From hip cafes and trendy boutiques to innovative tech startups and established corporations, there’s no doubt that downtown Durham has become one of the coolest areas of the Triangle to do business. But why is that the case and what resources and support are available for those who decide to set up shop in the heart of the Bull City? In this article, we take a look at all that downtown Durham has to offer as well as the steps you can take to find out if it might be a good fit for your business.

Types of Businesses in Downtown Durham

To say that downtown Durham is a melting pot of business activity would not be an exaggeration. According to Nicole Thompson, President and CEO of Downtown Durham, Inc. (DDI), there are over 260 restaurants, bars, shops, and personal service businesses located downtown.

Nicole Thompson
Nicole Thompson

They co-exist alongside life science; technology; artists; CPAs, lawyers, and other professional services; lab space, non-profits, city and county government offices, and banks and other financial institutions. In addition, there are many entrepreneurs and founders in co-working and entrepreneurial support spaces such as American Underground, Provident, Durham Bottling Company, WeWork, and Spaces.

Why Downtown Durham is a Good Location for Business

So why has downtown Durham become such an attractive place to do business over the past 20 years? Thompson says there’s not one single reason but instead, a combination of factors. Those include access to a highly-qualified talent pool from North Carolina Central and Duke Universities as well as Durham Tech, the convenience of and access to locally-owned businesses, an authentic feel within downtown, and a strong belief in equity and diversity that stems from the strong Black Wall Street influence.

Along those same lines, Thompson also credits the strong culture of entrepreneurialism embedded in the history of downtown that continues to thrive today. “We’re talking about a can-do attitude and an acceptance of trying and failing and trying again with no judgment that permeates the downtown business community.”

As a Durham-based company that has been around since 1981 and witnessed downtown’s transformation, we can say that none of these elements are new. At least one, if not more, has been in place at any one time over the past more than 40 years. 

The difference now lies in their confluence over the last couple of decades in addition to revitalization efforts by the City of Durham. With an emphasis on increasing connectivity between the different areas of downtown, walkability, correcting isolating traffic patterns, public art, and providing more support for companies of all sizes, the hard work and effort that has gone into making the conditions favorable for businesses to succeed in Durham’s city center are paying off.

Support for Downtown Durham Businesses

While the  City of Durham provides a number of supports for businesses, there are two primary resources that anyone considering opening a business downtown should know about. The first is Nicole Thompson’s organization, DDI. It is a nonprofit that was formed in 1993 to serve as a catalyst for downtown revitalization and now acts as the engine for economic development and growth in downtown Durham. The organization focuses solely on the economic health, diversity, attractiveness, and vibrancy of downtown.

DDI provides a range of support services including helping to market downtown, driving traffic there through placekeeping activities and events, and offering location or relocation assistance to businesses. It also communicates with and advises developers and investors interested in downtown and its growing economy; facilitates connections between businesses and developers, businesses and property owners, and developers and city/county staff; and spearheads the Downtown Durham Master Plan to advocate for policies and programs that encourage downtown’s continued growth and development while maintaining its unique and authentic vibe. In addition to all of that, DDI helps to keep downtown clean through trash and debris pick-up and removal of graffiti, and safe through the hospitality efforts of its ambassador team.

Downtown Durham Business Improvement District
Downtown Durham Business Improvement District

The second primary resource for businesses is the Downtown Durham Business Improvement District (BID), which is also managed by DDI on behalf of the City of Durham. The district is an .8-mile area where Thompson says property owners are assessed a small additional tax to create a cleaner, safer, and more vibrant downtown community. The tax is used by the BID to fund the Ambassadors program, which provides maintenance services that supplement those offered by the city, as well as to develop and fund district-wide placemaking and marketing initiatives that support businesses located in the district.

Steps to Take In Doing Business in Downtown Durham

If you’re interested in starting a business in or moving to downtown Durham, here are a few initial steps that you’ll want to take.

  • Explore downtown on foot and by car on your own to get a feel for the area and to identify where might be a good fit for your business.
  • Contact a commercial real estate brokerage (such as Pickett Sprouse) to start the process of exploring potential properties in the areas that you already identified.
  • Explore DDI's website to see all of the services they offer.
  • Get connected through Durham Business 360, the City of Durham’s best resource for small business owners.
  • Learn all about the economic development landscape in downtown and throughout the bull city.

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