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A Look Ahead

By Cece Nunn and Christina Haley O'Neal, posted Jan 2, 2018
The top of downtown Wilmington's newest hotel, the Embassy Suites by Hilton Wilmington Riverfront at the Wilmington Convention Center, looks over the Cape Fear River and the site where an Aloft Hotel is planned at the Coastline Conference and Event Center.
As the Cape Fear region settles in to 2018, some of the topics that dominated 2017 will remain in the news.

New development, including hotels, homes and commercial space, will rise in Wilmington and surrounding communities this year, and local leaders will continue trying to attract more jobs. At the same time, new development rules will start to take shape as New Hanover County and the city of Wilmington look at rewriting their ordinances.

This year, ongoing efforts to address the area’s opioid epidemic are expected to continue. Meanwhile, the area’s largest health care providers anticipate growth.

2018 will likely be another year of change for the largest higher education institutions in the region. And although growth is definitely coming in other ways, it remains to be seen whether the region’s diminished film and TV industry will make a comeback

Hotel boom

Hotel development is expected to continue this year in the Wilmington area, especially downtown in the city’s convention center district.

The 186-room Embassy Suites by Hilton Wilmington Riverfront at the Wilmington Convention Center was set to open in December, with guests coming later this month for the 56th National Sweet Potato Convention.

The hotel boom is a sign of a city that’s growing up and seeking to attract more attention in hopes of bringing new jobs and more visitor spending.

“There’s a certain number of hotels that are going to continue to get developed,” said developer Chuck Schoninger, whose company has been working on a Hotel Indigo for property at 1 Hanover St., on the riverfront in downtown Wilmington.  

Schoninger’s firm also has additional property nearby that could serve as a site for a future hotel.

“I see another hotel being added on every year for the next few years, then at some point, there will be a rest,” Schoninger said.

An Aloft Hotel is under development by Poteat Hospitality at the Coastline Conference and Event Center on Nutt Street. Poteat officials hope to break ground on the Aloft Hotel by the end of the first quarter.

While the downtown projects get a lot of attention, hotels are planned elsewhere in the Wilmington area, including a 150-room dual-branded hotel in Porters Neck.

More development

This year, in addition to hotels, plans for more homes and commercial space are going to be traveling through the area’s planning pipelines.

More than half a billion dollars’ worth of mixed-use projects on Military Cutoff Road and property near Wrightsville Beach will likely be the subject of upcoming city meetings. New businesses, many of them restaurants, are on the way to midtown Wilmington development The Pointe at Barclay, and Mayfaire Town Center has retail space available for lease and vacant land that could one day hold more buildings.

Meanwhile, more details about the redevelopment and renaming of the area’s largest shopping center, Independence Mall, are expected to be revealed this year, according to the owner of much of the mall.

Commercial projects follow residential growth, and home sales in the region broke records throughout the year last year. Realtors are optimistic about the chances of hitting more highs this year.

Shawn Horton, owner of Leland-based homebuilding firm Trusst Builder Group, who is also a Realtor, said recently that the Wilmington area has been enjoying a healthy market as retirees continue to settle here, especially from northern states.

“People can sell their house rather easily now and come on down,” Horton said.

Local homebuilders recently said that for the construction of new homes, some upcoming challenges lie in lot availability and increasing costs. A shortage of skilled labor is also expected to remain a concern, they said, as is the rising cost of materials, which could be affected well into this year and beyond by last year’s hurricanes.

Local regulations

City of Wilmington and New Hanover County officials are working with the same consultant to rewrite their development rules, a process that is expected to gain more ground this year.

According to the county’s website, progress on a Unified Development Ordinance continues, with work expected to be completed in three drafting phases. Phase 1 is focusing on zoning districts, permitted uses and use standards and is expected to be done soon with a target completion time of this month.

Phase 2 will focus on site development regulations, with an April target date, and Phase 3 will focus on administration provisions, with a June target date, according to county officials.

The county’s website says public input opportunities are expected to be held in the month following each phase of drafting: February, May and July.

“The exact format of each input opportunity is still being formulated, but it will likely include a summary of any significant changes to the development regulations being proposed followed by public comment and dialogue. In addition, public review of a fully completed draft will likely occur during the late Summer of 2018, culminating with public hearings before the Planning Board and Board of Commissioners prior to adoption,” the county’s website says.

County officials said coordination with the city’s development code update is also ongoing, “with emphasis on using, to the extent possible, the same terminology, similar document formatting and similar processes. Development standards in the City and County will likely vary to some extent relative to the degree of planned urban and rural development but, where possible, consistency is preferred.”

Film future unknown

Although last year ended with no new film projects for the area, regional film industry leaders are remaining hopeful, as prospects are once again eyeing the Port City as a location to roll cameras.

