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Posts published by “Caroline Petrow-Cohen”

Charlie Reece: Community safety, housing, jobs that work for Durham

At the Barktoberfest Halloween celebration at Durham Central Park, City Council member Charlie Reece scored a fun assignment. He helped judge the dog-costume contest.

Family fun in the heart of downtown is so Durham. But so are lots of extremely serious and complex problems, from a recent spike in shootings to a shrinking supply of affordable housing during a building boom. 

Seeking re-election to a second term, Reece said he wants to remain a part of it all, especially addressing the city’s toughest challenges. That will involve building on recent successes, he said.

“We’ve made real investments in the police department and infrastructure and we’re now paying all city workers a living wage,” Reece said. “But the fact that we’ve made a lot of progress doesn’t mean that things aren’t broken. They are broken, but they’re somewhat less broken than when we got here.”

As a 10th generation North Carolinian and UNC Law School graduate, Reece has planted his roots close to home. A former prosecutor trainer on domestic violence and sexual assault cases, assistant attorney general and general counsel for the family clinical-research company Rho, he’s lived in Durham for 12 years.

Reece got involved in Durham politics as the Democratic precinct chair for precinct 39 in affluent Hope Valley and southwest Durham. From there he served on the state executive committee and later as state treasurer for the state Democratic party.

When secretary of the board of the influential Durham People’s Alliance political action committee, he became the spokesperson for key policy issues including racial disparities in policing in Durham. In 2015, after two at-large incumbents on city council did not seek re-election, Reece ran and won.

Four years later, Reece wants to keep what he said is the best job he’s ever had. His campaign  touts a platform shared with fellow incumbents Jillian Johnson and Javiera Caballero that focuses on public safety, expanding access to housing with the proposed $95 million affordable housing bond, and bolstering the economy to bring more jobs.

The council vote in March to deny Chief C.J. Davis’ request for funding for more officers angered some debating over how to make Durham more safe. This issue split the council too, as a 4-3 vote ultimately tilted the scales. All incumbents on the ballot this week voted against adding more officers. 

Reece said he came to his decision carefully. “Public safety has always been a priority for me,” he said. “Over the last four years since I’ve been on the council, the council has made an unprecedented series of investments in public safety, specifically in the police department.” 

Charlie Reece campaigning during his bid to with a second term to the Durham City Council. Photo by Cameron Beach

The current city budget increased police funding, and 36 new officers have been added to the force over the course of Reece’s first four-year term, he said. Given this and the overall improvements in both the police department and public safety that Reece sees, he firmly stands behind his vote.

Reece and his colleagues have also worked to create financial incentives to motivate officers who train in Durham to stay in Durham, and spent $71 million on a new police headquarters, he said. As a result of these investments, Reece said, Durham has seen a gradual decrease in violent crimes over the past four years. 

While violent crime, including fatal drive-by shootings, is up this year, that data is compared to a record-low crime rate in 2018, Reece stressed. 

Reece wants to continue to invest in community-rooted safety initiatives. He regularly meets with members of the activist group Durham Beyond Policing to work with them to develop and fund a community wellness plan, he said.

Reece also emphasized the importance of tackling social issues contributing to crime, even during the city’s economic boom. That includes unequal access to jobs with living wages and a declining supply of affordable housing.

Reese supports a $95 million affordable housing bond also on the ballot. The most important thing it would do is provide funds to improve public housing communities in Durham that are crumbling, Reece said. The bond is also expected to help provide 1,600 new affordable housing units.

“The bond isn’t going to solve the entire problem,” he said, “but without it, the Durham that we love, the Durham of grit and drive and determination, a multiracial, multi-class city, is going to slowly disappear.”

Improving the overall state of Durham’s economy will lead to improvements in both affordable housing access and public safety, Reece said. The approach Reece supports is not the most traditional.

Reece supports a strategy put forth by the Durham Economic and Workforce Development department called Built2Last, labeled A Road Map for Inclusive and Equitable Development in Durham. Developed by the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, this plan has proposed four key strategies, including a sustainability scorecard for businesses and a fund for equitable community economic development, that aim to include everyone in Durham in its economic growth.

Reece said that Built2Last works to shift the focus of economic development away from the more traditional cash-for-jobs approach of offering tax cuts or other incentives to draw or keep businesses in Durham. 

“We can instead focus our efforts internally, into the city, and imagine a world in which the city’s robust economic development budget is invested into our homegrown entrepreneurs and businesses that are owned and operated by people that live here in the city of Durham,” he said. 

Challengers have criticized Reece, Johnson and Caballero for running on a shared platform, Bull City Together. Unlike what critics have said, the shared platform is not a power play or group think, Reece said. Instead, crafting the platform helped the three incumbents develop a robust policy plan that aims to help efficiently solve problems, he said.

“There’s only three of us, and we don’t always agree,” Reece said. 

Reece admits he is frustrated with some of the criticism he and other incumbents are attracting as Election Day nears. 

