When Alan DeLisle arrived in 2002 to lead Durham's economic development office, he quickly fulfilled a leadership role on a big-ticket project of enormous undertaking. The original developer had pulled out of negotiations, the price tag had increased by more than 50 percent, and the city had risked losing out on tax money specifically earmarked for a downtown theater. Nonetheless, in 2006, just one month before the deadline to cash in on the hotel tax, the city followed DeLisle's recommendation and awarded a no-bid contract for the construction of the now-$46.8 million Durham Performing Arts Center.
DeLisle's efforts culminated last month, as B.B. King opened the 2,800-seat DPAC with a rousing, sold-out show. Yet just 10 days after realizing his signature accomplishment, DeLisle announced he was leaving to become the executive director of Downtown Development Corp. (DDC) in Louisville, Ky.
Downtown Durham Inc. (DDI) President Bill Kalkhof, who credits himself with conceiving the idea of a theater, told the Indy that DeLisle was the "front guy" in "plowing forward" despite public outcry over the project. Mayor Bill Bell said in a 2007 interview that DeLisle was "key" in crafting a resolution after the original deal soured.
DeLisle says "nothing changes" when he leaves his government position in February for the nonprofit post, which is comparable to Kalkhof's role in Durham.
"If you take what I'm doing now with the city, and my relationship with Bill Kalkhof, that's always been very strong," DeLisle said. "That's how we were able to get a lot of things done. It's the same spirit of cooperation—it's just in reverse now."
Tax filings show the nonprofit Louisville organization paid its previous director $160,500 in 2006, roughly $36,000 more than DeLisle's current salary. In addition to a pay raise, DeLisle's new job also comes with other benefits. Namely, it will afford him the opportunity to negotiate development deals without the burden of disclosing full details to the public. Though DDC receives more than 75 percent of its contributions from the city—Durham's DDI receives roughly 60 percent, records show—it is not required to respond to open records requests or have its decisions vetted by public officials. And, thanks to the political muscle of Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson, who has fast-tracked many development deals recommended by DDC, details of city contracts are still unknown to the public—or even to the city's elected leaders.
That arrangement has spawned some controversy over DDC projects. For example, a 2008 Louisville Courier-Journal article reported that Abramson was diverting public funds earned from Slugger Field, home to the minor-league Louisville Bats, directly back to DDC. Without approval from Louisville's 26-member Metro Council, Abramson signed a unilateral agreement in 2003 to pay DDC the annual rent the Bats would otherwise have paid the city: $855,000 in 2006, records show.
DDC spokeswoman Rebecca Matheny justified the income from the ballpark, which it played no role in building, as "commensurate" with DDC's "larger notion of downtown development."
Recently, Abramson, who sits on DDC's 25-member board of directors, approved a $250 million no-bid contract with Baltimore-based Cordish Companies—which DDC helped negotiate—to develop a four-block downtown district, the details of which are not yet available to the public. The Metro Council approved a $12 million land purchase associated with the deal, but it did not vote on the actual development agreement.
"In this instance, you had the Center City project, which the mayor did on his own, and then you had [DDC], which is funded by this money that the mayor diverted on his own, and they're cheerleading for the project," Courier-Journal reporter John David Dyche said.
Like Cordish, the Swedish construction firm Skanska USA Building was awarded a no-bid contract to build Durham's DPAC. However, unlike Louisville's Metro Council, the Durham City Council approved the contract, and all subsequent amendments, which DeLisle brought to council in the form of memoranda, after negotiating with developers.
DeLisle, who also observed DPAC Oversight Committee meetings, is credited with orchestrating a deal that conformed to a tight budget—although, one that has increased by $3.7 million.
"What I don't think people realize is that we can't find anyone who's built a theater of this size, and this quality, for under $100 million," Kalkhof said. "And that's a testament [...] to Alan DeLisle for saying, 'We're going to build a good theater, but here's the checkbook.'"
In Louisville, where the mayor has greater executive power than in Durham, DeLisle will not have the same constraints.
"The mayor is driving the agenda, and has priorities and goals, and makes those very clear. There's really no guesswork about where the administration is headed," DeLisle said.
Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield predicted that DeLisle, who he calls a "natural economic developer," will excel in his new role.
Bonfield had heard rumors of DeLisle's departure since he arrived in September, but offered him the position of deputy city manager for Community Building. The new position, one of three deputy city managers, will oversee DeLisle's replacement as director of the Office of Economic Workforce and Development.
Though Bonfield said he had been "incredibly impressed" with DeLisle's work pushing through downtown development, it often came at the expense of neighborhoods outside the downtown core, he said.
"So much of what I've heard and seen is that, while we might have Alan out there pushing on the economic development side, if there wasn't the planning and the inspection support to deliver projects, it didn't matter how many prospects came forth—it took a better coordinated effort to deliver."
DeLisle said he was proud of his accomplishments in Durham—which include negotiating contracts for the American Tobacco Complex and West Village—but that, ultimately, the final decision on those projects came from City Council. In Louisville, he acknowledged, it may come from just the mayor.
"To me, what matters is putting together good projects that stand up in the end, and people approve them because you've moved them forward and justified them, in a comprehensive way," he said.