Tar Heel Tattler - December 2006

Duke ponies up to seal deal for street
By Frank Maley

Here’s an update on the old quid pro quo: Write an agreement that promises politicians money they can use for their pet project and a bonus if they approve yours by a certain date. Then sit back and watch as the pols defend themselves against accusations of impropriety.

Duke University did that in hopes of getting Durham’s approval for the reconfiguration and maintenance of Anderson Street, which runs through property the school wants to develop between its east and west campuses. The city accepted a deal in November that calls for the university to give it $500,000 immediately, which the city wants to help build a performing-arts center, plus $1.5 million if Duke’s plans for Anderson Street are approved by November 2007.

Duke already had given $5.5 million for the theater. This time, it wanted to make sure it got something for its money, Executive Vice President Tallman Trask III says. “There were long discussions, and we finally said, ‘Look, we’re prepared to help the city, and we invest a lot of money in the city, but some things are important to us, too.’”

The deal would have been illegal, City Attorney Henry Blinder says, if the council had agreed to approve the request upfront in exchange for money. In this case, the city can still say no, but it won’t get the extra $1.5 million.

The Duke money would cover a $2 million funding gap for the $44.3 million performing-arts center, which the city has been discussing at least five years, Mayor Bill Bell says. Durham had until Nov. 21 to sign a contract with its builder and lock in construction costs. Hotel-occupancy taxes, parking fees and theater operating revenue will cover most of the project cost.

Bell says he can ignore the financial incentive when Duke’s request comes before the council. “If the project makes sense and our people can come together on it, fine. If we can’t come together on it, we just don’t come together, and the city’s got to determine what it needs to do to fill the gap.”

City Council member Thomas Stith opposed the deal. Maybe it’s legal, he says, but it’s not ethical. “We showed that with $2 million you can get your way in the City of Durham, and I don’t think that’s a message we want to send.”