By any objective standard, Duke University has been more than generous when it comes to funding the proposed performing arts center in downtown Durham. Duke initially committed $5.5 million to the project, a tidy sum considering that the university will have only limited access to the facility.
When city officials recently turned to Duke once again to bail them out of a shortfall in the center’s financing, Duke agreed to donate an additional $2 million to city coffers that could be used to cover the deficit. In exchange, Duke wanted the City Council to approve a reconfiguration of Anderson Street, thereby paving the way for its massive Central Campus development plan.
Instead of praise for its largess, however, Duke was essentially accused of trying to bribe the city in order to gain approval for various elements of the Central Campus plan beyond the roadway. In particular, critics charged that Duke wanted free reign to develop a retail sector on Central Campus that would unfairly compete with surrounding businesses; the $2 million was meant to ensure that the city would not stand in its way. As the Herald-Sun editorialized, “[The deal] would leave the impression City Council’s vote was being purchased.”
The flap over the $2 million is nothing new for Duke, which has seen its name publicly tarnished numerous times in the past year, most notably in the aftermath of the lacrosse scandal. News stories about Duke’s Central Campus retail aspirations and otherwise strained town-gown relations have cemented longstanding impressions in the Durham community that Duke wants to create a self-contained universe for its students and keep every dime of every revenue stream in its own pocket.
But that perception denies the facts. Duke contributes significant volumes of cash and resources to the community, especially those neighborhoods surrounding the campus. The medical center operates several school and community health clinics that serve everyone without regard for the ability to pay. Duke’s Neighborhood Partnership program has developed and operated more than a dozen education and training programs in conjunction with the Durham Public Schools, and collaborated with advocacy groups to improve distressed housing and provide loans for low-income home ownership. Hundreds of Duke students volunteer annually for a host of community organizations and projects. In June, Duke committed to invest $5 million in the Latino Community Credit Union and has historically been one of the credit union’s staunchest supporters. In addition to contributing its own funds, the university has raised more than $12 million to support its community programs.
In fact, says John Burness, Duke senior vice president for public affairs and government relations, the university goes above and beyond the call in its dealings with the community. “If you watch our behavior over the last 15 years,” Burness says, “the reality is that we have been stepping up on any number of fronts. We’re under no obligation to do any of that.”
So why does Duke still have an image problem? For one, the university hasn’t done itself many favors in the PR department of late. Much of the media fallout has been beyond Duke’s control, as with the lacrosse case. Still, it’s hard to shake the feeling that many of the hits were unnecessary and could have been sidestepped with a little forethought and attention to detail.
For example, the perception that Duke’s $2 million arts center donation was a thinly disguised attempt to leverage a thumbs-up on its Central Campus retail plan might have been avoided with a simple word change. The agreement with the city stated that the bulk of the money would be paid only after the changes to Anderson Street were authorized as well as “any other necessary approvals required by the city for Duke to undertake the improvements.” Several council members as well as local business owners interpreted this vague clause to mean that the rezoning request had to go Duke’s way, or else the money would be held back.
Similarly, the question of how much retail space will be available on Central Campus has been simmering for almost three years and has been a longstanding source of frustration in Durham’s business community. Area merchants fear that stores on Central Campus catering to students but open to the public would hurt existing businesses, with Duke’s tax-exempt status providing an unfair competitive advantage. Though any retail would be significantly limited by city ordinance, federal tax law and other factors, those fears have not been unfoundedin negotiations with stakeholders, Duke repeatedly resisted attempts to cap the amount of retail space or otherwise commit to specific restrictions, and as late as October submitted a proposal that would have allowed an unlimited number of 20,000-foot stores (the size of a full-service sports bar or computer outlet or drugstore) on the site.
The university finally offered a 50,000-square-foot retail cap, 20,000 of which would be transferred from existing campus retail operations. The offer was communicated not during negotiations with the stakeholders, but at a city Planning Commission meetingminutes before the commission was to vote on the Central Campus rezoning request. Despite the concession, the commission voted to recommend that the request be denied.
Burness has explanations for these and other seemingly suspect actions. The problematic clause in the $2 million agreement was “lawyer language,” he says, noting that it was cleared in advance by the Institute of Government. The timing of the $2 million deal in conjunction with the rezoning request was “unfortunate” but driven by the city’s needs. Same for the retail cap: Duke needed something for the Planning Commission meeting on short notice and didn’t have time to reach consensus with the stakeholders in advance.
But Burness and other administrators must know that any new disclosure that looks or smells funny can reinforce old attitudes and undo much more significant acts of goodwill. That’s especially true of Duke, which carries significant historical baggage rooted in its segregated past and early isolationism from the cityin some quarters, as Burness notes, Duke is still known as “The Plantation.” Any opportunity to portray Duke as protecting its own interests at the expense of the community will be seized upon by those inclined to do so. “I fully recognize that there’s a history that has led to suspicion,” says Provost Peter Lange, who has been active in the Central Campus planning and negotiations and is widely credited with bridging some deep divides.
The suspicion lingers. According to Lange and George Stanziale, a consultant who has been representing Duke’s interests in its negotiations with the city, the university is firmly on board with the 50,000-square-foot Central Campus retail cap, which the area merchants have already agreed is acceptable. Duke has even promised in writing not to build a bookstore that would compete with Ninth Street’s Regulator Bookshop, even though it would arguably be within the university’s right to do so and had been considered an option at various points. But that’s not enough for skeptics, who see loopholes and obfuscation in the language of the commitments.
In fact, Stanziale and city planning staff offered varying interpretations of the cap language that have dramatically different implications depending on which interpretation is used. While it seems a small matter to work out that kink, the fact that the confusion has fueled more mistrust underscores the need to get it right, preferably early in the process rather than after damage has been done.
Burness agrees that Duke could always do things better, and that the benefit of hindsight has revealed some of how that can be accomplished. But he argues that the majority of Durham residents understand that Duke is a good community citizen and exercises its obligations accordingly. Town-gown tensions are the norm, he notes, not the exceptionthe constant grappling between UNC and the town of Chapel Hill over UNC’s own major development plans and other issues stands as a prime example.
And while he acknowledges that Duke has its detractors, Burness says they come with the territory. Some folks are always going to be suspicious of Duke and cynical about its motives, no matter what the university does. “When you’re as large an entity as Duke is, people are going to take potshots at you.”
On the other hand, maybe those potshots would be fewer and farther between if Duke took greater pains not to provide the ammunition.