Introducing Modern Energy

703 Foster Street changes hands
December 21, 2017
Today, we closed the sale of Manbites Dog Theater’s 703 Foster Street building in Durham, selling our beloved theater home to Durham-based company Modern Energy for $1.1 million.

We thought you, our family of artists and audience members, might like to know a bit about Modern Energy’s plans for the building. Here are some highlights from MDT artist and consultant Cheryl Chamblee’s recent conversation with Modern Energy Co-Founder Ben Abram:

Ben is a Chapel Hill native, a Durham resident, a Duke grad—and a fun person to meet for coffee. We sat down together at Parker and Otis, near Modern Energy’s current Brightleaf Square office, and here are some of the things we talked about. We wandered a bit here and there through our chat, and it didn’t necessarily go in this order, but this will give you a window. —Cheryl

So, tell me about Modern Energy. The quick description.
We are a next-generation energy company investing in technology to achieve more efficient energy use.

Alright, so this is not my area of expertise. What does that mean?
Well, it sounds a bit awkward because every energy participant wants to achieve more efficient energy use, right? But we’re seeing a once-in-a-century shift right now in the way technology can provide choices to energy consumers, and down the line, that can result in lots of efficiencies—things like fewer energy facilities being built. We’re helping that happen.

Is this is a local thing? Will there be a storefront?
Most of our business is national and international, so we’re an office, really. That Foster Street frontage where the Manbites Dog lobby is now is so great, though, that we’re hoping to work with a local business that can make use of that. Our offices will be in the back where the theater is now.

Are you anticipating a lot of changes to the building? We all want to know what’s going to happen to the building.
We love the building. We’ll do some renovating, and some things will change, but mostly we want to bring out some of the aspects of the building that needed to be covered up for theater-making. There are these great skylights in the ceiling, and the brick is amazing.

How about the loading dock?
That will probably be our office entrance, so we may open that up a bit. The mural will likely be lost, but we’d love to do some creative things back there—or on the roof. There’s obviously a huge amount of creative energy in the building already, thanks to Manbites Dog!

Did you know much about Manbites Dog before this sale?
Well, I grew up in Chapel Hill, and I went to Duke, so I knew about it for a long time, and I had been to a couple of shows. This season, some of the Modern Energy staff and some friends all got together and went to see Life Sucks, and it was amazing. So good. We’re looking forward to going to see the projects Manbites Dog funds in the future.

So you’re planning to stay here?
Definitely. About half of Modern Energy’s staff can walk to the Foster Street building from our homes, including both my co-founder Mark Laabs and me. After Duke, I moved away for a while, but I always knew I was coming back. I always knew I wanted this to be home.

Tell me about your search for a new spot for Modern Energy.
We’ve been growing fast, and we’re in a great office now, but we need more space. One night, Mark called and said the Manbites Dog building was on the market, and it was perfect, so we went for it.

What happened when you got the call that Manbites Dog wanted to work with you as the

I sat in my office in shock for a few minutes, and then I was so excited, I headed over to just be outside and admire the building. I couldn’t believe it.

What makes you love it?
The location is amazing, of course. We used to work out of a tiny basement space in that building nearby that used to be a laundromat, and I loved being over there. I loved supporting those businesses and seeing kids around because of the school and being in a creative spot. And then there’s the building itself, which is so appealing. I love the feel of it and the look of it.

And it’s a great investment, given the growth in downtown Durham right now.
Yes, that’s true, but we’re not a development company. We’re a business that would like a home.

So you’re not planning a quick stopover?
How long was Manbites Dog in that building?

About 20 years.
I think we could match that.

And Manbites Dog. What do you think of their new plans?
Change is hard. Manbites Dog is so beloved, and I know it’ll be hard for folks to see that sign come down. But I do think their way of moving forward is so cool and outside the box. Jeff and Ed and Manbites Dog deserve immense credit, and I love that Modern Energy’s funds from the sale will play a part in their gift back to the community. That feels great.