Two American Tobacco buildings to be sold

Two historic buildings at downtown Durham’s thriving American Tobacco complex are set to hit the auction block unless their owner can settle a pile of unpaid bills.

Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, the Baltimore company that hoped to cash in on a Durham revival, faces lawsuits from several local contractors. They hope to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars for work related to the Old Bull and Noell buildings, where immigrant workers once hand-rolled Bull Durham tobacco.

The buildings were being converted to apartments and shops. Now they’re scheduled to be sold June 29, assuming Struever can’t make good on its debts.

The auction would be three months after a Wake County Superior Court judge ordered Struever to pay Code Electric at least $318,400 for work done on the buildings on Blackwell Street.

But it’s a fraction of what the company owes on the project, court records show.

Bill Struever, the company’s chief executive, did not return a message seeking comment. The company closed its local office this year.

The situation shows how even some of the most successful parts of the Triangle aren’t immune to the credit crunch. The Struever projects are part of the bigger American Tobacco Historic District, where offices, shops and restaurants have thrived in recent years. The complex, which has been revived over the past decade and is almost fully leased, has been a catalyst in the city’s renaissance.

But financing for investment-property purchases and construction, which was ample and easily obtained in the middle of the decade, constricted severely in late 2007. And companies with many mid-construction projects are struggling. Struever, which has focused on turning old industrial buildings into offices, shops and residences, owes millions of dollars related to projects along the East Coast.

“Durham got caught up in their financial problems,” said Bill Kalkhof, president of Downtown Durham Inc., a civic booster group that acts as a liaison between the city and developers. “This is reflective of a larger problem that Struever has across the country. We are very confident these buildings will be in good ownership and developed.”

The Noell building was recently carved into 17 apartments. The Old Bull Building, which in the 1860s was where John R. Green adopted the bull symbol for his Genuine Durham Smoking Tobacco, was being converted to ground-floor offices and shops, and 57 apartments on upper floors.

At least $5million in work remain to be done on Old Bull, Kalkhof said, adding that his group is willing to help “find a developer who has the wherewithal to finish the buildings and make sure that all the people who need to get paid, get paid.”

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