For decades, the skeleton of the once great American Tobacco Company sat vacant in downtown Durham, N.C., a nostalgic but sometimes painful reminder of the institution that was once the nucleus of a thriving southern city and the icon of a multibillion-dollar industry.
A "sleeping giant," the million square foot campus established in the 1800s would become home to the largest tobacco company in the world producing familiar and iconic brands such as Lucky Strike and Pall Mall. An institution so embedded in Durham, it was difficult to find someone who wasn't somehow connected to the American Tobacco empire, according to locals.
But by the 1980s the tobacco industry's star had faded. American Tobacco packed up and closed its sprawling Durham campus in August 1987, with thousands of jobs following close after, ushering in a period of economic malaise in the area.
"People attribute that [to] a lot of the downfall of downtown Durham," says Michael Goodmon, vice president of real estate at Raleigh, N.C.-based Capitol Broadcasting Company. "The banks started leaving, businesses left. Other than the SWAT team doing some training in there, it was vacant from  on."
Almost two decades passed as the brick monolith transformed from a vibrant hub into a crumbling shadow of its former greatness. Though it was considered an eyesore, Goodmon saw potential in the old American Tobacco campus. Past the broken windows and unruly grounds, he envisioned the re-emergence of a bustling center of commerce and the possibility for American Tobacco to once again be the nucleus of the surrounding community.
"We did American Tobacco because no one else would," Goodmon says. "We would see this huge factory next to the ballpark that had razor wire, the windows were blacked in—we just wanted to give it a go."
A National Trend
Goodmon isn't the only real estate developer who's seen the potential to give an old, rundown part of town a second life. Communities around the country with historical gems have launched efforts to revamp and rediscover a lost part of their town's identity. Some of these revivals are the product of unique partnerships between developers, local governments, and community organizers. Others are thanks to the efforts of history lovers and lifelong neighborhood residents. But the goals are the same: reestablish community centers, charge up the local economy, and preserve a defining piece of history.
"When the building went up for sale, people were like, 'Oh my god, we're not going to lose the sign, right?'" says Kevin Lykens, owner of Lykens Companies. Lykens and his team recently undertook a project renovating the old Wonder Bread factory in Columbus, Ohio's Italian Village neighborhood, a part of the city residents associated with the factory's bright red neon Wonder Bread sign.
And of course, the smell of freshly baked bread.
"We won't have that smell," Lykens concedes. "But knowing that the building is still there, the sign is still there—everyone is ecstatic the building is not going anywhere."
The heart of the project centers on maintaining key architectural and functional elements of the Wonder Bread factory while converting the 70,000 square foot space into 56 residential units, a restaurant, and a reception hall. Lykens hopes to unveil the new Wonder Bread factory in 2013.
"[Historical preservation] was a huge part of the project," Lykens says, adding that Wonder Bread used to be one of the main employers in the area. "Over the years the employment has gone down but it was one of the things that was just defining for this neighborhood."
Local residents are glad the old Wonder Bread factory is getting a second life, too. Franklin County Commissioner Marilyn Brown, who lives in a nearby condominium with her husband, calls the building and its famed sign a landmark. After another redevelopment project intending to convert the space into lofts for artists fell through, Brown and others wondered what would become of the old Wonder Bread factory.
"It was past its prime and that was difficult for a lot of us in the neighborhood," she says. "To know that it's going to be re-purposed now and be used for something like affordable apartments and retail—how wonderful."
Lykens has little concern about being able to fill the space with commercial and residential tenants. Even with a brand new development laying its foundation just across the street, the Wonder Bread Lofts project appeals to a different type of renter, he says.
"People want to live in a historic property," Lykens says. "When they're sitting in their living room, they want to look down and see the old bolt holes and think, 'There was a piece of equipment here—maybe an old oven sat here.' People want the quirky spaces."
Wealthy Street: "Not an economic takeover, an economic makeover"
While some of these renovation projects seek to preserve buildings that were once a hub of community, others represent an effort to heal the community and rally it behind a common cause. That's the case for the revitalization of the Heritage Hill district in Grand Rapids, Mich., which includes the Wealthy Street corridor, once a hotbed of civil and racial unrest.
Heritage Hill is one of the largest historic residential districts in the country with more than 2,000 Victorian homes built by the industrial and timber interests prevalent in the region in the 1880s.
"It's a remarkable treasure—you look at the quality of the structures and it is absolutely stunning," says Rick Chapla, vice president of business development at economic development organization The Right Place.
But like hundreds of other cities around the nation, Grand Rapids had its share of racial and civil unrest in the late 1960s.
"The result of that was frankly a tremendous amount of disinvestment, quick boarding up of buildings, and businesses relocating and abandoning [Wealthy Street]," Chapla says. "Ironically the street had the name 'Wealthy' and it started to experience the exact opposite."
For about 30 years Wealthy Street languished, bearing the scars of the unrest that had rocked the city. The theater in the neighborhood fell into disrepair after years of neglect, water pouring in through its disintegrating roof, "teetering on the edge of self-implosion," Chapla says.
The deteriorating theater ultimately became a rallying point for concerned residents and with generous donations from lifetime neighbors, a community symbol was restored.
"It became another one of those cornerstones of investments that signified to the community that we were serious about new investment in the neighborhood," Chapla says.
But Chapla wasn't done. Leveraging a state program, Chapla had the area designated as a "Renaissance Zone," which gave extensive tax exemptions and benefits to property and business owners in the zone. That sent a clear message to the neighborhood, he adds. "We were trying to say to real estate interests and existing property owners and remaining businesses that if you stay here and you improve, we will reward you, we are incentivizing you to invest in this corridor."
The efforts of Chapla and his team of community supporters paid off. Several new businesses have since cropped up along Wealthy Street and the city has invested millions in public works projects in the blossoming area, including sidewalks and lighting.
"It's got a cool neighborhood bakery, a great retail store for household appliances, the theater of course, bars and restaurants, and antique stores," Chapla says.
Despite the economic revival Chapla has achieved, he never lost sight of the true motivating element behind his work: preserving the unique history of the Heritage Hill and Wealthy Street districts, and most of all, unifying the community.
"If we look around in the neighborhood in a community that has rich racial and cultural diversity, the success of it was the healing that occurred and the inclusionary aspects of what we were trying to do," he says. "This wasn't an economic takeover, this was an economic makeover."
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter.