At 31, Bill Bell said, ‘If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.’ He did, and changed Durham

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DURHAM

It was 1968, and a young African-American family was looking to buy a house in the Parkwood neighborhood of Durham. Bill Bell worked at IBM, and Parkwood was a convenient, nice neighborhood. It’s where Bell goes to vote now. But he doesn’t live there.

“At that time there was a community meeting about a black family moving in,” he said. “Rather than subject my family to that, we decided to have a house built in Emory Woods.”

It was living in Emory Woods that started Bell in politics – first on the Durham County Board of Commissioners, then as mayor of the city of Durham. He leaves public office next week after 16 years as mayor.

Bell wasn’t surprised that what was then a white neighborhood had a meeting after finding out a black family – his – was looking at houses.

“It’s still the South. I grew up in the South, in Winston-Salem,” Bell said. He had no intention of staying in Durham for more than four or five years. That turned into 49 years.

Bell became president of the Emory Woods Community Association, which spent a year fighting to prevent apartments going up next to it. “I was asked to be the spokesperson. It got to be a little touchy. Some neighbors were part of the development team,” he said. “To make a long story short, we spent a year fighting it and lost. That’s where I learned the process. It went to the county planning board and ultimately county commission, who accepted rezoning.”

“I was probably young enough and naive enough to think if I can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” he said.

So in 1972, at age 31, Bell ran for county commissioner and won. He was one of two African-American commissioners on the five-member board. In 1982, he became chair.

It’s been 25 years since Durham Public Schools became one school system. The city and county school systems were once separate, led by different school boards but funded by the county commissioners.

“What I saw (was) as the area grew, people decided to come to Durham, then decided where to send their children to school,” Bell said.

“The county (schools) were white, well to do. The city was black, reduced lunch,” he continued. “As we went through budgets, the county would want to go next, not first. We’d make equal per capita spending, (but) the city, coming first, had more of a need financially for (its) students. The county would take the same even if (it was) not needed. Additionally the city schools were becoming low performing, and the state threatened to take over.”

Bell wanted a merger, but it would have been “dead from the start” if he said that initially. So he went the task force route, and the state legislation route to accomplish it without a referendum.

Durham County Commissioner Ellen Reckhow was on the board then, and still is.

“It was a very difficult and complex process,” Reckhow said. She didn’t support it at first, but credits Bell’s vision and ability to create a compromise to get it done. “So I was in favor in the end, and ultimately it was the best solution going forward. Yes it was difficult, and some things in public life are difficult, but Bill had the vision and ultimately we worked it out.”

The merger happened in 1992. Bell lost his re-election bid in 1994, which was also the mid-term elections during the Clinton administration when Republicans swept many elected offices. But he ran again in 1996, and won, and again in 1998.

But he didn’t seek another term in 2000, instead running for mayor in 2001. He won every re-election bid thereafter, and announced after winning again in 2015 that it would be his last term.

Bell will likely be most remembered for the transformation of downtown Durham from boarded-up windows to boutique hotels and tech startups.

Since he was sworn into office 2001, more than $1.7 billion in public and private investments have been injected into downtown, according to Downtown Durham Inc.

“The single most unappreciated value of Mayor Bell was that this was not a politician that became a mayor,” said Casey Steinbacher, a former CEO of the Greater Durham Chamber of Commerce. “It was a businessman who became a mayor and learned how to become a politician.”

It’s a recurring theme as people describe the quiet-and-reserved Bell as a calming force behind the scene, when projects such as the American Tobacco Campus and the Durham Performing Arts Center were being planned.

“He led the city through the process,” said Scott Selig, vice president of real estate for Duke University. “What does an orchestra conductor do? They don’t do anything but wave their hands in the air; but no orchestra is good without their conductor or a sense of direction. Bell doesn’t play the instruments, but he helped give them a tempo and sense of direction.”

Those projects were catalysts – along with the Durham Bulls Athletic Park, which was built before he was mayor – for changing the image of downtown and making it a destination, Bell said.

“To me that has always been my vision, because I’ve always felt that the downtown tells the story of a community,” he said. “It’s the living room or the focal point.”

Bill Kalkhof, who led Downtown Durham Inc. from 1992 to 2013, said Bell’s vision was “absolutely key” for making DPAC a reality.

“We were just getting vilified about building a theater in downtown, with people saying, ‘No one from Wake County is going to come to downtown and spend $75 on tickets,” he said. “They were right. They will spend $125.

“(DPAC) could’ve died anytime … and it would have been easy for everyone to give up on it, but he was behind the scenes to encourage us.”

Reckhow said Bell, a quiet but strong leader on the board of commissioners, became more outgoing as mayor.

