In 1974, Doug Springer, then a student at Cape Fear Technical Institute, cast his eyes toward Wilmington’s riverfront and shook his head.
“There were huge warehouses that were collapsed. … It was no man’s land,” he remembers.
Now, 40 years later, the co-partner of Wilmington Water Tours casts his eyes on the skyline and feels upbeat.
A new city park, a six-story luxury apartment community in the Northern Riverfront Marina and Hotel development, a 1,500-seat performance hall at Cape Fear Community College and an office complex at Third and Princess are just some of the one dozen projects that Wilmington Downtown Incorporated (WDI) valued at $208.3 million in its July development overview.
“Downtown is on the path to being totally transformed in the next 18 months,” WDI president and CEO Ed Wolverton said.
“Weaving all this development in the north end to the established section of downtown is the most important thing we’ve got going.”
Connecting the Dots
The accelerating pace of development represents a holistic response to the issues of urban sprawl and shopping malls that first confronted downtown in the 1970s.
In 1977, WDI’s predecessor, the Downtown Area Revitalization Effort (DARE), opened its doors and began stabilizing the central business district as stakeholders debated the proper mix of architectural preservation and new development.
After DARE became WDI in 2004, revitalization efforts focused on a blend of adaptive reuse for older buildings, infill projects and new construction on the north side.
Today, attracting more residents, businesses and visitors to downtown are key objectives as public and private partners work to squeeze the maximum amount of value out of increasingly limited space.
At 2000, there were 490 residents in the central business district. This year, across WDI’s somewhat wider footprint, there are more than 2,100. With at least 600 more units of housing planned, downtown’s population could increase by 29 percent.
“We do want to add more retail,” Wolverton said, and more people living downtown will be helpful in creating it.
Blair Booth, manager of Cary-based Symphony Properties, developer of the 278-unit Sawmill Point apartments planned for the north riverfront, thinks young professionals and empty nesters along with out-of-town employees on assignment represent “renters-by-choice” who’ll be drawn to downtown because of the redeveloped riverfront, dining and entertainment.
While some real estate professionals have raised the specter of overbuilding in the apartment sector, online comments suggest overall support for residential growth downtown.
“Charleston has seen a number of projects like this, and it has done well for them. I hate to see Wilmington miss out,” one leasing consultant wrote about Pier 33 apartments, another development slated for the northern end of downtown’s riverfront.
A 2013 consultant’s survey reported an 85 percent occupancy rate in the central business district, and WDI says there are now 880 businesses downtown. It hopes to boost those numbers.
Wolverton’s predecessor at WDI, John Hinnant, feels the lending climate for business has become more favorable, aiding recruitment.
“You’ve started to see the banks really open up on owner-occupied properties,” he said.
While Wolverton said capital is flowing more freely for multi-family housing and hospitality enterprises, it remains “fairly constrained” for small entrepreneurs, prompting him to re-examine WDI’s business loan partnership with the city to “seek an even better economic tool for us,” he explained.
One possible model, Wolverton said, is a building improvement loan program in Savannah that defers principal repayments for the first three years, helping entrepreneurs’ cash flow. More than 60 loans to 63 businesses totaling about $1 million have been made through the Savannah Development and Renewal Authority, said executive director Kevin Klinkenberg.
Both Wolverton and Hinnant, now a commercial broker at Maus, Warwick, Matthews & Co., also want to see more science, information and technology-related jobs downtown.
After PPD moved downtown, Hinnant said, employment in the niche jumped from 386 in 2007 to 2,144 in 2012.
Overall, “I think you’re going to see a whole lot more interest in office space” in the next 18-24 months, Wolverton said.
Visitors are drawn to the river, but they must feel safe as they move around downtown, Hinnant said.
He suggested that Hospitality Ambassadors would be a “confidence booster” by making sure that both visitors and newer residents find their way around and have their needs met, augmenting the presence of police.
At WDI, Wolverton is relaunching a proposal to create a Municipal Service District, which faced some opposition in 2011. The district would impose a special assessment on business owners in one or more zones to help fund new initiatives such as streetscape improvements, sanitation, safety and marketing. Discussions with stakeholders will continue until May, when Wolverton makes a final recommendation to the city council.
Developing a better sense of place also means giving the public a say in what happens at the new North Waterfront Park. The city is now inviting residents to indicate what kind of activities they want to see at the 6.6-acre site, with space for comment on the city’s website.
Upbeat in his assessment of downtown, Springer of Wilmington Water Tours is now fixing his sights elsewhere.
“I don’t want to see the high rises over there,” he said, indicating land that borders the Battleship North Carolina.
Then Springer floats his notion: a recreated maritime village like Connecticut’s Mystic Seaport
with craftspeople, storytellers and musicians.
In the cycle of revitalization, the ideas just keep on coming.
Spotlight on Downtown
Click here to read about a few of the early investors in downtown’s turnaround.
Click here to read about current real estate projects in the district.
Click here to read Allen Davis, Wilmington’s city urban design planner, envisions for downtown.