“There’s a narrative that’s been pushed in this campaign that the incumbents just don’t listen to certain types of folks,” he said. “But we listen to everyone that we hear from. The problem is that on any decision that we make, whether it’s how much to spend on sidewalks, where to put a new public park or how many police officers to hire, we have to make a decision.”

No city council can ever make everyone happy, he said.

“We make the decisions that are consistent with our own values and with what we think is right,” Reece said, “Every four years, the people of Durham get to tell us whether we have made enough right decisions.” 

At top: Charlie Reece holding campaign materials describing the Bull City Together platform he worked up with incumbent City Council members Jillian Johnson and Javiera Caballero. Photo by Cameron Beach

Joshua Gunn: Hip-hop artist, entrepreneur, council candidate

In a music video dropped in May called “What a Wonderful Durham,” Joshua Gunn sits at a desk in a high school classroom. Wearing a black windbreaker and a Durham Bulls cap, he raps about his dream for a future Durham.

There are no ICE raids, he says. No one loses a home to gentrification. No food deserts. All religions, races and genders are respected. Everybody has health care. Opportunity abounds. 

Five months later, in Durham’s city council chambers, Gunn is wearing a navy jacket, crisp white shirt and a red striped tie. A Gunn for City Council button is pinned to his lapel.

He’s explaining his dream again, not with rap but with data about crime, poverty and economic development needs. And he’s taking aim at three incumbent council members whose shared campaign platform, he says, doesn’t serve all of Durham.

“We have a homicide rate that has doubled from 2018 to 2019, we have a crisis of public safety in our community, and I fear that our council lacks the proper perspectives to address those concerns,” Gunn said.

Gunn’s family has been in Durham, where he grew up, for four generations. After leaving to pursue his music career, Gunn said he found a changed city when he returned in 2013. New condos, apartments and restaurants lined downtown. While some of change was positive, Gunn noticed stark problems with the way the city was growing.

“There was a food scene and a theater scene, and all these amazing new additions to our community,” Gunn said. “But on the other side of that, I noticed that people were being displaced and that not all of Durham was being able to participate.”

Gunn in “What a Wonderful Durham,” his 2019 music video, filmed in a high school classroom.

Gunn quickly got involved, co-founding the annual festival Black August in the Park to “celebrate blackness.” He and friends launched the annual Black Market, a gathering for black owned businesses to gain exposure and to network. Gunn is still rapping and works at the Durham Chamber of Commerce, where he is a vice president. He tries to bring new jobs to Durham and help existing businesses expand, he said.

The fourth-place finisher in last month’s primary and youngest candidate in the race at age 35, Gunn continues to build his campaign. A campaign disclosure report filed early this month counted only $4,608 in contributions, but he’s fundraising.

And Gunn has notched some key endorsements. Current city councilman Mark-Anthony Middleton, not on the ballot this year, supports Gunn. So does former Durham Mayor Bill Bell.

Middleton said he endorsed Gunn because of his intelligence and his ability to bring a wide range of voices to the council. As a young hip hop artist, Gunn can bring a new demographic  into the fold, Middleton said. 

“He’s a generational voice and he pulls from a lot of different areas of experience, from business to activism to the arts community. He’s one of those rare candidates that brings so many different elements,” Middleton said.

Like Gunn, Middleton is concerned by the nature of the three incumbents’ shared platform, called Bull City Together. “From a democratic point of view, when you have three people that are currently sitting on a deliberative body, telegraphing publicly that they’ve already made up their minds on some things, prior to having any public debate, I think that should give us all pause,” he said.

Gunn during one of his Facebook live video “Ask Me Anything” events staged from his Durham home.

In his campaign, Gunn emphasizes the need for more comprehensive economic development, more direct and pragmatic crime prevention, and an affordable housing solution that is linked to accessible jobs.

The Jordan High School and North Carolina A&T grad says he sees an absence of engagement from city council members with the private sector.

“Real estate developers are going to build what’s easiest for them if we don’t engage with them,” Gunn said. And what’s easiest are the luxury apartment buildings that seem to be taking over downtown, in lieu of offices and other commercial developments that bring jobs.

To help get Durham’s economy on track for everyone who lives here, Gunn favors incentivizing business development downtown. “Downtown is a live, work, play environment,” Gunn said, “but work is a very important component of that.”

Gunn says his top priorities are the economy and public safety, issues that are closely connected. 

Despite a decline in recent years, Durham is experiencing an uptick in violent crime and gun violence. Members of the Durham community are split on how best to approach a solution, candidate forums have made clear.

When Durham Police Chief Cerelyn Davis requested 72 more officers for her department in March, the city council denied her funding. Later, a split council vote denied a compromise that would have funded 18 officers.

The short-term route to improving public safety is to trust Chief Davis and give her what she needs to run her department, Gunn said. As a black man, he understands the complex and sometimes painful relationships between residents and officers. But Davis is focusing on the right ways to train a police force, including using de-escalation techniques, implicit bias training, and crisis response services, he said.   

