Postcard from North Carolina: bullish on downtown Durham

Walking through the American Tobacco Historic District makes me wonder what might have been for the Hershey chocolate factory.
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American Tobacco Historic District

The complex that American Tobacco abandoned is now the center of the so-called Durham Renaissance.

The first time I visited Durham, N.C., was in summer 1993. It was a solo pilgrimage in what was supposed to be the final season of minor league baseball at Durham Athletic Park (DAP), which was immortalized in the 1987 movie “Bull Durham.”

Kevin Costner and Susan Sarandon of reel life were long gone, but the real-life Durham Bulls were still playing at the DAP (and would be in 1994, too, because of construction delays at the team’s new ballpark).

I didn’t have a camera with which to document that whirlwind weekend trip, and I long ago lost the souvenir plastic cup that had the Bulls logo on it. But one faint memory I have is of driving into downtown Durham on Saturday morning and finding it quiet and unremarkable.

But now it’s 2015, and I am newly returned from Durham. The Bulls are marking 20 years in their “new” home, Durham Bulls Athletic Park (DBAP), which only a couple of years ago underwent a $20 million renovation and is a centerpiece of the vibrant American Tobacco Historic District.

The district is what the city points to when it touts the “Durham Renaissance,” as in this video. And seeing it forced me to question the wisdom in Hershey of razing the 100-year-old factory on Chocolate Avenue.

Maintaining and creating

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The Durham Bulls play in the Triple-A International League, along with Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley IronPigs and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders. The Bulls are owned by Capitol Broadcasting Co., whose holdings also include television and radio stations and real estate. In 2002, the company bought the 16-acre American Tobacco Campus. From Capitol Broadcasting’s website: “CBC is not only in the business of maintaining, but of creating.”

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Only Burger started with a food truck in 2008 and now also operates two brick-and-mortar locations, including this one in the American Tobacco Historic District with an exterior that honors the company’s mobile heritage. Across Blackwell Street in the American Tobacco Campus are 10 more restaurants, including one operated by students.

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Founded in Maine, Burt’s Bees now calls the American Tobacco Campus home. The campus also includes offices, the American Underground business incubator, WUNC public radio and a branch of the Durham YMCA.

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The Cage, which in its former life was a coal shed, is now used for four-on-four basketball, complete with a retro scoreboard, rubber floors and bleachers. In the winter, it has been used as a skating rink.

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A fire pit and hammocks underscore how fun and vibrant the American Tobacco Campus is.

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Old Bull, Durham’s oldest building (1874), was once the largest tobacco operation in the world. Today it is one of two residential properties in the American Tobacco Campus.

Lessons for Hershey

It’s hard for a Hershey resident to ponder the American Tobacco Historic District without feeling a certain amount of regret for the demise of the downtown Hershey chocolate factory.

The American Tobacco complex sat abandoned for years: as noted in the Durham Renaissance video, razor wire surrounded buildings whose windows were blacked out. Bat dung piled up a foot or more high. This abandonment was plainly visible to traffic passing on adjacent Highway 147, the gateway into downtown Durham.

Might the Hershey factory have suffered a similar fate? We’ll never know, of course, because its razing began less than a year after it ceased making chocolate. But each day that passes with no word about what will replace it challenges the urgency with which a century of history succumbed to the wrecking ball.

Yet there are parallels to Durham. At the beginning of the Durham Renaissance video, a camera pans over the American Tobacco campus, passing a red-brick smokestack with “LUCKY STRIKE” painted on it vertically in white letters. A disembodied voice comments:

“Some of my most vivid memories of Durham are coming downtown and smelling tobacco. I think everybody that lived in Durham had a relative that worked at the factory.”

Substitute Hershey (the town and the confectioner) for Durham and Lucky Strike, and chocolate for tobacco, and you have the downtown Hershey chocolate factory.

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But there was no saving most of the Hershey factory from the wrecking ball. A Pennlive story from December 2013 noted that one-fourth of the factory was being renovated for office space, part of a $90 million investment to keep Hershey Co. downtown. But 1.5 million square feet ultimately would be demolished.

Given what Pennlive called a “hodgepodge of more than 20 buildings,” a Hershey Co. official said there was “virtually no interest from any developer.” With the buildings coming down, however, a developer was said to be considering the cleared site for restaurants, retail and “some form of entertainment.”

Most developers prefer to work with modern space. They pursue the path of least resistance knowing they can get far more bang for their bucks with new construction when compared with a retrofit or so-called adaptive reuse of a property.

But I don’t buy the idea that all of the possibilities for the Hershey factory were explored. Nor does Matthew Christopher, who documented the factory’s demise — including interior photos that really make your heart sink for what was lost — on his website, “Abandoned America.”

“On one hand there are areas that may have been unable to be easily repurposed due in part to the density and specificity of the complex,” Christopher wrote. “On the other, it seems that a year is a very short amount of time to try to find alternate uses and my guess is that was never seriously considered. If it had been important to the company to save it, they would have made more of an open and transparent effort to do so.

“The actual demolition had begun within a year, which means that the process had been started much earlier, as permits and contracts for such an enormous project don’t happen overnight. However, some locals have raised the counterargument that tearing down the factory was the only responsible move and that had the company not done so, it would have become an abandoned eyesore like many other closed production facilities.”

Yet it’s hard to imagine that the building, even if it sat idle for years, would have presented much of an eyesore. The fact is, most of the buildings were not visible to passing traffic, which is precisely why most of us saw little of the demolition.

There’s also an element of having seen this story play out before in Hershey. What came to my mind was video I remembered from WITF’s 2007 program, “Growing Up in Hershey” (full disclosure: my wife and son appear in it).

At the 18-minute mark, you see black-and-white video from what appears to be a TV broadcast. The subject is Hershey’s Cocoa Inn, a hotel at Cocoa and Chocolate avenues that had undergone a full renovation less than a decade earlier.

But, according to the Hershey Archives, the hotel’s rooms had no air-conditioning and were thought to be too cramped. Parking was scarce and the Hershey Motor Lodge had opened in 1967.

So on Dec. 29, 1970, the Cocoa Inn was imploded.

The lot sat vacant for 15 years until a one-story commercial building was erected. That nondescript structure, dominated by its expansive roof, lasted until approximately 2011, when it too was razed to make way for a realignment of Cocoa Avenue.

Lamented one Hershey resident in “Growing Up in Hershey”: “I think the people of Hershey felt a loss, they really did. [Cocoa Inn] caused the center of town to have a life to it back in those days.”

It’s funny how we so often abandon great old buildings only to realize later, regrettably, how much life they still had left.

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