Durham, N.C., Convention Center

Back in the 19th century following the Civil War, Durham, N.C., helped propel the industrial revolution in the South with its thriving tobacco industry. Fast forward more than one hundred years and now this historic city is not just known as the home of Duke University, but also is fast becoming one of the region’s most sought after meeting and entertainment destinations.

 Similar to how the city spawned a thriving textile industry with fabric tobacco pouches in the late 1800s, Durham’s venues are spurring the city as an entertainment destination by drawing an increasing number of Broadway shows, A-list performers and annual conferences.

 This may be because its venues are as diverse as the city’s population. The highly-educated residents are equally split between Caucasians and African-Americans, with the remainder a mix of nationalities from around the globe.

 Durham’s major venues range from a 44,000-sq.-ft. convention center to a 2,712-seat performing arts center and an athletic park prominently featured in the movie Bull Durham.

 “Durham as a destination is a place like no other,” said Sam Poley, marketing director for the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau. “This is why we’ve received increasing media attention globally over the last several years.”

 The small city of approximately 260,000 residents brings in 100,000 commuters a day. At 299 square miles, the city attracted more than 6.8 million visitors in 2010, an increase of almost 500,000 compared to the year prior.

 Unlike major U.S. cities, Durham seems almost immune to the effects of the down economy. Its convention center and athletic park were recently renovated. Also, two major music venues—Casbah Durham and MOTORCO Music Hall—were built in the last year.

As a result, there are a number of hotels in development and under construction to help handle the expected influx of visitors. “We’re a little void of downtown supply in terms of hotel rooms, but are planning to boost that number dramatically,” Poley said. 

DURHAM CONVENTION CENTER

Just coming off a $9-million renovation that began last Feb., this is good news for the Durham Convention Center. Run by Philadelphia’s Global Spectrum since the overhaul began, the facility’s upgrades include contemporary paint, carpeting and light fixtures added to the grand ballroom, a junior ballroom, four meeting rooms and two board rooms. 

The convention center’s sound system was upgraded to handle multiple microphones throughout meeting rooms that can be coordinated with lighting systems. Updated AV equipment, including LCD projectors, screens, microphones and podiums, also has been added.

One of the largest portions of the renovation was the reconfiguration of the junior ballroom.

“This space used to break down into four sections and now can be divided into eight breakout spaces,” said Jennifer Noble, general manager of the convention center. “We also created a new hallway system on either side of the ballroom that provides access to all rooms.”

Another new addition includes a sculptured wall in the prefunction corridor, which has created a more light and airy space.

In April, with the renovation still underway, the convention center hosted the annual Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. With 30,000 attendees, this is the venue’s largest event of the year. 

The convention center’s overhaul and a planned rebranding campaign are geared to help solidify its identity.

“There was previously confusion because the venue was called the Civic Center at one time,” Noble said. “It was also mistakenly associated with the Marriott Hotel, because of its location.”

The facility has more than 200 events this year alone since February, Noble said. “We’re looking to work with more nonprofits, as well.”

Duke University, the University of North Carolina and North Carolina Central University (NCCU) frequently utilize the convention center for conferences, student training and school programs.

DURHAM PERFORMING ARTS CENTER

The largest stage between Atlanta and Washington, D.C., the Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC) will celebrate its third anniversary on Nov. 30 with a performance by American Idol winner Scotty McCreery for radio station WQDR’s Country for Kids charity concert.

“We’ll also be nearing a milestone that week, hosting our one millionth guest,” said Bob Klaus, DPAC’s general manager.

Since its opening, the venue has hosted 456 performances, 153 sellouts and more than 880,000 visitors.
Recent sellouts include Dolly Parton, Steely Dan, Ron White, Earth, Wind & Fire, Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin and Adele. DPAC also will host more than 120 Broadway performances this year, including the Radio City Christmas Spectacular.

The Durham Performing Arts Center annual event gross averages about $20 million, Klaus said. Of that, $16 million is for Broadway shows, including multiple week runs for hits like Wicked and Phantom of the Opera, and about $4 million is from concert and comedy events.

“The building is owned by the City of Durham, and the city has been very savvy in reinvesting the city facility fee into improvements,” Klaus said. “Since opening, we’ve added to our sound and lighting systems, installed big video screens for concerts, expanded seating in the lobby and created a new Martini and Wine Bar.”

DURHAM ATHLETIC PARK

Along with its performing arts center, Durham residents also gave the go ahead for a $5-million renovation to the Durham Athletic Park (DAP) in 2007. Completed two years later, the home of NCCU Eagles received a new field and tunnel under the grandstand; overhauls to the bathrooms, locker rooms and concessions areas; dugout and broadcast booth improvements; and new lights, said Joy Mickle-Walker, downtown development coordinator for the Durham Office of Economic and Workforce Development, who helped oversee the renovation.

In addition, a water runoff collection system was implemented to help water the field. 

Managed by Minor League Baseball until this past September, the facility was searching for a new management group at press time.

DAP is currently being utilized as a training facility for professional baseball umpires and groundskeepers, and also hosts conferences, baseball tournaments and local recreational leagues.

“The community field was once used as a Minor League Baseball training facility [with the prior management team],” Mickle-Walker said.

Durham’s renovation activity has included Jack Coombs Field, which was built in 1931 and is the oldest of Duke University’s two home venues. As part of the 2010 improvements, the field was replaced with Astro Turf to cut down on maintenance, a drainage system was installed and the outfield wall has been padded to improve player safety. 

The park dimensions also have been changed, with the right center deepened to 375 feet and right field pushed back to 335 feet. In addition, the stadium has added a 120-foot by 50-foot hitting and pitching facility located along the third base line. 

The ballpark’s locker rooms have also undergone improvements.

Like DAP, the 10,000-seat Durham Bulls Athletic Park (DBAP) has undergone numerous renovations since it was built in 1995. In 2008, the Diamond View II building was added in left field for fans to watch the game and, in 2009, a stairwell was added to connect the pavilion to the third base concourse, which created a 360-degree ballpark.

“The facility used to be used just for baseball, but now we are hosting concerts and other events,” said Mike Birling, general manager of the Durham Bulls Baseball Club.

DBAP will host the 2012 Triple-A National Championship Baseball Game, the first time the match has been played east of the Mississippi River since the 1983 competition in Louisville, Ky.

Interviewed for this story: Mike Birling, (919) 687-6509; Bob Klaus, (919) 688-3722; Joy Mickle-Walker, (919) 560-4965; Jennifer Noble, (919) 536-2590; Sam Poley, (919) 680-8320