Rotary Minute: Judge Willis Whichard – On Leaving the Convention Center

Many years ago when I had the privilege of representing Durham in the North Carolina Senate, there was an occasion on which the City of Durham entertained the General Assembly.  The event was held in a tobacco warehouse on a very hot night in the late spring.  Subsequently many members of the General Assembly said to me, “I hope you get a civic center.”

We meet today in this civic or convention center for the last time, at least on a regular basis.  Only a few of us are old enough, or have been in Durham long enough, to remember when the city had no such facility and thus had to entertain distinguished guests in a hot tobacco warehouse.  The old armory across the street was called a civic center, but it was obviously quite ill-suited and limited for such a purpose.

In January 1980, the Durham Progress Group was established under the leadership of Duke President Terry Sanford, whose 100th birthday some of us observed last week.  Early in its deliberations that group concluded that a civic center-hotel complex in Downtown Durham was a major need in the economic and civic life of the community.  As a consequence, it initiated the formation of the Downtown Durham Development Corporation, the primary purpose of which was to develop a proposal for such a civic center-hotel complex.

I was a member of the Durham Progress Group.  With approval from city and county elected officials and managers, President Sanford asked me to serve as the president and chair of the board of the corporation.  For the next four years, I spent my spare time, and probably some that I should have spent for the State of North Carolina, my then employer, leading the effort to bring what became this facility to fruition.  It was not a one-man operation.  Many others deserve a share of the credit.  The late Pete Saitta was the one fulltime paid employee, and we had a part-time secretary.  President Sanford designated Paul Vick as the Duke liaison to the project, and Paul was immensely helpful.  Time does not permit naming others.  But I was the community’s point person for the project.

This site was chosen for the facility for two reasons: first, of the available and appropriate sites, it involved the least acquisition of private property; second, there was a desire to consolidate new construction in the city’s core, thereby encouraging further development to the north and south of the central city.  A major consideration in the site choice was the desire to avoid having two downtowns, an old one and a new one.

Historically in North Carolina, cities, not counties, build civic centers.  This, too, was a city project, but Durham County, to its credit, contributed “up front” money and pledged some of its revenues to amortization of the public indebtedness that would be involved.

A 10.5-million-dollar bond issue was required to finance the public component of the project, and I chaired the steering committee for the campaign to secure public approval of the bonds.  It was contemplated that civic clubs like ours would be among the groups to meet here, and I thus asked the president of the Council of Civic Clubs to serve on the campaign steering committee.  I knew, though, that to carry the vote we had to have more than just establishment support.  It was an occasion when my lifetime in Durham proved very helpful.  You would not ordinarily expect labor unions to be part of a coalition to support a civic center bond issue.  But one of my Durham High School classmates was then president of the union at American Tobacco Company, and at my request he agreed to serve and help with the labor vote.

A fundamentalist minister in the community was an even more unorthodox choice.  He had first come to my attention when he was on a local radio station every Saturday urging his listeners to vote against me and the other members of the Durham legislative delegation because we were supporting ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.  Later one of his Christian friends got into some difficulty.  I defended the man with successful results, and the minister decided that notwithstanding political differences, I was a good lawyer and I wanted to help Christian people.  There was some discussion before he agreed to serve, but he concluded that religious conventions and convocations were among the activities that could occur here, and he agreed to serve.  With this somewhat unlikely coalition of support, we got a 58% favorable vote for the bond issue, and this facility in which Durham Rotary has now met for many years was the result.

In the seven years that I have come here most Mondays as a member of Durham Rotary, I have entered this building with a warm feeling not experienced by the rest of you.  Now you know why.  I will not enter the ballpark with that some feeling.  I will, though, have an equally warm one, albeit for a different reason.  The fact that this civic club, the city’s largest, is having to go elsewhere because of other and larger demands on this space is proof beyond doubt that this facility–not without controversy when conceived, planned, and constructed–was much needed.  It has been an important factor in the development and revitalization of what had been a rather moribund Downtown Durham.  Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of the modern Durham without it.

This building and its contributions to this community are an aspect of my personal history that has been largely forgotten.  That is altogether appropriate.  We should render our public service, then forget it and move on to help meet other needs.  But it is an aspect of our history as a community that should not be forgotten and therefore, I hope, an appropriate subject for a Rotary “minute” at our last meeting here.

I hope we will experience a celebratory mood as we leave behind us these years of meeting here.  We are doing so because of economic and other benefits this center has brought to Durham.  And what is good for Durham is good for all of us and for the many other citizens of the city who benefit in a variety of ways from this significant community asset.

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