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Posts published by “Sophie Horst”

Nearly 100 firearms turned in at gun buy-back event

On a recent Saturday, nearly 100 shotguns, handguns and assault rifles of all shapes and sizes were unloaded from police vehicles outside of the Durham County Detention Facility. 

Some were rusty muskets that looked straight out of the Revolutionary War. Others were sleek black pistols with added metal devices making the gun fully automatic and equipped to kill quickly. Most ominous of them all were revolvers with shiny metal barrels that conveniently don’t drop shell casings when they’re fired. 

Michael Taylor, a member of District Court Judge Pat Evans’ community outreach team for her reelection campaign, pointed at one of the revolvers. “That’s the murder weapon,” he said. 

The assortment of guns had one thing in common: they had all been bought back from Durham residents by the sheriff’s office April 9 in the county’s first-ever “Bull City Gun Buy Back.” 

The sheriff’s office offered Visa gift cards as compensation, $100 for a shotgun, $150 for a handgun and $200 for an assault rifle. At both the Mount Vernon Baptist Church and Durham County Stadium, residents could bring their guns in for a financial reward. 

The buy-back event officially began at 2 p.m., but by noon cars had lined up down the block at both locations. The event was scheduled to last until 6 p.m., but by 3 p.m. the officers had run out of their rewards gift cards at both locations. In one hour, they bought back nearly 100 firearms, giving away $10,000 worth of gift cards.  

At each location, deputies turned more than 40 people away after they had run out of gift cards. 

One man brought in 13 guns. “If someone had broken into his house and robbed him, that’s 13 guns hitting the streets,” Taylor said. 

“I was thinking if we got 10 that would be amazing. I’m stunned,” said Lieutenant John Pinner as he unloaded firearms from his trunk.

The buy-back event was organized by Durham County Sheriff Clarence F. Birkhead in partnership with Evans. Both Birkhead and Evans are running for reelection and are on the ballot in the May 17 primary. 

The buy-back process was anonymous and voluntary, and there was no limit to how many guns an individual could turn in. The press release from the sheriff’s office stated, “No questions will be asked.”

Guidelines for the event were straightforward: Individuals were instructed to drive up in their vehicles, making sure their firearms were visible, so deputies could then retrieve the guns. Participants were compensated only for firearms that were operational. 

“Some people gave us their guns even after we ran out of gift cards,” Evans said.

Evans, a former lawyer with the Durham County District Attorney’s office, has lived in Durham County for 39 years and served as a District Court Judge for the last four. 

Fighting gun violence in Durham is one of the main promises of her reelection campaign. She proposed the buy-back event about a month ago as a way to get guns off the streets.

Evans noted that gun violence in the past four years has been especially bad. More than 1,900 shooting incidents have occurred in Durham since the start of 2020, wounding 650 people and resulting in nearly 90 deaths.  

The sheriff’s office will catalog the guns collected during the buy-back event, then keep them for six months and issue public notices to verify that there are no legal owners who wish to claim them. Then, Evans will sign an order to have the guns either destroyed or used for training purposes, she said. 

After both locations ran out of gift cards, the guns were brought to the Detention Center and loaded onto two large carts. Evans posed triumphantly behind them for photos. As Taylor recorded her on his iPhone, Evans said, “Thank you Durham, for joining us and taking ahold of our vision to make Durham a safer place.” 

Evans said another buy-back day may take place later this month. Many residents who brought guns after organizers had run out of gift cards want to come back next time, she said. 

Taking guns off the streets is only a first step, Evans added. She favors additional solutions that address the root of the gun violence problem. 

“It’s not enough to just take these guns,” Evans said. “We need to replace them with jobs, with mental health treatment, with substance abuse treatment, with tools for people to have a sustainable life.”

Above: Firearms of all sorts were collected at Durham’s recent gun buy-back event. Photo by Sophie Horst — The 9th Street Journal 

Durham School of the Arts may move to northern Durham

Durham School of the Arts is grappling with the choice between holding onto history and beginning a new era. 

The arts magnet school,  a fixture in downtown Durham since 1995,  has been a source of pride in Durham for years. Now it may be relocating to a new campus in northern Durham. 

That has left parents and community members with lots of unanswered questions.

Jeannine Sato, a DSA parent and PTSA volunteer, has been active with the school for two years. She supports the move and funding a new campus for DSA but says that parents she has spoken with have mixed feelings about the relocation.

“Part of the charm of DSA is its history, its location in downtown, and its connection to a lot of the arts downtown,” she said. “But I do have concerns about how we could safely renovate it with students in session.

“It just seems logistically challenging, very expensive, and there will probably be lots of unforeseen challenges. Building a campus seems like the most logical solution.”

Others, such as Karalyn Colopy, a DSA parent and Trinity Park resident, favor keeping DSA right where it is. 

 “I love that there’s a school in downtown Durham,” she said. “It would be a big loss if we lost a school campus right in the heart of the city.”

The current sprawling campus of eight buildings stretches across three blocks of Durham, housing 1,655 students from grades 6 to 12. The school boasts rigorous academics in addition to a focus on visual and performing arts.    

