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WilmingtonBiz Magazine

The Day Downtown Wilmington Revived

By Rob Kaiser, posted Apr 6, 2018
The corporate headquarters for PPD, a global contract research organization, is shown under construction in this file photo. The 12-story building opened on North Front Street in 2007. (Photo c/o City of Wilmington)
Spence Broadhurst’s re-emergence in Wilmington rekindles memories of a bright day in our region’s history – one now yielding significant returns.

On that day in 2004, Broadhurst was Wilmington’s relatively new mayor and had a meeting at the home of PPD founder Fred Eshelman.

The idea on the table – PPD consolidating its offices in a sizable, downtown headquarters – had a checkered history.

In 1994, Eshelman thought he’d reached a deal with Wilmington City Council to build a PPD headquarters on the site of the Water Street parking deck.

Then council members began to waffle, floating the idea of PPD issuing a bond for the project. Eshelman told them if they pressed forward with that plan, he’d walk away.

“They pressed it. I walked,” said Eshelman, who instead moved the office to Barclay Centre in midtown. “We had people on city council who were unable to see the future and got hung up on nonsense.”

The 2004 meeting between Broadhurst and Eshelman gave the city, PPD and our region’s downtown an opportunity to write a better ending to this story.

The handshake agreement they reached that day led to a series of deals:
• PPD sold the city land at its cost for the Wilmington Convention Center.
• The city swapped property where Union Station is now located with Cape Fear Community College for land where PPD now has its parking deck.
• The city steered its Front Street design and contributed infrastructure improvements for PPD’s headquarters, while New Hanover County kicked in other incentives.

“It all happened. It was magical,” said Bill Saffo, Wilmington’s current mayor who was also on city council when these agreements were reached. “Everyone had a bitter taste in our mouth about what happened 10 years before. We were not going to allow it to happen again.”

The end result – although delayed by the Great Recession – is a massive amount of additional investment.

More than a half-billion dollars in projects have been completed, started or announced in downtown since 2010, said Ed Wolverton, president and CEO of Wilmington Downtown Inc.
Highlights include:
• Residential development such as City Block Apartments (112 units completed), Sawmill Point (280 units completed), River Place (171 units planned) and Pier 33 (286 units announced);
• New hotels such as a Courtyard by Marriott (124 rooms), Hampton Inn (92 rooms) and Embassy Suites (186 rooms) as well the announcements of an Aloft Hotel (120+ rooms) and Hotel Indigo (120+ rooms); and
• Public spaces such as the convention center, CFCC’s Wilson Center, Union Station, a completed Riverwalk and the Pier 33 event venue and restaurant.

Wolverton credits elected officials’ “long-term ability to stick with the plan,” specifically the city’s Vision 2020 that was adopted in 2004.

More recent wise moves include the city’s purchase of land near PPD for North Waterfront Park and the property at 1020 N. Front St., the northern entrance to downtown at the end of MLK Jr. Parkway. (One significant whiff was baseball. Imagine adding Atlanta Braves minor league baseball to the list of projects currently underway.)

Downtown – the heart of our community – deserves this outsized attention.

Looking back at the PPD project that started the revival, Eshelman said, “it’s a great example of a public-private deal, which was a win-win deal for everyone.”

It would not have been possible, he noted, without Broadhurst’s “straightforward, no BS” approach.

“He’s a business guy, so he understands how to get things done, what works and what stimulates the economy,” Eshelman said.

Broadhurst left town and resigned as mayor in 2006 when a promotion with SunTrust Bank moved him to Greensboro. He returned to Wilmington last year as First National Bank’s regional president.

His return leads to the question of whether he’ll run for office again. He certainly sounds like it: “This is the greatest place in America to live. That’s why I came back. The opportunities are endless.”

The governor recently appointed Broadhurst as vice chair of the USS North Carolina Battleship Commission, and he’s considering other board positions.

“I’m definitely going to get involved in the community,” he said. “We’ll see where it goes.”

Hopefully, it goes back into public office and more deals like the one we now see blossoming on our northern riverfront.

Rob Kaiser is the publisher of Greater Wilmington Business Journal and WILMA magazine. He can be reached at 343-8600, ext. 204 or [email protected]

To see the rest of WilmingtonBiz Magazine, visit WilmingtonBizMagazine.com.
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