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Community Leaders Tackle Downtown Issues

By Cecilia Peters, posted Jun 22, 2011

A panel of government, business and civic leaders took questions and offered their thoughts Wednesday on improving downtown Wilmington and said while many challenges remain, progress is being made.

While they said they’re optimistic about the future, they didn’t always agree on remedies to existing problems.

The occasion was a discussion on “The Downtown We Deserve,” the latest in the Power Breakfast series hosted by the Greater Wilmington Business Journal at the Wilmington Convention Center. The panelists spoke and took questions for 90 minutes from some members of the audience of about 450.

The panel included Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, District Attorney Ben David, William Sharbaugh, chief operating officer of PPD Inc., Chris Boney of Cape Fear Future and David Spetrino, chairman of Wilmington Downtown Inc.

Saffo touted the millions of dollars in public money invested downtown as represented by the convention center and planned construction of new facilities at Cape Fear Community College, including a performing arts center and a parking deck.

But he said for downtown to continue moving forward, more needs to be done by the private sector.

The mayor said more entrepreneurs must become engaged in the downtown economy. “We need for cowboys to get back in the game,” he said.

Saffo cited the need for more hotel rooms and more green space in the form of a large riverfront park, among other amenities he would like to see, that would need substantial investment from the private sector.

David spoke at length about law enforcement efforts to control crime, including an agreement by the county Alcoholic Beverage Control agency to contribute $180,000 help pay for a downtown crime task force that will include five New Hanover County sheriff’s deputies joining five Wilmington police officers.

But the chief prosecutor for New Hanover and Pender counties stressed that the long-term solution to crime is not more police officers, but investing in the education of the area’s children.

He cited plans by the Dreams Center for Arts Education for a new $1 million building on 10th street, as an example of the kinds of efforts needed to keep young people from getting in trouble. The group offers free arts programs to disadvantaged young people.

David also made a plea for a third courtroom to hear DWI cases, because the existing two courtrooms that handle those cases are not enough to clear a large backlog.

Sharbaugh said there’s no shortage of ideas on how to improve downtown. What’s lacking, he said, is a clear focus and agreement on prioritizing what should be done and then tackling those projects one-by-one.

He asked for leadership, support for the mayor, and unity among business owners on downtown projects. “Let’s pick one thing and rally around it,” he said.

Boney and Spetrino, along with the other panelists, agreed that in addition to a park and more hotel rooms, downtown needs a more balanced mix of retail shops and more cultural amenities.

“We need more cultural magnets like children’s museums,” Boney said.

Other themes that came up were continued improvements to the riverfront and a possible downtown baseball park.

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