In years past, Downtown Durham Inc. has had small accomplishments to celebrate and grand plans to put in place. But this year the downtown booster organization has much more to show off. At DDI’s annual breakfast meeting last Friday, the centerpiece was the long anticipated opening of the American Tobacco complex, one of the largest historical renovation projects in the nation. Meanwhile, some of those small accomplishments have grown into a critical mass. DDI President Bill Kalkhof announced awards that went to the owners of Morgan Imports, Joe & Jo’s Downtown Pub, and to the designers of small, interior residential and commercial spaces. More than 500 residents live downtown today, and hundreds more residential spaces are projected to be available once Blue Devil Ventures opens the second phase of the renovated Liggett & Myers buildings in 2007.

It has sometimes seemed as though efforts to bring downtown Durham to life were running on parallel tracks: Kalkhof working for the large projects and various smaller players and individuals sweating out their own occasionally coordinated efforts. But these paths seem finally to have come together: Caleb Southern, an activist with the Arts & Business Coalition of Downtown, has joined the board of DDI. Kalkhof has hired Sherry Kinlaw, founder and former owner of Francesca’s Dessert Cafe on Ninth Street, as a full-time recruiter of small businesses. In his speech at the event, Andy Rothschild praised the criticism of creative people downtown as an essential strength of the city’s character.

It also helps that the American Tobacco renovation has delivered on the hype that surrounded it. So far 470,000 square feet of commercial space has been turned into a modern architectural showplace of exposed brick, preserving the water towers, train tracks and other industrial features that ground the site to its history.

Capitol Broadcasting head Jim Goodmon presented slides of the complex his company developed. Even the parking garages–subsidized by Durham taxpayers–are surfaced with brick detailing that matches the factory buildings. While Goodmon waits for restaurants to move in, he’s arranged for a daily lunchtime trolley for the approximately 1,500 office workers to ride through the downtown center, Brightleaf Square and Ninth Street. Goodmon said he was surprised to find out there are 47 restaurants along that loop.

With American Tobacco open for business, downtown Durham is getting its big break. But is the city ready for prime time? That’s the question raised by Brad Brinegar, CEO of the star tenant, national advertising agency McKinney & Silver, who delivered a speech that punctuated the cheerleading with a painfully frank call to action.

In his efforts to sell the city to prospective companies, Kalkhof has proudly asserted that downtown Durham is a safe place to be. Crime statistics back that up; a concerted lobbying effort by DDI has made sure the city keeps up a strong police presence downtown.

But Brinegar pointed out that the myth of dangerous Durham is, unfortunately, true. He related the many virtues that drew him to relocate McKinney’s headquarters to Durham: “Creative people need funk,” he said. “Chapel Hill didn’t enter the mix because they don’t want business … Cary didn’t enter the mix because they’re not funky.” Raleigh, he said, didn’t know what it wanted to be. But from there, he segued into the reason the company almost went elsewhere: violent crime. Several employees told Brinegar a move to Durham would be “a death sentence,” he said. “Their fear has become my obsession.”

A map of the 12-block downtown core, plotted with the incidences of murders, rapes and assaults since January 2003, showed Kalkhof’s crime statistics to be true–downtown is safe. But if there’s no one there, Brinegar pointed out, then there’s no one to rape or murder. He broadened the scope to a two-minute’s drive and the map was blotted beyond legibility. Durham’s boosters shouldn’t wonder why human resource managers strike Durham off the list: Sperling’s Best Places shows Durham’s violent crime rate in 2001 was nearly double the national average. Catalytix, the statistics firm of Rise of the Creative Class author Richard Florida, rates Durham no. 1 among 274 U.S. counties as a creative center, but ranks the city 227th for “freedom from violent crime.”

It’s time for Durham to get real about its crime problem, Brinegar said. He pleaded with city leaders to take action now, while McKinney’s employees are forming their impressions of the new headquarters and while the shine is still on the American Tobacco complex. “Take back this city before it’s too late.” He concluded with a proposal to add more patrol officers and pay them better, offering to write a check on the spot for a property tax increase if the city would ensure the money went toward increased police presence.

These may sound like the words of a dinner guest gone berserk, but Brinegar’s speech was met positively by most of the political and cultural leaders I spoke to afterward. The perception of crime is a major stumbling block for everyone in the city–for arts groups trying to lure audiences to real estate agents selling office space to small business owners trying to keep the lights on. Durham listservs immediately buzzed with discussion of Brinegar’s call to arms. Debates ensued over his prescribed solutions. Durham Police Chief Steve Chalmers responded by saying that Durham’s crime rate is lower than some other North Carolina cities. The Herald-Sun published an aggressive editorial Sunday titled “Durham in denial of crime problem,” thanking Brinegar for his candor.

Before big projects like American Tobacco became a reality, Durham’s boosters were known for their inexhaustible cheerleading. Now they seem to be ushering in a new era of teamwork and tough love.