Program Report: Tom Bonfield – State of the City

What’s Next for Durham? What to Watch for in 2018

The agenda for the Monday, November 13 Downtown Durham Rotary Club meeting was packed, as was the PNC Club at the DBAP, so club president Seth Jernigan cut short his introduction of City Manager and fellow Rotarian Tom Bonfield to allow as much time as possible for his presentation.

Bonfield jumped right into the results of the recent election, noting the outcomes represent the most significant change in the Durham City Council since council was reduced from 13 to 7 members in 2001. The transition from 16 years of outstanding leadership by Mayor Bill Bell as the gavel is passed on to council member Steve Schewel will have the community’s full attention.

Bonfield recognized fellow Rotarian Cora Cole-McFadden, thanking her and congratulating her on a successful career in public office that has spanned 16 years. She was the first African-American woman to lead a city department, as well as the first to serve as the council’s mayor pro-tem.

He pointed out that with three newly elected members (DeDreana Freeman, Ward I; Mark-Anthony Middleton, Ward 2; and Vernetta Alston, Ward 3) plus a new appointee to fill Schewel’s place, there could be as many as four council members venturing into public office for the first time. They will join current at-large members Charlie Reece and Jillian Johnson; Reece will become the senior member with just two years of service under his belt when the new members are sworn in December 4.

“There’s an enormous amount of information to be absorbed,” Bonfield cautioned. “Policy, direction, actions – there are consistent themes that emerged during the election, big challenges for our community that cannot be addressed in the short term.”

He anticipates that robust growth will continue in downtown as well as along the I-40 corridor, “but our economic prosperity is not on auto-pilot.” Bonfield noted several variables that could have significant impact on Durham’s future. “Can the Research Triangle Park get on a redevelopment track? How can we develop more Class A office space in downtown? Where is the much-needed parking going to come from?” he said, then added wryly, “And then there’s always the one recurrent downtown theme: fix the loop!”

Bonfield pointed out that virtually every candidate is concerned about the lack of affordable housing for Durham’s citizens. Though the council has led the way with designating tax dollars for new development, the fact is those funds are just a drop in the bucket when you consider that there are 15,000 households in the county that spend more than 50 percent of their income on housing.

He is proud that there have been dramatic changes in infrastructure and capital planning over the past eight years, saying “Now we have a comprehensive, fully-funded ten-year capital improvement plan in place that’s already built in so it doesn’t have to go before voters.” Funding for city streets has quadrupled from $2 million to $8 million earmarked for paving city streets beginning in spring 2018. New sidewalks, bike, and pedestrian paths, along with an innovative bike-share program, have been allocated $20 million.

Bonfield supports light rail and the expansion of mass transit in the Triangle, saying that in view of growth projections, he doesn’t see many viable alternatives. State and Federal funding will be key as to the success of these initiatives.

He spoke passionately about the need not just in Durham, but in many communities across our nation, to reduce violent crime, particularly gun crimes. “Minorities and people of color are disproportionately represented in our justice system,” he said. “Statistically, someone will be shot every other day in Durham. This is detrimental to the entire community, not just to those directly involved.” He announced a recently secured $1.2 million grant targeting the problem of justice-involved residents.

“We need better coordination of how programs in the community and in our schools are affecting our youth,” Bonfield said. He looks forward to the installment of the new DPS superintendent, noting that we need more stability in our school leadership going forward.

He is optimistic about our future, reminding Rotarians that Durham is perceived very well both nationally and internationally, receiving dozens of accolades each year. “We don’t mind talking about our blemishes. There are lots of people working on issues critical to our long-term sustainability,” he says. “Durham has always welcomed change, re-inventing ourselves while remaining cognizant of and respectful to our heritage.”

Submitted by Carver C. Weaver

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