The campus, previously home to Durham High School, includes some buildings built in 1922. Durham High was struggling in the 1990s, before DSA opened in 1995. DSA transformed the campus into a vibrant school attended by students from around the county, who gain entrance to the arts magnet school through a lottery system.  

The concept of a new campus for DSA has been under discussion for some time. The county provided design and discovery funds for the project in early 2021. In May of 2021, the school board hired a third party to assess the viability of the current DSA campus. The consultant concluded that the campus was not adequate to house a school of the arts.

The Board of Education decided in October to pursue funding for a new DSA campus in northern Durham County and submitted the proposal to the Board of County Commissioners. The commissioners will decide this month whether or not to include the new DSA building as part of an upcoming fall bond referendum.

If funding for the new campus is approved by the county commissioners, Durham residents will have the opportunity to vote on funding for DSA as part of the proposed bond referendum on November 8. 

If approved, the Board of Education anticipates that construction will begin in June 2023. They hope that the campus will be completed by May 2025. 

The proposed location for the new campus, a 58 acre-site on Duke Homestead Road, was purchased in 2010 from Duke University. Unlike the current campus, it is isolated from major thoroughfares and provides opportunity for future expansion, said Julius Monk, deputy superintendent of operational services for Durham Public Schools.

In a February 23 Board of Education meeting, Fredrick Davis, director of capital construction and planning for the Durham school system, highlighted the historical significance of the current campus, but also pointed to flaws with the building.“The current structure limits the class sizes, limits natural light and really does not lend itself to the modernizations that we need in order to attract the best and brightest,” he said.

Sato also cited several structural and maintenance issues with the campus, including electricity outages. “There are definitely some basement classrooms that feel like a dark dungeon,” she said.

 In a recent interview, Monk highlighted accessibility issues with the current campus, and the age of the building. He also raised concerns about the size of the campus , explaining that DSA was designed for about 1,200-1,400 students. 

 Parents and administrators are also concerned about the traffic generated by the school’s location on two major thoroughfares. Traffic backups often cause significant bottlenecks through the campus and into the city streets beyond, inconveniencing drivers and posing a danger to schoolchildren, some said. 

 Natalie Beyer, a Board of Education member, said new North Carolina Department of Transportation regulations would require the entire car line to remain on the DSA campus and not overflow out into the roadways. “That site is landlocked and there’s not a possibility for us to afford more land or close city streets,” she said. “Those roads are major arteries.”

Beyer stressed the importance of receiving input from the community throughout the relocation process. She says as soon as the board knows if the county has approved funding for the new school, the school board will revisit the issue and welcome public comment.

A big concern shared by parents and community members is what will happen to the current DSA buildings if the school moves. 

Allen Wilcox is a Trinity Park resident who lives one block away from the current DSA campus. He says DSA has been a source of pride for his neighborhood. 

“I just hope that the old buildings are used in a way that still benefits the community,” he said. 

Both Beyer and Monk said that the board is considering moving New Tech High School, which currently shares a campus with Hillside High School, to the current DSA campus. 

As Hillside expands, Monk says, “it’s becoming harder to run both of those programs on the same campus.” 

New Tech High School has a student population of only 285 students. Given that, Monk said the current DSA location could also potentially accommodate central office space or student testing facilities. 

Colopy wants reassurance that the older DSA buildings will be preserved if the school moves to a new location.

“We don’t have that much history here in Durham,” Colopy said. “This is our history and what makes us Durham.”

Above: Photos of Durham School of the Arts by Milena Ozernova — The 9th Street Journal 

Two years into the pandemic, live music venues hope for better times ahead

In October, Bill Whittington, owner of Durham’s Blue Note Grill, was eagerly awaiting a performance by singer-songwriter Darrell Scott. The show was slated for Thursday, Oct. 21 and  had been promoted on Blue Note’s website, Facebook and Instagram accounts.

Yet a week before the show, hardly any tickets had been sold. In the midst of the Omicron wave, the venue made a joint decision with Scott to cancel the show. 

“It was frustrating,” Whittington said. “Things were picking back up, and we were looking towards normal again. Then September and October came along and numbers went back down like 50%.”

Jeremy Roth, founder of Motorco in downtown Durham, agrees.

“Things started to seem normal again, and then Omicron hit,” Roth said. “It was almost like we were starting from scratch.” 

The Darrell Scott show has since been rescheduled for April 28 at Blue Note, and Whittington is hoping for a strong turnout. But the moving puzzle pieces of canceled shows and rescheduled dates are among the many challenges new COVID variants present for Blue Note and other Durham music venues. Although wary of yet another wave, venue owners are hopeful that as COVID cases diminish, Durham residents will feel comfortable going to concerts again. 

Pre-pandemic, Motorco expected one in 10 ticket holders not to show up for a concert. The pandemic brought dramatic changes. 

First the club simply went silent. Large gatherings were not permitted because of government regulations and customers wanted to stay home, anyway. When Bully, an American rock band, took the stage at Motorco on August 23, 2021, it was the first time the venue held a live performance since March 2020. Yet only 64% of ticket holders showed up to the event.

