This article originally appeared in the February/March 2012 issue of Durham Magazine.
The truth, Jim Goodmon tells me, is that he failed, that his dream was dead.
He wouldn’t be sitting here otherwise.
The president and CEO of Capitol Broadcasting Co., the Raleigh-based owner of WRAL, WRAZ, a slew of radio stations and the Durham Bulls, never intended to wind up in downtown Durham, being interrogated on the day before Thanksgiving. Yet there he sat, trying to remember where it all went wrong.
“My notion was we need to have a sports park for this market called Triangle Central Park,” Jim says. “I optioned a bunch of land out on Page Road. The idea was we’d build a baseball stadium, a huge convention center, an arena, a soccer stadium. It was going to be everybody’s place. I worked really hard on that. I wanted the Durham Bulls to be the anchor tenant. But I didn’t believe that [former owner] Miles Wolff would move the team, so I thought I had to buy it. And I did. But then – it’s a long and complicated story – [the Central Park project] didn’t work out. And here I am with a baseball team in Durham.
"This wasn’t my idea to own a baseball team in Durham.”
The thing is, when you’re Jim Goodmon, you see opportunity even amid disappointment. Step 1 was convincing the city and county that he needed a new ballpark for the team he now found himself helming. They built him one right next to the long-shuttered American Tobacco factory. That wouldn’t do for a neighbor, so Jim made the leap from media mogul to developer, transforming the historic brick structure into Class A office, event and restaurant space. The “urban chic” American Tobacco Campus now is considered a major reason for downtown’s renaissance. Jim’s younger son, Michael, runs the entire operation, and says he’s committed to keeping that momentum going, expanding American Tobacco’s and Capitol Broadcasting Co.’s reach further into Durham.
The Goodmons are old school, right down to the very North Carolina way Jim pronounces his project: “American Tah-ba-kuh.” They follow the edicts of enlightened self-interest.
“I was raised,” Michael says, “personally and professionally, to believe that a company cannot be successful unless the community around it is successful.” It’s a motto as much a part of the Goodmon business model as the good-natured bickering between Jim and Michael, on full display during our interview, just before they had to run out for a pre-Thanksgiving oyster roast with the rest of the clan.
DM Jim, you’re seen, more or less, as a “Raleigh guy.” What attracted you
Jim Well, first off, my uncle lived in Durham, Ford Fletcher. I spent a lot of time at his house on Monmouth Avenue with my cousins. And remember the business I’m in, now. Our television and radio stations don’t stop at the county lines. Our market includes everybody. So I’ve never had this Raleigh versus Durham versus Chapel Hill versus Cary mentality. I refined in my mind the idea that this is one market. The thing about being here is you can be in this wonderful market that has all this stuff and you can choose to live in a place like Durham or a place like Raleigh or on a tobacco farm. All this diversity we have here is really great.
DM When the Central Park idea fell through and you were left with the Bulls, you could have just left them at Durham Athletic Park, right?
Jim No I couldn’t. That violated every code known to man. Nothing was working. You could grab concrete out of the grandstand. Lights would go out if it was more than 90 degrees. I’m a you-gotta-play-the-cards-you’re-dealt guy. We worked with the city to build a new park for the team, and they did. A really good one. It’s fantastic. When we were talking about that stadium I told them I would do what I could – though I didn’t quite know what I could do – to help make the stadium a catalyst for downtown development. The first idea we had was to do Diamond View I, the office building in right field. And we leased that up fairly quickly. Of course, every time I’d come to a game here, I’d see American Tobacco, which the police department was using for SWAT training. The tear gas would come out of American Tobacco and into the ballpark.
DM No kidding.
Jim Yeah, when we came in here, there were bullet holes in all the walls.
Michael Paintball holes.
DM Bullet holes sounds better, but thanks for clarifying that.
Jim There were some bullet holes, no?
Michael [shakes head] There was one bullet hole in the north side of Old Bull. Remember it was from the ’40s and there was a bank robbery chase with the cops. You know what, let’s just not intermingle bullets and American Tobacco. [laughs]
Jim So we decided, “Let’s give this a try.” We said to the city and county, “OK, if we were able to do this, will you all build the parking decks?” We worked all that out. So I had a commitment from the city and the county, and their commitment was, they would do it if we could do it. That allowed us to talk to people and we had good support and off we go. The rest is history. Had good results, and then we built Diamond View II, and we’re going to start first quarter of this year, Diamond View III.
DM Tell me more about that.
Michael First of all, this building has always been on our list.
Jim [interjecting] Our notion is…
Michael OK, why don’t you just do it? [laughs]
Jim Excuse me. Diamond View I, II and III we think of as being part of the ballpark. I look at Diamond View III as completing the ballpark.
Michael That’s literally what I was going to say.
DM Are you going to get into residential development?
Michael You will see that presence grow in and around this area. There’s certainly a need. The question is, Where’s the balance? Mixed-use property is great because it has all the different opportunities within it, but it also presents complications about how you run it and how you deal with bars and theaters and residential. This year we expect to have somewhere between 1.2 and 1.3 million visitors to American Tobacco. That’s a lot of people. That’s a great challenge for us to have. I think if you were to ask us in 2002, 2003, 2004, what we were thinking about how to manage all the different uses here, we would have said, “What? We’re just trying to get an office user in here.” Somewhere along the line this clicked for us that this is more than office. This is really an experience.
DM What was the spark that got businesses interested in being here?
Michael I think it was when people realized this was going to happen. There’d been a lot of talk about this project for a long time, but once Duke was committed, Glaxo was committed and construction started, people thought, ‘Wow, this is going to happen.’ I look at those restaurateurs who came in here very early as very brave. They took a leap of faith that this property would become what it has. I’m really thankful for that. But I think those early tenants, once they saw an opportunity for something different, I think that’s when it clicked. We started having these conversations of, “I’m coming to American Tobacco because blank.” We always want to be adding a blank. Remember, we’re not a developer.
