Note: The Skinny blog is written by Rick Smith, editor and co-founder of Local Tech Wire and business editor of WRAL.com.

DURHAM, N.C. – Who would have ever thought that downtown Durham would become a high-tech hub?

Answer that question honestly. Did you? Really?

Well, after Thursday night after the grand opening of the and the new headquarters in the American Tobacco Historic District, the answer to that question has changed for a lot of doubters and skeptics.

More than 500 people packed the CED’s opening night party Thursday. Celebrations in the Bay 7 venue are not uncommon, but this one was in the size and enthusiasm of the crowd – and the packed tours that took people across the grounds of the former tobacco complex to the Underground.

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The fact that Red Hat executives have toured American Tobacco and the area around Durham Bulls stadium as a possible new home for its cramped Raleigh headquarters is even more significant proof that the Bull City is a rapidly rising tech player. And nearby a revamped building is seeking to track life science startups.

Smartphone manufacturer HTC also is looking to locate in Durham, perhaps at American Tobacco, having recently been offered $150,000 by Durham leaders.

American Tobacco already is home to venture capital firm Intersouth partners, marketing agency McKinney, venture capital bank Square One, e-mail firm Bronto Mail and others. But the Underground takes the appeal of the complex to an entirely new level – so to speak.

Add to the mix Durham’s Performing Arts Center and an increasing number of restaurants, cafes and bars as well as the ball park and the Bull City is simply rocking.

“Durham is the place to be,” said Karen LeVert, chief executive officer of Southeast TechInventures which works to commercialize technology developed at universities. “They are attracting young companies, doing much more.”

The American Underground is a project by American Tobacco’s owner Capitol Broadcasting that turned huge basement space into a vast high-tech collection of shared facilities, conference rooms, break room and private office space for new and emerging companies.

The CED has already moved in. Next door, Joystick and Launchbox are already humming. Joystick is working with new videogame companies, and entrepreneurs who have business plans are finding support from Launchbox if it considers their ideas worthy of early stage financial support and mentoring.

At least three other companies have signed on for Underground space – or soon will do so. One is a venture capital firm. Another is a media venture.

“It is so cool down here,” said Aaron Houghton, co-founder and chairman of e-mail marketing firm iContact. He wasted no time in moving his other startup venture – Preation, which provides web services – to the American Underground.

In fact, he was so eager to get started that Preation is operating out of temporary space at the Council for Entrepreneurial Development’s new headquarters while the space for Preation is up fit nearby.

“We are really excited to be here,” said CED President Joan Siefert Rose. “This is so much fun. There is some much going on.

“We are building a community here. It’s the Underground!”

Elisa Murciano and Louis Weber of Themis Media came in Halloween costumes to celebrate the opening.

“The entire campus is beautiful,” Murciano, who handles human resources for Themis, said with a big smile. Added Weber, a web developer: “I really like this area. It’s very neat.”

Neat.

Cool.

Not two words one ever really heard about the sterile Research Triangle Park.

As successful as the RTP has been, it never was about community – bars, restaurants, places to hang, entertainment.

Durham, and in many ways in Raleigh with the Glenwood street scene and more than ever businesses in revitalized downtown, offer tech executives what clean labs, glass offices and concrete can’t.

“Who would have ever thought we had life outside the office, that we would want to get together for a cocktail or lunch or dinner,” Rose said.

Welcome to the new Durham – a place to work and to have fun.

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