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Durham looks to renovate, keep small-town charm

Former Staff Writer

Published: Friday, May 3, 2013

Updated: Friday, May 3, 2013 13:05

Among the various artifacts in Todd Selig’s office on 15 Newmarket Road, a rectangular wooden frame holds a panoramic scene of Main Street, Durham circa 1988. Selig points out that the photograph and present-day Main Street are identical — a comparison, up until recently, symbolic of Durham’s history.

As the town’s administrator since 2001, Selig said he has encountered, first hand, the need for redevelopment within the community.

“Other than the last few years, the only new development Durham has seen is the reconstruction of Libby’s Bar and Grill after a fire,” Selig said. “If you drive through downtown today there is a lot of new construction taking place.”

The building boom comes in a multitude of shapes and sizes, from various housing development projects to commercial expansion in the downtown area. With a changing economy and housing market, many people believe the time is right—and right now—to foster a more effective relationship within the town of Durham, between its residents and business owners with the university and its students.

“It’s like the saying goes, ‘you need to change and grow or die.’ There’s some truth to that,” Director of Planning and Development Michael Behrendt said. “I do believe if you don’t change at all you slowly wither away.”

The need for redevelopment, both in physical construction and community relationships, is not atypical of New Hampshire college towns. Plymouth, N.H.’s code enforcer and building inspector Brian Murphy said that in the past, the town of Plymouth and Plymouth State University have struggled to collaborate efficiently.

“For years, the town and Plymouth did not get along. The administration would blow us off,” Murphy said.

City Manager of Keene, N.H., John MacLean, on the other hand, commended his city’s ability to work so well together, and to develop a bond between the town’s administration, residents, and Keene State College.

While Plymouth’s student population of roughly 5,000 matches that of the town, the residents of Keene nearly quadruple the 6,000 students that attend KSC. Approximately 15,000 people attend UNH, outnumbering Durham’s inhabitants by 2,500, give or take.

Despite the fact that each of these New England campus communities thrive and function in different ways, they’ve all faced the same problems. Durham is in the midst of tackling some of these issues head on — bringing about a wave of revitalization that could propel Durham, and New Hampshire’s largest university, into it’s golden age, or years of tension.

A Changing Economy

2008 became a pivotal year for Durham after the economy tanked and the recession took hold. As off-campus student apartments aged, the corresponding value for the price of rent fell into decline. The fact remains, however, that students need a place to live, and in an underdeveloped rural college town, housing markets become a cash cow. Durham Code Enforcement Officer Tom Johnson explained how over the years, this economical pattern turned into a vicious cycle.

“Part of the problem is that there is no stiff competition,” Johnson said. “Students are willing to sign a lease, so there’s no incentive for landlords to do major renovations.”

The trade-off for close proximity to the bars and campus could mean lack of insulation and energy-efficient appliances, meaning that students footing their own utility bill might have an unnecessary additional expense each month, on top of an already overpriced rent.

“If you live on the first floor of one of these older buildings and you’re paying the heating bill, you might just be paying to heat the tenants living above you,” Johnson explained.

Every September, Johnson gets calls from disgruntled parents who are angry with him for letting their children live in structures that haven’t undergone inspection. He added that in his 11 years as Durham’s code enforcement officer, he’s seen far too many students sign leases for the wrong reasons.

In the past, Johnson couldn’t inspect apartment buildings in Durham unless certain circumstances prevailed, such as medical calls being made and EMTs reporting poor living standards, or a referral from the fire or police department. While Johnson categorized most of these incidents as “accidents,” he offers a valuable service that he urges students to take utilize.

“Any student can call the health officer, fire department, plumbing or fire inspector if they feel their living conditions are unhealthy or unsafe,” Johnson said. “We will come and do an inspection as a service for the tenant. A lot of students don’t take advantage of that.”

Less than standard off-campus student housing in Keene is an issue MacLean is familiar with as well. The city implemented a voluntary inspection program — landlords who have their properties inspected are put on a list published and advertised by the college, allowing students and parents to see exactly which apartments meet their expectations. According to MacLean, the system has been extremely successful due to strong collaboration between the town and college.

Due to Durham’s large student population and little availability for off-campus housing, the town’s approach has been more demanding.

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