Late 2017 brought several inquiries to the area, all “positive signs” that the horizon looks good for early this year, said Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission.

“Based upon that level of interest I certainly feel good about 2018, because people are interested in North Carolina again,” Griffin said.

That interest has been attributed to lawmakers approving recurring funding in the state’s Film and Entertainment Grant program.

As of press time, no funds had been used from the allocation set for the 2017-18 fiscal year budget. This fiscal year’s appropriation includes $34 million, a figure that includes the $18 million of leftover funds from the previous fiscal year. Appropriations in the amount of $31 million are set to recur each year.

Starting in December, producers were taking a look at budgets and location photos and getting information about the local crew and EUE/Screen Gems Studios, Griffin said.

One prospect is TNT’s Good Behavior, which filmed seasons 1 and 2 in Wilmington. Griffin said at press time that he was expecting word about the future of the project, but the news might not come until the end of January. Ratings, he said, haven’t pushed the future of the production one way or another. But the same happened for One Tree Hill, which filmed in Wilmington for nine seasons, he said.

Health care expansion

As the Wilmington area’s population grows, including an ongoing influx of retirees and baby boomers, the healthcare industry is also expanding.

On New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s main campus on South 17th Street, construction continues this year on the new NHRMC Orthopedic Hospital, which is adding more than 135,000 square feet of space, three floors, 108 patient beds and five operating rooms above the NHRMC Surgical Pavilion.

The project, designed by LS3P and being built by Rodgers Builders, isn’t expected to be finished until 2019. The total cost, including construction and equipment, has been estimated at $91 million.

Meanwhile, another large healthcare organization is expanding its footprint, with a new office building that’s expected to be finished this year at Mayfaire. Officials announced last year that Wilmington Health had leased The Offices at Mayfaire V, a 30,000-square-foot facility.

Jobs focus

Jobs and investment will continue to be a topic of discussion for the region in the coming year, as area leaders work to attract more employers.

New Hanover County touted increased growth in jobs, wages and investment with policies and plans it initiated in its 2012-17 strategic plan. A new plan, with new goals, is set to start in 2018 for the next five years, according to the county.

Although it’s hard to predict when the next big industry will hit the area, Scott Satterfield, CEO of Wilmington Business Development, said the local economic development organization is working toward adding to the area’s diverse business community. Focuses are also geared toward growing existing companies in the region.

“Are we busy trying to attract many different sized companies to the area? Yes. Many different types of companies, different sectors,” Satterfield said of recruitment efforts. “It is very diverse, and it continues to be that way.”

Jobs in marine and life sciences and clinical research organizations are of high interest, “especially given our geographic location,” said Natalie English, president and CEO of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce. There is also a push to attract precision or advanced manufacturing, including aircraft assembly, and jobs in the traded sector among others, she said.

Higher ed issues 

Enrollment is expected to continue to increase at the University of North Carolina Wilmington this year, after reaching more nearly 16,500 in fall 2017.

As more students are on the way, more facilities will rise on the campus on South College Road.

As part of its health programs strategic plan and as a result of the Connect bond, UNCW is getting a $66 million facility that will house “the new Health and Human Services College; the Center for Healthy Living; existing academic programs in Health and Applied Human Sciences and Social Work; support space for military-affiliated students; and related labs and classrooms that are critical to UNCW’s ability to produce more health care professionals and expand services to the rural areas of the region,” according to officials.

Construction on the Allied Health and Human Sciences Building is expected to begin this year.

Meanwhile, Cape Fear Community College could again be searching for a new president, after Amanda Lee resigned and former executive vice president Jim Morton was chosen to fill the role of acting president. A search committee had not been formed as of press time.

Addressing opioids

The Wilmington area is likely to see more action from both local government and health care providers in the region’s battle against the ongoing opioid epidemic.

The North Carolina Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention (STOP) Act, signed into law by Gov. Roy Cooper in June 2017, went into effect Jan. 1. Since the act was established, the region’s medical providers have taken measures to address opioid misuse in the future.

Task forces in New Hanover and Brunswick continue to work on a solution to the problem.

In Brunswick County, commissioners have said they plan to consider several recommendations presented by the task force during the 2018-19 fiscal year budget process. Those measures included a $590,000 treatment center and hiring a county prevention manager.

Legal actions by area governments are also expected to carry out through the course of 2018. New Hanover County filed a federal lawsuit against several drug distributors and manufactures on Dec. 14. The city of Wilmington and Brunswick County adopted resolutions to take similar action but as of press time had not filed their own lawsuits.

Correction: This version includes an updated contributed photo that shows film crews working at EUE/Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington.

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