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Creative differences 

Clare Aselin is seated at a long table in an upstairs conference room in Durham's historic Armory building, grabbing a bite to eat before the dance begins. She performs this ritual every first and third Saturday evening of the month, when the organization she heads as president, the Triangle Swing Dance Society (TSDS), sponsors dances drawing as many as 400 people to downtown Durham. It's 7:30, and in 30 minutes she'll change into a short black dress and black shoes to hit the dance floor downstairs, expertly performing lindy circles, arch turns, and swing-outs. For now, however, she's dressed casually while breaking bread and chatting with the band. While the members of Peter Davis and the Lindy Hop Heaven aren't warming up their instruments yet, what they're saying is music to Aselin's ears.

"We've played dances all over the country and we haven't seen many facilities like this," offers a member of the Ithaca, N.Y. group. "The acoustics, the flooring, the relation of the stage to the dance floor--it's a real beauty." Other band members join in, also singing the Armory's praises. Aselin's face registers one part pride and one part resignation as she takes in this evaluation. While it's great to hear a group of guys from New York salute a North Carolina city's facility, it's not yet clear to her whether, or for how long, the Armory will remain available for TSDS's functions. If a proposal presented to the Durham City Council by restaurateur Giorgios "George" Bakatsias is accepted, the money-losing, publicly owned building may eventually house a dinner theater, and the Triangle Swing Dance Society will have to find another venue for its Saturday night dances.

With 300 members--the largest active membership of all the community groups currently using the Armory--Aselin's nonprofit has chosen to lead the way in presenting a counterproposal to the city council that would maintain nearly unlimited public access to the building. The Armory's beautiful 8,000-square-foot hardwood floor may be their ace in the hole. "There just aren't any dance floors in this area this size, or this nice, where we could accommodate this many dancers," Aselin says. That evening, as she and a friend dressed in natty, thrift-store clothes join a crowd of multigenerational couples shimmying to period tunes like "My Blue Heaven" and "Honey on the Moon," Durham Mayor Nick Tennyson and his wife look down from seats in the balcony. The mayor has accepted the Triangle Swing Dance Society's invitation to see how the Armory is being used, and since Tennyson will be one of the people voting on any proposed changes, his opinion carries quite a bit of weight.

What the mayor witnesses is about as wholesome an event as could be staged. Alcohol and cigarettes are strictly forbidden, and even though single men prowl the outer edges of the floor looking for a partner, the pairings--with people in their 20s often coupled with sexagenarians--show that they've come here mainly for the dancing. There's nothing here that a politician could object to. This night, the swing dancers' campaign to retain access to the Armory seems to have scored a direct hit.

"People say that no one comes downtown, but I had no idea this was going on here," the mayor says from his balcony seat. "We would never today make this level of public investment in a building, not of this quality." He cranes his neck and peers through strings of white lights to examine the Armory's floor. "We certainly can't let it deteriorate, but we need to think hard before making any changes to this facility. It's a jewel."

If the "battle" over the future of the Armory were a boxing match, it would be impossible to score. Representatives of TSDS and George Bakastias, owner of George's Garage and Parizade, have been patting each other on the back rather than throwing punches. As a model for the gathering debate over Durham's future, it couldn't be more civil. "We love George," Aselin says. "He has great restaurants. It's just that there is no better place to hold a dance than the Armory, and there are other places to open a restaurant." For his part, Bakastias says that both groups have "mutual respect" for each other, and he admits that he may not have a "full understanding" of what TSDS wants to do. "I love dance and they have a great group," he says. "I'm just looking at the big picture and looking at the maximum usage of the space and what will bring people into the downtown. It's only a matter of time before something is done."

Bakastias has maintained a low profile in the debate so far, wary of being portrayed as a predatory businessman insensitive to the concerns of community groups. "I have a creative side, too. I consider myself a visionary, and it has been a learning process for me to balance business and the creative," he says. When he explains his plans for a dinner theater, he uses an artist's terminology, eschewing talk of facts and figures. "The Armory is a blank canvas, and I can create on that," he says excitedly. The restaurateur has obtained original architectural drawings of the 1937 building, which originally housed a National Guard unit. He envisions completely restoring the Armory's arch windows, adding dramatic lighting and fabrics with jewel-tone colors, and turning a back patio area into an elaborate garden. He says his proposed changes would cost somewhere between $200,000 and $300,000.

TSDS's proposal, presented to the city council in March, provides for up to $100,000 in building renovations, including air conditioning and electrical improvements, interior painting, and the addition of computers. It recommends that the city begin a long-term lease with TSDS this summer. As its linchpin, however, the proposal promises to provide continued community access, and to honor all existing contracts.

Bakastias declined to make his proposal available to The Independent, but he says that it allows for groups like TSDS to continue using the space, admitting nevertheless that it "may not give them the total freedom they want." While TSDS has suggested that the restaurateur open a dinner theater in the new American Tobacco complex instead, Bakastias counters that the Armory is a "dramatic" and "grand" space particularly suited to the interactive nature of dinner theater. According to the entrepreneur, a balance of different uses, mixing corporate events with weddings and other social events, would make the Armory a viable business option. "That building is not meant to be used 20% of the time, so that it's only giving out 20% of its potential energy to the downtown area," Bakastias says.

