As an old Richard Florida Creative Class follower, I remember that he likes to quote Jane Jacobs in saying, ”New ideas require old buildings.”

Durham has old buildings in spades, and they have a plan to get more young companies downtown.

The new American Underground@Main St. will offer another 22,000 square feet for rent to up-and-coming companies. Planners expect to rent to about 50 firms, or less than 450 square feet per company.

Right now, you can only see the bones of the space as the drywall is not in place, but the potential for something very special is obvious from the time you walk into this former retail space that will soon augment the original American Underground.

Any city would love to claim the 50,000 square feet Durham has dedicated to startups in the downtown area. Any city would love to see startups 5-10 people grow to become the next 100-job creator.

Most cities would love an active and visionary real estate developer like Jim Goodmon, the head of Capitol Broadcasting which owns the American Tobacco campus. Goodmon had the vision, contacts and contracts to make something like this happen in Durham.

He is taking advantage of the lack of vision by the other regional startup hubs who have only built work space but not added the third-place advantage of restaurants and such. Of course, not everyone can have the most well-known minor league baseball team in their backyard.

WRALTechWire, Tech Crunch get first look

Underground@Main developers invited guests, including WRALTechWire and TechCruch, to tour the new space still under construction. 

The discussion was lively and guests added ideas for the pace such as the need for live classroom sessions to teach programming skills to residents and high school students on a regular basis. The night ended with a small networking event of young entrepreneurs at the Beyu Cafe.

The Underground@Main is an interesting concept in real estate with unique modern features in an older downtown building. The development on Main Street in downtown Durham is surrounded by coffee bars, cupcake shops and restaurants such as the successful Dames Chicken and Waffles and the “Smoffice” – a unique new business space launched at the front of Beyu Café.

Flexible space highlights Underground@Main

The current plan and in-process renovation includes the street–level floor and the open-plan basement below.

Whimsical workers can use the slide to go from first floor to basement, where they will find a coffeehouse lounge layout and six 38-square-foot spaces for startups and innovative non-profits.

The basement area will also have a shipping container-formed space that will serve as a private pitch room for meetings such as investor presentations.

The space also contains an old vault-like door that leads to the open lounge room and a huge 30-foot long white board for brainstorming sessions in the open space.

The space also includes open space for future events with 20 people and space for bigger events with 50-60 people.

Bigger Deal in the Works

The Underground developers are not alone in this vision but have partners such as Duke University, Research Triangle Park Foundation, Durham Chamber of Commerce, North Carolina Central University and UNC Chapel Hill and more to make this development possible.

They also are also in final negotiations to land a larger company deal where Underground@Main would be home to a company with more than 40 employees.

Adam Klein, the current leader of the Underground location is leading the development to bring the startup movement to Main Street. He has big plans for the 40-50 new companies and organizations to move into the most creative office space I have seen in the Southeast. There is already room for expansion as the floors above are available as companies mature and grow to be bigger employers.

Entrepreneurs typically start their small businesses in their spare bedroom and coffee shops and need access to resources and service providers. This new space in Durham would allow these very small businesses to be surrounded by like-minded entrepreneurs to share ideas and experiences to help each of them grow.

The developers are already considering ways to connect the new place on Main Street to the bigger Underground at American Tobacco a few blocks away over the railroad tracks.

American Tobacco Campus and the Underground are home to the largest and oldest VC firm in the southeast with Intersouth and people like Mitch Mumma and Katrin Burt. The Tobacco Campus also has other organizations such as CED, NC Idea and Triangle Startup Factory.

(Note: Capitol Broadcasting is the parent company of WRALTechWire.)

Editor’s note: Jim Roberts was involved in starting technology entrepreneur bootcamps in Charlotte in 2000, started the entrepreneurial council and angel investor network in Asheville and has worked for NC Department of Commerce and Center of Innovation for NanoBiotechnology (COIN) since moving to the Triangle in 2008. Jim is founder of RedSpire Connections, a consulting firm for business development, lead generation, marketing and a leader of industry related events. Jim can be reached at and @RedSpireUSNC.