Mdou Moctar, a Tuareg singer and musician, took the stage on September 5, 2021 expecting a full house. His show had practically sold out, yet he was met by applause from only 74% of those who had purchased tickets.  

Then came the Omicron variant. At Motorco and other venues, many fall shows were cancelled because artists feared COVID or ticket sales were too low. Roth, Motorco’s owner, says it’s difficult to put a number on lost profits. “Obviously it’s better for folks to buy tickets and not show up than not buy tickets at all, ” he said.

It’s not just about ticket sales, though. When ticket holders don’t show up, Motorco loses a significant portion of potential bar sales, the club’s primary source of income from concerts. At Mdou Moctar’s concert, no-shows meant that the club lost a quarter of its potential revenue, Roth said. 

“The artists get the money from the tickets,” Roth said. “In order for us to be a business and pay rent, we make money from the bar.” 

In addition to its concert showroom, Motorco has a separate restaurant and bar that allows the business to make additional income. Blue Note Grill also has a restaurant. Whittington said his business would not have survived the pandemic without the additional profit. 

Tim Walter, director of The Fruit, pointed out that most music venues in Durham are either supported by the city or have a restaurant. For venues that rely solely on live performances for their revenue, the second shutdown due to Omicron prolonged financial troubles. 

“Live music in Durham as a stand-alone proposition is a money-losing operation in the best of times,” Walter said. 

As a result of the pandemic, The Fruit is now carrying 50% more debt. If 2022 doesn’t pick up as many business owners hope, the Fruit could face double the debt burden the club carried before COVID. This potential increase in debt would add three to four thousand dollars to the club’s monthly overhead, Walter said. 

“We’re a social enterprise,” Walter said. “We’re just trying to break even.”

Now, as Omicron cases  slow, music venues are focused on moving forward with pandemic precautions in mind. Tritonal, an American DJ duo, recently performed at The Fruit. The show sold out at the last minute, but Walter was disappointed nonetheless. 

“It should have sold out a week in advance,” he said. “When I start to see that happening, then I’ll say we’re back. But I don’t think that will happen in 2022.”

Venues in the Triangle vary in their COVID regulations. Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill, one of the Triangle’s venerable music venues, requires that concertgoers show either proof of vaccination or a professionally administered negative test within 72 hours of the show date. However, such requirements present an additional burden on venues, said Cat’s Cradle owner Frank Heath.

“It’s very time-consuming and intensive because everyone shows up at the same time,” Heath said. “We’re doing our best to get people through the doors as quickly as possible.”

Motorco has similar precautions in place. The club requires temperature checks, vaccination checks and  masks. Since its restaurant provides a secondary source of income, Motorco can afford to lose some concert customers who refuse to get vaccinated or choose not to wear a mask, says Roth. 

Many venues in Durham are not as strict. The Fruit does not have these regulations, for instance.  Walter said the Fruit cannot afford to lose business from customers who have abstained from getting vaccinated or prefer not to wear a mask. 

Early in the pandemic, the venue required proof of vaccination and checked temperatures at the door. They revised these regulations when Omicron came around. 

It’s easy for patrons to fake vaccination cards, Walter said. With that in mind, and given the area’s relatively high vaccination rates, the venue decided to let individuals monitor their own risk. Now, the venue leaves it up to concert-goers to determine if they want to mask or social distance. 

Coming out of the pandemic, many venue owners are more conservative in how they view revenue sources. 

“The money we make off of ticket sales, I now treat that like it’s fake money until we settle the show,” Roth said. 

Some venue owners said the demand for live music has diminished coming out of the recent Omicron surge. Durham residents still seem apprehensive about entering crowded indoor spaces, Walter said. 

“Folks are just out of the habit of going out,”  he said. 

Others noted that public demand for live events mirrors news coverage of COVID. 

“As soon as the newspapers say there’s a lull in the current wave, a lot of people start going to shows who aren’t worried about spreading the virus,” Heath said. 

Venue owners are trying to remain flexible in an ever-evolving situation. Many are finding people are willing to pay higher prices for tickets. Bands have capitalized on pent-up demand and are charging more to perform. 

“Shows that were $15 dollars are now $20,” Heath said. He believes it will stay this way until the demand no longer allows for increased ticket prices.

Club owners also face staffing difficulties, in part because many workers can make more money working remotely than working onsite at a venue, Heath said. 

Blue Note Grill has had similar staffing shortages and is working on automating its serving and payment processes to supplement the lack of servers. 

“We’re rethinking how we serve the customers, so one server can handle more tables,” Whittington said. 

Venues remain wary of another shutdown. Heath said that if ticket sales pick up for the rest of the academic year, it will be a promising sign that things can return to pre-pandemic levels. 

“It’s hard to feel extremely optimistic until we have a month where nothing crazy happened,” he said. “I’m hoping that April will be that month.”   

But the threat of another variant shutdown still looms, making many venue owners cautiously optimistic. 

“I’m not sure what the next Greek letter is after Omicron,” Roth said. “But personally, I’m thinking about that.”

Above: Customers are returning to some live music venues, such as Durham’s Blue Note Grill. Photo by Milena Ozernova – 9th Street Journal