Both proposals have made a priority of bringing the Armory's finances into the black. According to Johnny Ford, Durham's director of parks and recreation, the Armory is making more money than in previous years, but it will still run up against a deficit for its fiscal year ending June 30. Expenditures for the Armory's 1998-99 fiscal year were $99,934 and revenues only $62,256, Ford says, compared with projected expenditures this year of $96,346 and revenues of $73,100--a significant improvement. The Armory has also served almost 6,000 more patrons during the same period.

But some of the people who will determine the Armory's future say that the building's finances are the lowest priority. City Councilor Pamela Blyth says there was talk in January of trying to sell the building to George Bakastias, but with the public outcry--e-mails and letters supporting continued city ownership--that possibility is becoming remote. "I had initially expressed some concern about taking a facility like that out of public service," Blyth says. "It seems like a quantum leap to go from what we're doing now to sell the building." Blyth worries that privatizing the Armory won't necessarily accomplish the city's goals. "Before we run out and do something like that based solely on economics, we should look at the impact it's going to have," she says.

Ted Abernathy, Durham's director of economic development, agrees. He says that although the Armory has lost money over the years, and it would be nice if it were "operating at a positive," that's not the city's No. 1 priority. "The goal is to attract more people to the downtown area," he says. Abernathy is supposed to offer his recommendations to the city council in May, but he may simply present the pros and cons of each proposal. A third option, he says, might be to leave things as they are.

According to Abernathy, leaving the building as it is wouldn't meet the needs of either TSDS or George Bakastias, but it's an option the city council may consider. With so many new projects currently on the table, the council may decide it's more prudent to come back to the Armory at a later date. Under normal circumstances, Abernathy says, the city will issue a request for proposals when it's thinking of making changes to an existing public building. In this case, the proposals came to the city unsolicited. "It's a nice situation where a downtown building draws this much interest," he says, crediting the heated local economy and renewed interest in downtowns nationwide. "Downtowns are definitely making a comeback."

The numbers support this statement. Downtown Durham, Inc., a public-private organization that has worked the past five years to provide an attractive environment for business in the city's center, recently compiled new figures showing dramatic changes over the last two years in attendance of downtown events, particularly in the vicinity of the Armory. From 1998 to 1999, for instance, patronage of the Durham Arts Council went from 130,000 to 148,000. Attendance at live performances at the Carolina Theatre, located barely 500 feet from the Armory, increased from 78,500 to 94,000. And at the neighboring Marriott, hotel guests rose from 48,498 to 67,286.

The Durham Marriott, in fact, is poised to become the fly in both Bakastias' and TSDS's ointment. Marriott General Manager Charlie Roberts has recently begun to put together his own informal proposal for taking over management of the Armory, which he says would dovetail nicely into the Marriott's existing management contract with the city for the Civic Center complex. Roberts says he already refers many customers with limited budgets to the Armory, but since those groups are attracted by the Marriott name, he's not certain how many end up using the building. Managing the Armory would allow the Marriott to market to customers with budget restrictions, and keep them coming into downtown Durham, he says. The city would make a percentage on the contract.

Roberts says he likes George Bakastias and that his restaurants are "very, very good"--the Marriott even buys bread from them. But he favors keeping the Armory in public hands, and questions whether a dinner theater would leave enough time for a broad range of customers to use the building. He also notes, however, that he's "not at all in favor of the swing group having control" of the building. Because of health laws, many groups already using the Armory have food prepared for their events at the Marriott, and TSDS wouldn't be able to provide this service for organizations to which the Marriott would be marketing in order to make the building profitable. Roberts also points out that the Marriott has a full engineering department that could temporarily wire the Armory for trade shows and organizations with specific needs, such as computer training groups.

Does the Triangle Swing Dance Society have the experience and expertise to manage the Armory as well as a company like the Marriott? Bill Kalkhof, president of Downtown Durham, Inc., says that although TSDS numbers accountants and lawyers among its membership, "the Armory is an enterprise that requires attention on a full-time basis in order for it to contribute fully to the revival of the downtown area." The possible management and marketing by the Marriott appeals to Kalkhof because the building would remain open for public use. "There's no bad situation here," he says, " ... the key thing is that after 30 years of neglect of the downtown community, we've been able to turn that around in just the last five and a half years."

Regardless of who ends up managing the Armory, everyone seems to agree that it's important to maintain a balance in downtown Durham between business, art and civic interests. And whether the building eventually houses a dinner theater or not, Reyn Bowman of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau suggests that many new restaurants will eventually pop up in the city's arts center. "In a city with 12 nationally acclaimed restaurants already, the culinary is fused so closely with the arts," he says. Bowman cites Durham Arts Guild figures for the number of professional artists in the area to explain the central irony of downtown Durham. "In a community that's got 100 working artists--people who make a living from the arts--art is a business itself," he says. "The stereotypes break down." While George Bakastias claims that it has taken him 25 years of doing business in Durham to learn how to "balance business with the creative," it's a lesson that all of Durham now seems to be learning. EndBlock

More by Mark W. Hornburg


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