If you haven’t visited downtown Durham much during the pandemic, here’s an update: The building boom did not stop while you were gone.

On Rigsbee Avenue, white cement trucks, pick ups, orange cones and workers cluster around a half-finished apartment building, its towering shadow covering the whole block. Next to American Tobacco Campus, yellow cranes sit near the early stages of three new buildings of commercial and residential space. Nearly an entire block off Fernway Avenue near West Village is vacant and fenced off, ready for more apartments.

“The qualities that have made Durham attractive to investors in the past remain through the pandemic,” said Bo Dobrzenski, senior development services manager of the Durham City-County Planning Department.

Most construction projects in the works in Durham fall into two categories: residential and industrial.

Durham residential construction skyrocketed over the past few decades, and it is expected to continue. From 2010 to 2016, more than 10,000 new housing units were added in Durham, according to the City-County Planning Department. And, over the next 25 years, the county’s population will grow to almost 450,000 according to the Durham-Chapel Hill- Carrboro 2045 Metropolitan Transportation Plan

While some affordable housing such as Willard Street Apartments by the Durham Station Transportation Center is getting built, many residential projects are luxury apartment complexes, such as the Terraces at Morehead Hill.

Commercial construction is second to residential construction throughout Durham, said Dobrzenski. Although there has been an obvious decrease in the need for office space since people are working from home, Durham is still inviting to growing industries like the biological life sciences, Dobrzenski said. 

“Bio companies that are looking to grow – coming from New York, Boston, California – are still seeing Durham as a spot for great opportunities,” said Andre Pettigrew, director of the Durham Office of Economic and Workforce Development. “The cost of investing and the value that you receive remains very strong here.” 

The wider Triangle still has appeal to expanding businesses. Companies that have been developing and distributing coronavirus vaccines are active here, for instance, including ApiJect Systems Corp, which recently announced it will build a large factory for vaccine production in Raleigh. 

During a Saturday shift, a worker hauls material from the Rigsbee Avenue site. Photo by Sho Hatakeyama I 9th Street Journal

In addition, information technology, network technology, and cybersecurity technology companies continue to invest and build in this area,  Pettigrew said.

“We’re a highly educated area with great technology research infrastructure, both private sector, as well as governmental. The business fundamentals here are solid,” Pettigrew said.

There is a risk of small businesses being left out of the downtown Durham development boom. As large companies are still investing downtown, many small businesses are struggling, Pettigrew stressed. 

“Our small business, especially those run by women and people of color, have been hit the hardest. What our community has to do is try to recalibrate and get small businesses back in alignment to help them grow,” Pettigrew said.

For instance, Durham has a very vibrant scene of Black-owned businesses, yet people of color are less likely to receive COVID-19 grants and aid, according to the North Carolina Justice Center. As a result, the Durham community has to work to ensure that this investment and growth downtown can bolster small business owners continuing to struggle to stay afloat, Pettigrew said.

Economic development experts such as Pettigrew hope that the construction surge will bring opportunities for smaller, local construction businesses, for example.

“We have to ensure that these opportunities are connected to our small business community. And if we aren’t, we won’t realize this city’s full economic potential, ” Pettigrew said.

9th Street Journal reporter Rebecca Schneid can be reached at rebecca.schneid@duke.eduComment on this story at backtalk@indyweek.com

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