By Sarah Rankin
UNC Staff Writer
The Durham VOICE
In January 2007, Northeast Central Durham resident Wendy Clark attended a Christian prayer meeting for business owners, and her peers told her she had a gift for property development.
Inspired, she went on a drive through the neighborhood with her sister, looking for office space for her business, Carpe Diem Cleaning. Her sister serendipitously spotted the run-down structure at 801 Gilbert St., and Clark said she immediately saw a vision of what it could be.
“We were just going up Holloway Street to look at other dilapidated buildings, and she saw the for sale sign out of the corner of her eye,” Clark said. “And so we just drove up and found the building. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for seven years and did not know this [building] existed until that day.”
Nearly three-and-a-half years later, the building has been converted into an entrepreneurial center – called the John O’Daniel Business Center – for nonprofits and small businesses. The center – which provides relatively low rent as well as amenities like a shared conference space with audio-visual equipment – is at 80 percent occupancy.
“Wendy Clark is just one of our heroes,” said Cathleen Turner, the director of the piedmont regional office of Preservation North Carolina, a historical preservation society with five branches across the state.
“It takes all of us to work together to take full advantage of the potential of all of these wonderful community assets,” she said. “Wendy just had a vision; she saw it, and she went for it.”
The journey to the John O’Daniel Business Center, which is at the corner of Gilbert and Pearl streets, was complicated. Clark and her development partner, Chuck Lewis, a general contractor who specialized in high-end residential development, faced the challenges of finding funding and restoring the building according to historical standards.
After first finding the previous price of the building, Clark contacted its owner and began negotiations. Then she started researching.
Clark sought out every funding stream she could think of, including Downtown Durham, Inc., and the city’s office of economic and workforce development. She partnered with a friend, an English teacher, to write a grant proposal for the building’s renewal.
“I just began putting the pieces together, finding funding … you can’t stop,” Clark said. “You’ve got to press things through until their end.”
Eventually, Clark and Lewis secured funding from a variety of sources. Both made personal investments, and they also secured a neighborhood commercial revitalization fund grant from the city of Durham, a loan from BB&T and a federal tax credit for historical building renovations. They were able to close on the property on Sept. 15, 2008. The building is now owned by Lewis and Clark Community Developers, LLC.
“That took longer than the renovation process itself – getting the financials, the plan,” she said. “All of that took so much time.”
Seven months later, the renovation was complete. Lewis – who has since moved on from the partnership to other projects – served as the general contractor.
“He utilized his subcontractors and oversaw the renovation process,” Clark said. “He is a master builder. He did an amazing job.”
Clark said that during the renovation the team tried to save all the original elements it could. But the building, which had been declared blighted by the city of Durham, needed major repairs.
“Every historical site has a big surprise, and our big surprise was that we had to even remove the floor joists,” Clark said. “The floor joists were decayed and dilapidated. We thought we’d be able to use the flooring originally and just build upon it, but we had to remove about 85 percent of it, so that was a huge surprise.”
However, the team was able to save many of the historical artifacts that were discovered in the building. For instance, the fire hydrant piping for the Gilbert Street block was once housed in the center. It remains there now, stored in a spare room. Papers and articles that were found in the building’s attic are framed and displayed throughout the building.
The building formerly had many uses, including a farmers’ exchange, a hosiery mill and, most recently, a Latino nightclub.
Clark said she is proud the center fulfilled the promises made in the grant proposal, hiring local individuals and agencies to complete the renovation, fostering the growth of new local business and maintaining the historical integrity of the building.
Heather Jones, the executive director of Durham Cares, said her organization chose to relocate to the John O’Daniel Business Center because of its low rates and flexibility and its mission to honor history.
“For us, this building was important because it was created with real mission and vision and purpose,” she said. “It wasn’t just about renovation and rebuilding.”
Turner said historical renovations in general are important for Durham’s revitalization. She said Durham’s trend toward historical renovation is due in part to its “out-of-the-box” mentality, as well as the pragmatic advantages of renovating old buildings rather than starting new projects from scratch, something she called a “waste-not-want-not” attitude.
“Neighborhood revitalization supports sustainable cities,” she said.