“The reasons behind Chief Davis’ request were very logical,” Gunn said, given Durham’s growth.

Durham’s rapid growth has worsened the affordable housing shortage. While Gunn says he supports an initiative to provide affordable housing for Durham’s most vulnerable residents, he sees major issues with the city’s proposed $95 million dollar affordable housing bond

Most of these issues can be traced back to a lack of long-term, comprehensive planning, he said.

“The bond overemphasizes downtown,” Gunn said, and doesn’t do enough to expand jobs where people can afford to live. Many of Durham’s jobs that pay above the living wage are located outside of downtown, he said.

Gunn’s platform emphasizes policy, but it is also fueled by his desire to expand points of view on city council council. 

Gunn said he wants a spot on the council for the Durhamites who do not live in the booming downtown core. That includes people who are facing the impacts of gentrification and poverty, and who are struggling to make progress in a city that is celebrated as being the most progressive in the area.

At top: Joshua Gunn makes a point at Inter-Neighborhood Council’s candidates forum at city hall last week.  Photo by Cameron Beach – The 9th Street Journal

 

Demolishing an old railroad bridge to improve a downtown gateway

As a building boom in Durham transforms the cityscape, new developments under construction downtown such as the Willard Street Apartments building and the 555 Mangum Street office space are beginning to rise on the skyline. It’s a time of change for the city. 

But modernizing requires demolition too, and that’s the case at a key route in and out of the heart of downtown. An inactive railroad bridge spanning over downtown Durham’s West Chapel Hill Street has been taken down.

The removal last month is expected to improve safety and help beautify a city that is still growing. “That road is a key gateway into downtown, and it’s sort of an eyesore. It’s dark and it’s industrial,” said Rachel Wexler at Downtown Durham, Inc. 

While taking down an old bridge may seem like a simple step for a developing city, many organizations helped make it happen. North Carolina Railroad is collaborating with Norfolk Southern, Downtown Durham, Inc., and the City of Durham.

The recently removed segment of rail line was owned by North Carolina Railroad (NCRR), which leases a still-active rail bridge on the same stretch of road to the freight and transportation corporation Norfolk Southern. 

A gash of dirt stands where a rail bridge once spanned West Chapel Hill Street between West Pettigrew and Great Jones streets. Photo by Cameron Beach.

The destroyed span had not been in use since two of Durham’s five freight rail line junctions were abandoned many years ago, said Megen Hoenk, director of corporate communications at NCRR. 

Not only was it not needed, the rail line bridge was becoming a safety liability, said Tom Haning, a contractor working on the project with W. M. Brode Company. Norfolk Southern proposed removing it and North Carolina Railroad approved and provided funding for the $1.5 million project, Hoenk said. 

The obsolete bridge wasn’t the nicest to look at, and its removal is the first step of many to be taken to clean up and improve the West Chapel Hill Street corridor near Durham Station. Revitalization is important because pedestrians and vehicles flow through there every day. 

A private corporation with 100% of its stock owned by the state of North Carolina, North Carolina Railroad owns and manages a 317-mile rail line that stretches from Charlotte to the Port of Morehead City, making its way through the center of Durham along the way. 

While Durham officials did not propose the bridge removal, city staff and community members support the project because it helps clean up a congested area downtown. “It was an unused railroad track that had been out of commission for I don’t know how long,” said Bill Bell, former Durham mayor and NCRR board member.

As Durham city planners work to accommodate a growing population and increased traffic congestion downtown, giving West Chapel Hill Street a facelift is a key step in the right direction, Bell said. 

The bridge demolition project disrupted car traffic on West Chapel Hill Street starting in August and redirected foot traffic as recently as last week. Photo by Cameron Beach

Those working on this project, however, plan to go beyond basic structural fixes, which include painting and repair of the underpass walls and improvements to the nearby bridge still carrying trains. Durham City General Services and nonprofit Downtown Durham Inc. are also planning a public art installation at the West Chapel Hill Street underpass, once construction is complete. 

What that will look like hasn’t been decided. But Durham City General Services staff plan to apply for funding during the next budget cycle, said Stacey Poston of City General Services.

Wexler, director of special projects at Downtown Durham, Inc., said that the underpass has been an area of interest for some time. 

“It’s definitely been an interest of ours to try and beautify that street and make that gateway more of a pleasant experience for people. And the taking down of that second bridge has been the impetus to bring that project to the forefront,” she said.

Poston said she is excited about the new space for public art that the removal of the bridge has created. 

“If you walk through there now, it’s so nice and light. Before it was so dark, and now there’s basically a big gallery wall that we could do something great on,” she said.“The bridge had to come out before you can put the art in.” 

Photo at top: Where two railroad bridges long stood, now there is one. North Carolina Railroad Company recently demolished an unused span over West Chapel Hill Street, opening a tight stretch of road to more light and design possibilities. Photo by Cameron Beach