When we talk about stadiums and cities, one of the most common narratives is that team owners leverage their influence to extract massive tax subsidies or other benefits out of cities at the expense of taxpayers. It’s rare that you can point to an example of a team where investment in their stadium directly leads to redevelopment of an entire neighborhood, yet that’s just what happened with Durham and its minor-league team, the Bulls.
When the Bulls announced a stadium renovation in 2013, it was after years of lease negotiations with the city of Durham in which both parties recognized the value of keeping the team around for the far future. Ultimately, the owners of the team, Capitol Broadcasting Company, and the city, agreed to a deal wherein Capital Broadcasting would assume operating costs and the city would help pay for renovations to the stadium, which was already 20 years old. Estimates showed the stadium brought the city about $7 million annually and that the city would save about $10 million over the course of the contract, which extended until 2033.
“The renovation was a massive undertaking that sort of spurred a big attendance hike,” Director of Marketing & Communications Matt Sutor said. “You know, before that season, we had never had attendance above 520,000. Since that season our lowest attendance was 533,000.”
Part of the reason city leaders were eager to keep the stadium around is because the stadium had already brought back growth for a key area of Durham now known as the American Tobacco Historic District. When the stadium was built, Capitol Broadcasting made a commitment to the area by buying and redeveloping the adjacent 16-acre American Tobacco campus, as well as additional real estate surrounding the field. Gradually, several historic buildings were renovated and reopened to allow space for new restaurants and other local businesses.
Today, plans continue to show new mixed-use development coming to the area. Historic buildings have become largely built out in the historic district, so formerly underutilized spaces like car dealerships are being bought up to create higher-density office space for Durham’s growing local businesses.
Just a few years ago, Geoff Durham, president of Downtown Durham Inc., was quoted as saying, “By all accounts this next wave is going to be kind of skyline altering.”
On a visit to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park today, cranes are visible in the sky, working on new development just down the street from the park. Besides this construction, Capital Broadcasting continues to work with local businesses to improve the game experience. Capturing the popularity of Durham’s local food scene, concessions stands have slowly been transformed from franchises of national chains to outposts of local joints, such as in the case of local Pie Pushers taking the place of a Papa John’s stand within the stadium. Even the hotdogs are now sourced from Carolina Packers, thereby keeping more business within the state.
All this work has been paying off. In 2017, the Bulls set a franchise record for opening homestand attendance over their opening 7-game stretch.
As Durham and the area around the Athletic Park goes, Capitol Broadcasting is looking to stay ahead of the infrastructure demands that their growing attendance places on the city. Recently, the company took out an Op-Ed in the website of one of their TV stations voicing complete support for the proposed light rail line between Durham and Chapel Hill.
“For us the issue we deal with is parking,” Sutor said. “So if there were some sort of rail that is gonna take me from Chapel Hill or Raleigh or Cary to a block away from the stadium that would be great for us. That changes everything for us.”