 20 weeks and no end in sight. FIX THIS! The irresponsible pace of this project is severely impacting my ability to maintain this hard fought for, vital and pioneering downtown business. Enough! Downtown businesses deserve better from our city.”

Ringside, a deeply funky, four-story rock venue and bar on West Main Street, one block from the Durham Arts Council, was one of the first live music venues in the area when it opened in 2000. Rock shows, hip hop, dance nights, film screenings, Halloween parties, it all happens in the labyrinthine club, where you can see a show on the first floor and kick back with a book in the library-like fourth floor. It’s the kind of place you take your friends from New York to boast about the area’s avant nightlife.

But six months ago, a construction crew tore up the sidewalk in front of Penny’s club. Since then, he says, revenue has dropped by two-thirds and even the best promoted shows draw only a handful of people. “It’s killing me,” he says. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to last through the summer.”

Penny says his is the only business he knows about that’s been without a sidewalk since construction began. The conversion of downtown’s one-way streets to two-way and the widening of its sidewalks is part of a plan to make downtown more appealing to businesses and pedestrians. Penny says it’s “irresponsible” of the city not to give contractors clear guidelines to minimize the impact on existing businesses, and it’s going to kill off the downtown culture before it even gets started.

“I’ve been fighting that Durhamophobia since I’ve been in business,” Penny says. “It’s an irrational fear of downtown Durham. But now there’s no streetlights! My place is on a pitch-black street with nowhere to park and barrels out front. I don’t blame people for not wanting to come.”

Ringside pioneered an otherwise dead area of downtown, and its success has helped other live music venues and restaurants that have sprung up downtown, including Joe & Jo’s and the Blayloc Cafe. Talk of the Town, another live venue that was an early adopter, is a short walk down the street.

“To my knowledge, my office has not received a call from him,” says Alan DeLisle, director of Durham’s Office of Economic and Employment Development. “We were informed in the past 24 hours about the sign, and I’ll be glad to check with Public Works about the progress in that location. In general,” DeLisle says, “I think the city has done a great job of managing the project. It’s on time, and I think the city has overall tried to be very responsive to the disruptions and work with the businesses. That said, I can certainly sympathize. I’m sure some businesses are frustrated.”

Penny says he put up a sign because he didn’t know any other way to get the city to take notice. “They seem to be utterly indifferent,” he says. “I’ll pass by a city council person on the street and say, ‘This is killing me.’ And I talk to people from [Downtown Durham Inc.] and they always have this very understanding face on. They say, ‘Just be patient, it’s going to be wonderful.’ Well, I’m sure it’s going to be wonderful. But I don’t know if I’ll be around to see it.”

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