Redevelopment Projects Give Historical Icons a Second Life

Relics of a previous era, historic factories and buildings around the country are getting a facelift.

American Tobacco

The restoration of Durham's Historic American Tobacco campus--now the center of downtown entertainment and nightlife--was North Carolina’s largest historic renovation project.

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Breathing Life Back into A Sleeping Giant

Hundreds of miles away, Durham, N.C., has experienced its own economic makeover with the revitalization of the American Tobacco campus. After gaining the support of the city government—which jumpstarted the renovation by building a new ballpark and parking decks nearby—Goodmon dove into the massive project of reestablishing the old American Tobacco campus as a nucleus of the community again.

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Their first project was Diamond View I, aptly named for its prime location next to the home of the AAA baseball team Durham Bulls. But not everyone was as optimistic as Goodmon about revamping an old, rundown factory—not one builder wanted to take on the project.

Undeterred, Goodmon decided to undertake the project himself. The first challenge was getting tenants on board to rent out the massive space the old American Tobacco campus had to offer.

"You're talking about an area where your traditional commercial office tenants were saying, 'You want me to go where?'" Goodmon says.

Nevertheless, Duke University signed on and took 150,000 square feet for administrative offices and laboratories, breathing life into the project and emboldening Goodmon and his team to press on.

"Once we found the tenants we said, 'This real estate thing is easy—let's just do this ourselves,'" he jokes. "So we built it."

Several years into the project, the old American Tobacco factory has found new life, transformed into historic residential and commercial spaces as well as home to a world-renowned 2,800-seat performing arts center. The construction and added commercial spaces have nearly doubled the number of employees on the campus, attracting various tenants including Durham-based advertising agency McKinney.

"When we signed the lease there were trees growing out of the roof," says Brad Brinegar, chairman and CEO of McKinney. "Now we've got all these great companies."

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McKinney was among the first tenants in the American Tobacco space, which now includes other big names such as pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline and personal care products firm Burt's Bees. Where previous efforts to revitalize Durham's downtown have stalled, Brinegar and others have observed in the American Tobacco project a transformation of the factory, downtown, and vibe of the city, now a magnet for all sorts of companies and events.

"It has been the biggest catalyst for the redevelopment of our downtown area," says Durham Mayor Bill Bell. Before Goodmon and his team began the project, the downtown area was pretty much a ghost town, he says.

"I remember a bunch of kids saying to me that the only time they went downtown was when they wanted to throw a rock through a window," Bell adds. "Downtown now is really a destination point 24/7."

The evolution from old to new is well on its way, but much like the Wealthy Street project and the efforts to revitalize the Wonder Bread Lofts, special care and attention is paid to preserving the historic aspects of the buildings. They are part of the community identity, those involved in the renovations say.

"That to me is really the power of the project," Goodmon says. "We look forever at the success of the American Tobacco has been tied to the community. This is a community asset. We want the community to think of this as theirs."

Meg Handley is a business reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can reach her at mhandley@usnews.com and follow her on Twitter.