“I really learned a lot from Bill. Bill has always put the interests of the Durham community and Durham citizens first. He has good instincts on issues,” she said.

Gov. Roy Cooper said Bell has been a “catalyst for positive change” for Durham’s accomplishments as the city of medicine, in arts and culture, and in innovation.

“It’s important we recognize the great work he’s done. (Mayor-elect Steve) Schewel can build on it,” Cooper said. Bell has been a facilitator and consensus builder, which you need to move forward, he said.

“Bill Bell is one of the best at doing that,” Cooper said.

N.C. Rep. H.M. “Mickey” Michaux (D-Durham) said Bell, his former neighbor, has moved Durham a lot further along than many thought possible.

“Bill is not a flamboyant individual. He’s a smooth, undercover type of individual who knew how to get things done,” Michaux said. “He knew how to ingratiate himself to a whole lot of folks. People liked him and that’s how he was able to get things done.”

“I used to call Durham a second-rate mill town,” said Michaux, who is from Durham. “And that’s what it was. … I don’t think Durham would be what we are without Bell.”

As much success as downtown has had, Bell still sees plenty of challenges going forward. One could be keeping the city attractive to investment, he believes.

“I hope people don’t forget what got us here,” Bell said. “I think our own worst enemy could be ourselves. Because what we’ve tried to do is create an environment where people want to be – especially the development community – and when you start to do things that turns them off, then I think you hurt Durham overall.”

Bell worries that incentives for development projects have become misunderstood.

“We are in the position now to be a bit more demanding in what (projects) we support, but by the same token I don’t think we want to be in the position where we have quality projects and quality developments … not ask for support,” Bell said. “You can be a bit more stringent in what you ask for but not to the point where people don’t even want to come.”

But, not every part of Durham has succeeded under Bell as much as downtown.

The poverty rate in the city has increased from 15 percent to more than 19 percent since he became mayor, a number “too large for a city of our size with our resources,” Bell concedes.

In addition, the thriving downtown he helped spark has caused home prices to skyrocket in surrounding neighborhoods, drawing criticism of gentrification.

Bell did launch his Poverty Reduction Initiative aimed at helping some of the poorest parts of the city.

The initiative began in 2014 but didn’t get off the ground immediately, when residents said the city was not involving them enough. This last fiscal year was the first time money from the city’s budget had been dedicated toward it.

David Reese, the president and CEO of the East Durham Children’s Initiative, said he has always been impressed by Bell’s commitment to East Durham. The poverty initiative helped EDCI create college savings accounts for kindergartners at Y.E. Smith Elementary, with more planned for incoming students.

“I think there have been some bumps and bruises and stops and starts, but as long as the community keeps coming together in the end I think it’s going to turn out OK,” he said, adding that he thinks Schewel will continue what Bell started. “There isn’t a light switch we can flip that suddenly will improve our community.”

Bell said he’ll miss the Poverty Initiative, which was recently renamed Transformation in Ten, and regrets not jump starting it sooner.

“I didn’t think the city was ready, and (we) needed other successes first,” he said. “If I’d done it earlier, I’m not sure it would have gotten attention. But if I (had) started earlier, we could be further ahead.”

“Poverty – people don’t think about it until it affects them,” he said. “They can’t relate to it, so it doesn’t become a priority. The community needs to take ownership.”

Bell said he’s talking to Schewel about how to continue the effort.

“I think the next piece is really the issue of affordable housing,” he said. “We can do downtown, but we can’t forget those who don’t live in downtown.”

Bell said that’s why the city originally invested so much time and money into the two predominantly African-American neighborhoods of Southside and Rolling Hills on the edge of downtown. Bell believes that investment has had mixed results.

“We were looking to create a mixed-income neighborhood, but we also wanted the demographics to play out better than they have,” he said. “What you find out now is that it’s almost predominantly whites that have bought into them. Unfortunately because of the stigma of what Southside used to be, a lot of African Americans didn’t see the value of purchasing a home over there. … So I think that is an opportunity people missed.”

Don’t expect Durham’s outgoing mayor to be hanging around City Hall in the future.

Bell has six grandchildren, ages 1 to 10. And he’ll still work full-time at UDI Community Development Corp., a nonprofit where he has worked since retiring from IBM in 1996, plus serve on a few boards like M&F Bank and North Carolina Railroad Company.

Bell will go to the Dec. 4 Durham City Council meeting where Schewel and three new council members will be sworn in. But then he’ll go home. And he doesn’t plan to come back to council meetings, or watch them on television.

“It’s not on my list of Monday evening things to do,” he said. “Didn’t I tell you about my six grandkids?”

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