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WDI Holds Downtown Economic Luncheon

By J. Elias O'Neal, posted Feb 27, 2013

Downtown Wilmington should continue to build on its strengths of location, architecture and business to retain and grow revenue and development, according to an Asheville consultant.  

Joseph Minicozzi, a principal with Asheville-based Urban 3 LLC, a consulting company that is part of downtown Asheville real estate developer Public Interest Projects, delivered his message Wednesday to more than 200 business and civic leaders during the Wilmington Downtown Inc. (WDI) Economic Series luncheon at the Wilmington Convention Center. 

The series serves as a fundraiser for Wilmington Downtown Inc. (WDI) and an economic update about the health and growth of the downtown area.

Minicozzi said Wilmington and Asheville’s downtowns were very similar, adding that WDI was founded 10 years before Asheville’s association. He said stressed that Wilmington must find itself and pursue the type of businesses and cultures it would like to foster downtown through public and private partnerships.

“The key is diversity,” he said. “You have to think about all aspects of the community.”

John Hinnant, WDI’s president and CEO, said companies and firms were expanding and relocating to the downtown area, helping to keep the area’s occupancy rate healthy at 86 percent.

Hinnant said there were more than 10,500 people working in downtown, with many of the employees traveling in from other parts of New Hanover and Brunswick counties to work. He added that science, information and technology jobs continue to grow in the downtown area since PPD relocated its headquarters to the area.

He said parking deck and meter parking revenue was on the rise – an economic indicator for downtown officials that more people are frequenting the area.

“The state of downtown is on the rise,” Hinnant told the audience.

More than 16 leases have been completed downtown, absorbing 38,000 square feet of retail and office space and creating 400 new high-tech, financial and service industry jobs, Hinnant said.

Another addition downtown may be Carolina Farmin.'

Hinnant said the local grocer is scouting downtown for a new store.

Carolina Farmin' spokewoman Susan Johnson said they are scouting various locations, but would not comment specifically about where.

During the presentation, Hinnant also released the findings of a survey sent to downtown businesses in an effort to gauge the area’s strengths and weaknesses.

Survey respondents cited crime and public safety as their top concern. Others cited parking, finding qualified staff and political leadership as concerns.

Hinnant said the city has worked hard with law enforcement and Alcoholic Beverage Control officials to increase officer patrols and decrease the number of permits issued for bars in downtown Wilmington.

Since 1998, the Wilmington Police Department has reported a 67 percent decline in crime in the downtown area, falling from 1,152 reported crimes in 1998 to 382 in 2012.
The number of alcohol sales in the central business district has also declined from $3.1 million in fiscal year 2009 to $2.8 million in fiscal year 2012 – a figure Hinnant attributes to the 15 percent decrease in the number of bars permitted downtown.

Hinnant added that building and repurposing properties for new housing was critical to the downtown area.

While admitting that rental properties are a popular option to develop downtown, Hinnant stressed the need to increase home ownership downtown – where renters outnumber homeowners 2 to 1.

“We need to think about a housing policy for downtown,” Hinnant said, citing the area’s dwindling enrollment figures in schools that serve downtown residents. “It’s important to remember families.”

During his presentation, Minicozzi discussed denser development in the downtown core.

By using aerial shots of Wilmington’s big box locations, such as the Wal-Mart on Market Street and Target on New Centre Drive, Minicozzi illustrated how the large acre developments did not necessarily account for a boost in property or revenue taxes.

“It’s not about how much land you consume; it’s how you use the land that’s important,” Minicozzi said.

He said given the available land in the 210 acres that make up downtown Wilmington, Minicozzi estimated assessed property value to be worth $2.4 million per acre because of the area’s riverfront location and growth activity.

Minicozzi added that downtown officials must take advantage of infill development opportunities by building on existing parking lots to maximize population and tax revenue. He also said the city must continue to build on its rich architectural past to maintain downtown’s image and culture. 

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