DM Well, you are now.
Michael Right, but we didn’t start that way. We approached this very differently than a developer would have.
Jim Here’s how I define the difference: We try to make this an operating business. It’s an operating division of the company. We’re a little different in that this is a real estate project designed as an operating business to have annual cash flow. It is not the notion of we’re going to build buildings and sell them.
Michael You know we’re 95 percent office here, right? Do you feel like you’re in an office park?
Michael That’s the difference. And that’s why I believe the tenants really enjoy being here. It’s not a building and a parking lot next to a highway. It’s about an experience for their employees. They’re saying, “I want the best employees I can get.” And the way to get the best employees is to provide them with a place where they’re going to love coming to work every day.
DM The entrepreneurial incubator American Underground has generated a lot of buzz. But what’s in it for you to have startups in the
Michael Because I filled in another blank on his card. [To Jim] Well let me hear your answer first, since it was [sarcastically] your idea.
Jim Right, and don’t you forget it.
Michael [stage whisper] It was my idea. [laughs]
Jim It took me two-and-a-half years to get him to do it. I think we felt that, with this push for incubators and accelerators and innovations and creating companies, that there’s a certain attitude, there’s a certain lifestyle, there’s a certain paradigm of these companies of how they live and how they think that this would be the right fit for them.
DM That answers why they would want to be here. But what about why you want them here?
Michael Let me put it this way: We could find a lot better way to make money than to do an American Underground. But I can tell you when HTC came to town, which has now almost 50,000 square feet, they loved the Underground. They want a diverse community.
DM In all honesty, did you see downtown becoming what it is today?
Jim The more that I was involved in Durham, the more I had a feeling that Durham was ready to go, that if we could get something done, it would have long-term consequences. You can say all you want I had some vision. But more than that, it was the people who supported it. It’s Duke that took 150,000 square feet, it’s McKinney, it’s Glaxo who said, we’re going to take space here when the SWAT team was still here. They believed we could actually get it done. But it was only through their commitments that we could get it done. Then the city and the county saying, “OK, if you can get this done, we’ll help you.” So I had a lot of help. I get a little nervous about “Look what Jim Goodmon did.” I will take credit for coming up with the idea and pushing it along. But I had an awful lot of help.
DM Jim, you got involved a little bit in the Wake County schools debate. That got me thinking about the issues facing our public schools in Durham and other big civic issues that are the final, major hurdles. You can pass if you want, but can you talk about what you see as the problems and possible solutions on that front or any other?
Jim I really tried to stay out of that. I have successfully avoided any political anything. I will say this: From working in Durham, I became more aware of the importance of diversity and what it really means to a community. So when Wake County announced that they weren’t going to consider that in their school assignment plan, I had a hissy. I mean, come on. Are you serious? They said we can’t have that word in our assignment plan. I didn’t support or oppose any plan. I just said, “Guys, diversity is really important.” That’s all I said. Now the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, which is our family foundation, has recently made some significant investments in the Durham school system, and I’d like for Michael to tell you about those.
Michael The East Durham Children’s Initiative, we’ve really had a focused, targeted approach there, not only through EDCI itself but through Student U. We’ve invested heavily into Neal Middle School. We’ve kind of put our arms around that school. If you look at educational issues, one thing is very clear: It is not just about education. This is a 360-degree issue that starts with, “What did your mom do while she was pregnant? How were you raised from 0-3? What type of housing do you live in?” It’s an endless list. And so East Durham Children’s Initiative is a very powerful model of, “How can we really surround these kids with 360 degrees of service to give them the best opportunity we can to be successful?” We put about $1.1 million into East Durham, a certain amount into EDCI, a certain amount into Neal Middle School and a certain amount into a program that would provide nursing consultations for parents with toddlers, and then we made housing loans to Project RED, which is Preservation North Carolina and Preservation Durham buying and revitalizing houses in East Durham. Without a doubt, mixed-income neighborhoods are the most healthy neighborhoods. And I think the introduction of working class housing will certainly help. We expect money to go to the renovation and sale of 5-10 houses per year. It’s a pellet gun at a battleship, but it’s a start.
DM A family-run company is rare in this day and age, and I’ve gotten a little bit of a glimpse of the dynamic today. Seems like it could be great, but there might be unique problems. How does it work?
Michael Remember, I’ve got a brother. My brother Jimmy, who’s three years older. We’re all very different.
Jim Michael’s on his employment review status. I don’t know whether we’re going to keep him or not. [laughs] There are not any shrinking violets in the group.
DM I’m gathering that.
Michael We’ve had some funny meetings, though.
Jim I’ve had to remind them who is the chief executive officer. But I think we’re doing fine. I have an awful lot of confidence in them, and they’re doing a good job. We all have high standards, so we are very demanding of each other.
DM It becomes more than “This is how we make our living” when it’s this way, correct?
Michael Right. This is a company, but this is personal.
Jim Remember, I grew up working for my grandfather. I’m the third generation of my family to be president of the company.
Michael I couldn’t imagine being in a company that’s not my family. It’s fun to care about something this much.
DM You guys do kind of make it look like fun.
Michael It is. You know, it’s tough to find the boss versus father separation. And Jimmy and I kind of tread all over that line all the time, I’m sure. [Jim] takes it to a point, and then it’s “OK, if you were someone else, you would be fired by now.” [laughs] We’ll come up with something, and he’ll disagree, but he’s usually right, and that’s frustrating. But I wouldn’t trade it.
Jim Neither would I. DM