At a gathering hosted by Wilmington Downtown Inc. on Thursday night, those in charge of six high-profile projects provided insight into how their efforts are helping to shape the city's downtown landscape.
Brooks Johnson, director of development for Harmony Hospitality, said crews working on the convention center hotel his company is building, a 186-room Embassy Suites that will be connected to the Wilmington Convention Center, have run into some challenges.
As a result, the cost has increased from earlier estimates of $34 million-$36 million to $40 million, Johnson said.
One example of those challenges is the irregularly shaped site itself, where the hotel is occupying nearly 98 percent of the property.
"It's a tremendously tight spot, more than you can imagine," he said.
But despite the hurdles, construction is well underway, and "it's going to be quite incredible, we think," Johnson said, pointing out features such as a pool, ballroom and rooftop bar that the highly anticipated hotel will include.
Johnson's was one of six presentations made to an audience of more than 300 who attended WDI's Fall Economic Series, “Downtown’s Six-Pack of Projects,” at the Coastline Conference and Event Center.
Molly Crawford, Farmin's stores director, and Randall Heath, sales and marketing director for Farmin’, talked about Farmin' on Front, an urban food market in the works at 143 N. Front St., announcing that the grand opening of the store is expected in the coming weeks.
"We're less than four weeks out," Crawford said to applause.
Earlier, describing what the market will be like, she said, "It's going to be the kind of place that when you guys have out-of-town visitors, you're going take them down there."
Other presentations included talks by Beth Pancoe, head of SDI Construction, whose company is restoring the Pythian Building at 206-208 Princess St. for retail space and an events center; Plantation Building Corp. President Dave Spetrino, who described his passion for the infill housing his company has built downtown, transforming lots that in some cases were just gravel into custom homes; and Linda Look, Wade Hughes and architect Clark Hipp on the transformation of 216 N. Front St. into Expo 216, a specialty museum with a residence on the top floor, through extensive, painstaking renovations.
"They've given something back to Wilmington, and I believe that we're going to see more of this downtown as more of these buildings get revitalized," Hipp said Thursday night, referring to Look and Hughes, who own the building.
Amy Beatty, Wilmington's director of community service and recreation superintendent, talked about plans for North Waterfront Park. Fifteen projects are proposed in a $30.4 million parks bond on the ballot Nov. 8, with much of the money going toward development of the new park. The 6.6 acres along the northern downtown portion of the Cape Fear River front would include a concert venue among a long list of other amenities.
In some of Thursday night's opening remarks, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo recalled earlier days when Belk-Beery and other department stores and businesses (Saffo's Restaurant, too, the mayor quipped to laughter from the audience) made downtown a vibrant place.
"It was just a great place to come to day in and day out," he said.
In the late 1960s and early 70s, people and businesses started moving away from downtown to the suburbs, and some buildings were torn down. But eventually, new efforts began to turn the tide.
"It started with the private sector and citizens first, then the public sector started really getting into it, started making the investments necessary to turn downtown around," Saffo said.
As a result, downtown Wilmington's vibrancy has been restored, the mayor said.
"We had to show a commitment to the community and to the region and to the people that were looking to invest in downtown that we were serious about revitalization and making downtown the best it could be ... We're in the throes of our renaissance and I don't see it stopping," he said.
To read more about the projects included in Thursday's WDI event, pick up a copy of the Oct. 21 edition of the Greater Wilmington Business Journal.