Ronnie Sturdivant, who on Aug. 30 was found shot to death in one of the two landmark buildings he owned in downtown Durham, never quite fit within the inner sanctum of Bull City businessmen. It was appropriate, then, that his funeral was held at the edge of the city, past a country club on Cole Mill Road, not as a final rebuke to the councilmen, real-estate leaders and tenants with whom he publicly clashed, but to accommodate a standing-room-only crowd. More than 1,000 mourners paid tribute Saturday to the former life-insurance salesman and would-be real-estate maven's "dreams unmatched."
"Ronnie would look at a house and think about how marvelous it would become," the Rev. William A. Stephens, his minister at Southside Church of Christ, told an exuberant crowd at the Cole Mill Road Church of Christ. "And I would look at it and think how raggedy that house is."
Sturdivant's lackluster upkeep of roughly 30 rental properties and his stern measures with tenants—including a nasty habit of executing "self-help" evictions—earned him notoriety with city officials, who, in 1993, sought to prevent him from purchasing the Chapel Hill Street motel where he was found murdered. Police have charged one of his commercial tenants in connection with the crime.
When Sturdivant's plans to convert the former Holiday Inn into a weekly-rent motel began to falter, he bivouacked on the roof with a mattress and a megaphone, accused his opponents of "apartheid," and eventually prevailed in keeping the property—only after N.C. Central University refused to accept the run-down building as a donation from NationsBank, which sought to renege on the sale to Sturdivant. Yet despite Sturdivant's long history of housing code violations, and allegations of assaulting tenants—he was cleared of several assault charges, though found guilty of communicating threats in 1990, court records show—business associates described him as a downtown pioneer whose vision of black enterprise was both genuine and confounding.
"I admired the fact that he was this hard-charging, energetic entrepreneur," said Bill Kalkhof, director of Downtown Durham Inc., who acknowledged the importance of Sturdivant, an African-American, owning property in the center of historic Black Wall Street. "Having said that, there's absolutely no question that we did not see eye-to-eye on the revitalization of downtown, and particularly with his properties."
Kalkhof and other real-estate leaders pointed to Sturdivant's 1960s-era converted motel on Corcoran Street as having unrealized potential. The building is known locally as the "Oprah building" for his boldly proclaimed but unsuccessful campaign to coax talk show host Oprah Winfrey to Durham—an effort still visible in the run-down building's windows. Sturdivant rented street-level commercial space and parking but kept most of the motel rooms vacant and the building in disrepair. Kalkhof said he arranged numerous meetings between Sturdivant and investors who wished to convert the property into a high-rise, mixed-use building, but said the meetings "never got very far."
Yet Sturdivant's mere ownership of the building—which he named the TQ Business Complex and Upper Deck Motel and planned to use for hosting entrepreneurship seminars—was a point of pride, business associates said.
"He said, 'I read about and know about Black Wall Street being along Parrish Street, but there really are no black people along Parrish,'" said Hank Scherich, president of Measurement Inc., which last year loaned Sturdivant $150,000 to prevent foreclosure on the Corcoran Street building.
Scherich, and at least three other creditors, now hold liens on the building. At the time of his death, Sturdivant, who spoke often about money management and authored a book called God's Plan for Debt Free Living, had not yet begun to pay back the Measurement Inc. loan.
"The man had owned the property for 12 years. He had struggled through downtown while the property was worth nothing. And here, for a mere $55,000, he was going to lose a valuable piece of property," Scherich said, in explaining why he had offered the three-year loan, which effectively bought out an existing loan on which Sturdivant had defaulted.
Scherich was not alone in professing an admiration for Sturdivant's perseverance, and sympathy for his unrealized goals. At his funeral service, the Rev. Christopher Turner said the last time he saw Sturdivant, "he was still climbing."
"Who else could take a man from a small town, send him to the city, to look at the buildings downtown, to one day stand on the top of his own building, right in the center of everything?" Sturdivant's minister, Stephens, asked aloud in a passage praising God.
But according to Scherich and other business associates, Sturdivant had bigger plans than merely sitting—or standing—on his properties, which he had more or less done for more than a decade on Corcoran Street. He similarly allowed the Chapel Hill Street property to slip into disrepair, replete with a razor-wire fence and perennially stowed cars, but when the city outlawed his weekly-rate motel, he converted the property into the Urban Merchant Center, where vendors sold used furniture and African-American art. Police listed "Urban Merchants" as the place of employment of murder suspect Barry Wayne Kaalund on the arrest report.
"He really hoped that a black man could be the lead—he understood that he didn't have enough capital to build the place himself—but that a black man could be the lead in recreating a signature building in downtown Durham as a follow-up to the historical Black Wall Street," Scherich said of the Corcoran Street property. "He really wanted that—a black entrepreneur to build a signature building downtown. And he might have accomplished it if he had not been murdered."
Scherich said that, recently, Sturdivant had planned to convert the property into an 18- to 24-story multi-use building—much like Kalkhof had advocated—and that he was drawing up plans for the high-rise with an Atlanta-based development group called Russell New Urban Development. On Oct. 31, 2007, Sturdivant received a $50,000 loan from the Atlanta company, records show, and he put the Corcoran Street property up as collateral, as he had already done for Scherich and two other businessmen, W.S. Tucker of Charlotte and James Bradford of Durham.
Carl Webb, a Greenfire Development partner, negotiated—unsuccessfully—with Sturdivant to incorporate the Corcoran Street property into Greenfire's plans for revitalizing Black Wall Street.
"I think Ronnie had some very definite ideas for what he wanted to see happen there—a lot of it was similar to what I wanted to see happen. I think he had a desire to do a lot of it himself," Webb said.
Sturdivant had a vision for a "symbol of success within the black community" that would have included office, retail, residential and parking space, Webb said. The Atlanta company did not return calls seeking comment.
Webb added that Sturdivant had planned to convert the Chapel Hill Street building into a "conference and convention center" that would rival Raleigh's, a plan that he kept secret from other business associates.
As Sturdivant was laid to rest, his minister echoed business and political leaders in saying that they "butted heads" but nevertheless held mutual respect.
"Ronnie would say, 'I have a vision for Southside [Church],'" Stephens said Saturday, to a chorus of laughter. "And I said, 'That's great, but there's only room for one evangelist.'"