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In Durham’s American Tobacco district, Michael Goodmon is building community – and a business

Michael Goodmon was in college when his father’s company bought the old American Tobacco campus, at the time a run-down cluster of factory buildings abandoned 13 years earlier by the company that made Lucky Strike and Bull Durham cigarettes.

He marveled at the broken windows, piles of pigeon droppings, and splatters from the paintball guns the police department used when it conducted its SWAT training there.

While he says he knew better than to doubt his father, Capitol Broadcasting CEO Jim Goodmon, it was hard to see the potential. Nor did he know that a little more than a decade later, those buildings would be the center of his life.

As it celebrates its 10th anniversary this week, the American Tobacco Historic District now encompasses more than a million square feet of office space where more than 4,000 people work, many of them at the innovative startups and creative industries for which the elegantly converted factories are best known.

More than a million people visited the district last year to see a Durham Bulls game, eat at one of its restaurants, hear music in its courtyard or attend other events. It has gained national attention as a model for reusing historical buildings and helped jump-start a larger revitalization of a city that had suffered since the decline of its tobacco industry.

And if his father first had the vision, in recent years it is the younger Goodmon who has guided American Tobacco as it grows and thrives.

Since taking over operations at American Tobacco in 2008, he has started and grown the business incubator American Underground, which recently expanded into a second building closer to downtown.

He personally helps lure companies to the site, has completed construction on the third office building surrounding the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and is now developing an Aloft Hotel, in addition to several residential projects nearby.

In keeping with the community-oriented approach of the family business, Goodmon also moved his family from his hometown of Raleigh to Durham, where he is active in civic matters such as education and housing.

“He understands ‘place making’ about as good as any business person I know,” says Shelly Green, CEO of the Durham Convention and Visitors Bureau. “He understands clearly that you can’t have a successful business without a vibrant community around you.”

Joan Siefert-Rose, director of the Council for Entrepreneurial Development, based at American Underground, says that Goodmon has helped expand American Tobacco both in its size and influence, in particular by helping innovative young companies to thrive.

“He’s reshaping the innovation landscape, and reshaping what downtown Durham looks like,” Siefert-Rose says.

Media work ‘didn’t click’

Goodmon, 34, grew up in Raleigh, one of three children. His father took over the family media business that would become Capitol Broadcasting the year he was born.

But unlike his older brother, Jimmy, who started running cameras at the station’s news shows when he was still a child, Michael Goodmon had little interest in media.

“It just didn’t click for me,” he says.

He did love baseball, and he figured when the company bought the Durham Bulls in 1990, he might find a job in that branch of the company.

He majored in math in college and earned a master’s degree in management. But he says his father weaned him away from being too analytical when it comes to decision-making. Now, he says, he relies on the quick-decision style that his father employs, using terms like “using your gut” or having a “feel for the deal” to describe how he does business.

Goodmon went to work at American Tobacco, which was early in its renovation stage, right out of college. He worked for six years before taking leadership.

The elder Goodmon undertook renovating the old factory buildings after building the new Durham Bulls Athletic Park, which was to be surrounded by new office parks, the third of which was finished last year.

City and county leaders agreed to build a parking garage for the campus, and Capitol devoted $200 million to its renovation – a risky venture in a blighted part of town.

Michael Goodmon learned the intricacies of the place from the ground up, and learned to appreciate the old boilers and pipes that were kept from the buildings’ previous tenants. As he tours the current space, with its grassy expanses and rushing water, he says plans for the place were built bit by bit.

“At some point we realized we could do more than just make this not be a disaster,” he says. “We realized it could be something really special.”

Business and community

Goodmon says the idea of American Tobacco was to create a unique space that people would want to visit, not just to make money by renting out office space; he practices what he calls “tenant curation,” a conscious attempt to recruit businesses and entities that will enhance the area’s creative vibe.

Another strategy since early on is to fill the blank in the sentence, “I’m coming to American Tobacco because” as many ways as possible.

One of the first companies to move to the campus was the McKinney advertising firm. CEO Brad Brinegar says he believed the project would work because the Goodmons didn’t need a quick profit; instead they wanted to make Durham a better market for their media company.

He credits Michael Goodmon with fostering the site’s unique culture.

“He cares about the project and I think he has a real sense of understanding what makes American Tobacco tick,” he says. “He’s done a really terrific job of making sure that we see it grow to be an ever more vibrant place.”

For Goodmon, that sense of vitality comes from projects big and small. Touring the campus, he gushes as much at an outdoor pingpong table and the rooftop beehives as he does the 150-room Aloft Hotel going up across the street.

He also has a strong attachment to historical buildings; another current project is to convert an old mill in Rocky Mount into a hub for breweries.

In Durham, he is working to cure what he calls its two major ills: crime and a flawed education system.

He’s particularly involved with the East Durham Education Initiative, which is working to provide students at targeted local schools with an array of needed services, from medical care to housing, in an effort to improve academic performance.

For Goodmon, the line between community work and business is blurry: “A company is more profitable in a healthy community,” he says.

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