When Durham Mayor Bill Bell gave his first State of the City address in 2001, the venue—Bay 7 at American Tobacco—was still under construction. Plastic sheets hung over unfinished walls, and heaters were brought in to keep guests warm.
Bell returned to the same spot Tuesday for his final State of the City address. This time, however, it was clad with exposed brick and strands of glowing lights. The setting was a fitting backdrop for Bell’s message: Durham has come a long way since 2001, but there’s always more work to do.
During the lunch, Bell was interviewed by WRAL anchor Gerald Owens about affordable housing, poverty, gentrification, crime, and his plans for the remaining eight months of his eighth and final term at Durham’s helm. While speakers did take a look ahead at Durham’s future, much of the afternoon had a nostalgic tone.
Bell’s more than forty years of service were acknowledged Tuesday with the first-ever William V. Bell award from
, established this year to annually recognize civil service.
Bell, who recently turned seventy-six, said he hasn’t yet thought about what he’ll do with his newfound free time after his term ends. “I have a job,” he said. (He is the chief operating officer of UDI Community Development Corp.)
In a video tribute shown during the lunch, colleagues described him as a calm, quiet, and decisive leader.
In the video, city manager Thomas Bonfield said people often ask him why Bell is so quiet. “It’s because he’s really listening.”
On the flip side, colleagues also described Bell’s zeal for public service, saying he will attend four or five events on a given night. “We always say that we know Mayor Bell is not going to be on time, but we know he’s going to be there,” Bonfield said.
Bell said poverty and crime are the key issues he hopes to tackle while still in office. He said one of his first moves as mayor was to arrange monthly briefings between the city council and the Durham Police Department. Tuesday, he cited an effort to assign police officers based on the results of recent public safety survey of Durham residents.
The Duke lacrosse scandal was the “worst thing” Bell went through as mayor, said Duke University president Richard Brodhead. The 2006 case, in which three lacrosse team members were falsely accused of rape, brought immense and not altogether flattering media attention to the city.
Many of the successes highlighted Tuesday dealt with affordable housing—like the Barnes Avenue and Southside developments. Asked how the city is addressing gentrification, Bell said stopping gentrification isn’t in the city’s scope. What it can do is address poverty, as Bell said he’s sought to do block by block through his Poverty Reduction Initiative, which he rolled out early in his tenure.
“The mayor’s poverty initiative was incredible,” said council member Cora Cole-McFadden. “It showed that there was a leader who actually felt it necessary to change this whole trajectory of poverty one neighborhood at a time.” (In 2000, about 15 percent of Durham residents lived in poverty, compared with about 19 percent today. Durham’s population has also grown by nearly sixty thousand people in that time).
Bell touted the importance of light rail to the Triangle’s continued growth and said “if successful,” light rail will bring jobs to Durham by connecting the Triangle’s universities and economic hubs.
“We’re not building it for today,” he said, “We’re building it for ten, fifteen, twenty years from now.”
Bell will be remembered in Durham for “investing in the next generation” and creating a supportive atmosphere for businesses, said John Roos, marketing and communications officer for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina. Roos on Tuesday announced that his company would be donating $25,000 to the Greater Durham Boys & Girls Club in Bell’s name for summer camp scholarships.
The aptly surnamed Geoff Durham, president of the Greater Durham Area Chamber of Commerce, credited officials, including Bell, for laying the groundwork for the city’s current growth.
The city has “made its place” through adaptive reuse of old buildings like American Tobacco, Durham said. The next phase will be “skyline-changing” new construction needed to accommodate businesses that want to locate downtown. About 97 percent of downtown Durham office space is currently occupied. Durham said 10 percent vacancy is ideal for competitive growth.
“I think we should all challenge one another on how to pay an appropriate amount of respect and appreciation to the foundation that’s been created by Mayor Bell,” Durham said, “and I hope we have the opportunity to make you proud by building on that legacy.”
In 2016, the city saw more than $875 million in private investment and 4,250 new jobs, Durham said—numbers that would have been “staggering” when Bell took office. “We need to step away from comparing ourselves to the Durham of the nineties and start looking at ourselves like the world-class city that we are,” Durham said.