Erin Kauffman Helped Durham Central Park Find Its Identity

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2021 Woman of Achievement Erin Kauffman helped turn the five-acre city-owned property into a connective space for all to enjoy

Erin Kauffman

By Morgan Cartier Weston | Photo by John Michael Simpson

Several years ago, Erin Kauffman joked with Ann Alexander – Durham Central Park’s then-executive director – that she’d like to have her job one day. “I didn’t think I was qualified,” Erin says. “But when Ann retired in 2015, she encouraged me to apply.” Erin moved to Durham in 2006 after working at a sustainable farm in her native Maryland. She found a home managing the Durham Farmers Market when the pavilion on Foster Street was still under construction and “we were
operating the market in the parking lot,” Erin says. Once the market moved to the pavilion, Erin learned more about DCP. “I got to be on the board of directors, and back then no one really knew what or where it was,” Erin explains. “I feel like I watched and participated in the park finding its identity.”

“When the park chose me to replace [Ann], it was really exciting for me career-wise, but also a much better fit for my life at the time. I had a newborn who didn’t ever sleep, and the market required unconventional hours.” She and husband Kelly Davis had just welcomed son Frank, now 6; today, the family, which includes two dogs, two cats and six chickens, lives in Northgate Park.

Luxury apartments began to rise up around DCP during her first months in the role. “There are so many aspects of life and community and the world that all come together at a park,” Erin says. “There was a shift [in] who could live downtown … who could afford it. I came into this job and said, ‘This park is going to be a park for everyone.’”

Erin knew her team had to be intentional about programming and events to ensure DCP remained a park that felt welcoming. “The common denominator is people want to be outside and have a place to play, meet or just hang out, so that’s been the big focus for us.” The park collaborates with the city, sharing information gained from surveys and data on how to improve shade, seating and sidewalks. “We want to increase connectivity so people can get from one place to another more easily and build more play equipment.”

Some of these projects are already underway. The pandemic affected DCP’s in-person programming, but it also enabled the team to tackle projects that were on the back burner. “Last summer, we had a wonderful donor cover the whole cost of adding a new trail down by Ellerbe Creek and a new, climbable troll sculpture,” Erin says. The trail project hit one of their major park expansion goals. “This was an overgrown area, and now it’s a really nice little pathway,” Erin says. “We made the park feel bigger, and it was the greatest thing that happened last year. When everything in the world is feeling messy, it’s great to see something through that makes people happy.”

Looking ahead, Erin and her team – programming manager Tess Mangum and project coordinator Bryce Northington – are working to adapt events for smaller groups; a Tuesday morning story hour, for example, will begin in May. “We hope we will still have a big impact with smaller events on a more regular basis,” Erin says. “We’ll start having a couple of food trucks in the pavilion on Sunday afternoons, too.”

“There are people hanging out, having picnics, playing with their families and walking their dogs,” Erin says. “Watching the park develop over the past 15 years, from little recognition that it even existed to driving through on a Sunday and seeing a couple hundred people just hanging out … we’ve really achieved something.”

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Morgan Weston

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