The Journal Gazette
Sunday, May 14, 2017 1:00 am

Good times roll where smokes once did

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

DURHAM, N.C. – Brick walls, exposed pipes, high ceilings and lots of concrete give the spaces inside American Tobacco Campus a trendy, industrial vibe.

But it's the well-manicured grounds – adorned by flowers, trees and several metal sculptures – that are a magnet for photographers, young families and couples of all ages on evenings and weekends. The campus is even a popular place for prom pictures.

Others come for free concerts in the summer or to workout in The Cage, which hosts basketball, ice skating and roller derby matches – depending on the season.  

The ways residents interact with ATC reflects their personalities and interests.

Tawni Murray, a stay-at-home mom who lives in Raleigh, said her family makes the short trip to downtown Durham every couple of months to walk around and enjoy the man-made canal that runs the length of the property.

“The big thing is that it's child-friendly,” she said of ATC. “We can eat at one of the restaurants and the kids can run around.”

Murray enjoys sidewalk dining, which is offered by a taproom burger joint, a pizza place and a Cuban restaurant. Her family includes a 6-year-old and a 1-year-old.

“I'm not worried about safety around here because there are no streets, so there are no cars,” said Murray, 33.

There are also security guards who regularly patrol ATC's grounds.

Eugene Hodge brought Grenique Harper to ATC because he thought sitting under the Lucky Strike water tower near the flowing canal would set the stage for a romantic evening.

“I like how they've taken something that was polluting the air and turned it into something that gives back,” said Hodge, 45. “Now it seems like this is the place to go. Durham is the place to go.”

Harper, a 41-year-old professional singer, approved.

“It's just peaceful, and the vibe is cool,” she said.

Wes Batten and Jim King soak up the atmosphere at ATC at least a couple times a month.

“Every time we have people come from out of town, we bring them here,” Batten said. “They're like, 'Whaaat?' ”

ATC's designers “didn't make it Disney-fied,” he added. “It's urban and gritty.”

The grittiness is part of Durham's character, said Casey Steinbacher, who led Durham's chamber of commerce from 2007 to 2015.

Fort Wayne needs to explore its own authentic brand when redesigning the former General Electric campus and creating programming, she said.

The Summit City can look to others for inspiration but shouldn't duplicate what it finds, Steinbacher advised. Local residents need to look within for their own identity.

Cross Street Partners, the GE campus's lead developer, seems to be on the same page. The Baltimore firm has invited the community to offer suggestions for the site – roughly the size of Glenbrook Square and its surrounding parking lots. 

Even the tentative name, Fort Wayne Electric Works, could change if the public prefers something else.

The same urban Durham space that attracts Batten, a chains-wearing, tattooed biker, also appeals to Martha Myers, a preschool teacher who lives in the city's suburbs.

Myers enjoys walking through the campus with her husband before Durham Bulls' baseball games. They also tend to visit before attending shows at Durham Performing Arts Center.

“It's usually those two that will draw us, but we come for a lot longer and see what's new,” the 35-year-old said as she strolled along the campus on a recent Sunday. “The more you walk around, the more you explore, the more you find neat little places tucked away.”

Those include a fire pit, a chess set with 2-foot-high pieces and a replica of the home where the Burt's Bees line of products was first created, she said.

But Myers' favorite part might be the canal.

“It definitely changes the feel, it changes the sound,” she said. “It feels like a totally different place. It doesn't feel like a downtown.”

Batten agreed: “It's all about the water.”

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