Local Politics

Bell ready to adjourn political career in Durham

Posted November 6, 2017 7:18 p.m. EST

— When voters in Durham head to the polls Tuesday to elect their local leaders, Mayor Bill Bell's name won't be on the ballot for the first time since 2001.

Bell, 76, said he has mixed feelings about leaving public office after serving 16 years as mayor and another 26 years on the Durham County Board of Commissioners.

"There are a lot of things I’ll miss: being involved with the city, meeting people," he said. "I’ll miss being involved in the planning process."

Bell has been a part of the Durham scene since before there actually was a "Durham scene." His thumbprint is on most major projects downtown, such as the Durham Performing Arts Center, and he has helped transform what was once the Triangle's grittiest city into what's considered the hippest.

"It's been a renaissance that's been the result of good public-private partnerships that's made it happen," he said. "Durham is now a destination place. People are here 24/7."

He's quick to deflect credit, however.

"You don’t do anything by yourself, especially something like this. I’ve been fortunate to have good partners on City Council and the administration and the general public," he said.

His tenure as mayor hasn't always been smooth, and he called the 2006 allegation that Duke University lacrosse players raped a stripper at a team party and the the subsequent negative national spotlight it cast on Durham as one of the most difficult times in his career.

"We were fortunate to get through it," Bell said, adding, "I think we’re better off for having gone through it. We’re a better community having gone through it."

Since the scandal, the town-gown relationship has improved, as has the relationship between Duke and North Carolina Central University, he said.

Although Durham has been able to lower its crime rate during much of Bell's time in office, he said he is frustrated that the city has had a harder time making a dent in its poverty rate.

"It’s a lot more difficult in reducing with poverty than building DPAC and all the other buildings," he said. "When you talk about poverty, you're talking about individual lives and changing the way they live."

Neighborhoods have been upgraded across Durham, and city officials are trying to ensure housing remains affordable, he said.

"We’ve got a roadmap of what we want to do. It’s just a matter of having the will and heart and bringing in the right people to make it happen," he said.

Bell will no longer be one of those people, however, as he trades in his gavel for time with his six grandchildren.

"I am here by choice, not chance," he said, noting that he hadn't planned to stay when he moved to the area in 1968 because of his job with IBM. "Durham's a good place, and I can't think of another place I'd rather be."

His last day as mayor is Dec. 4, when his successor will be sworn in.