Bridge, Film, Infrastructure And More: City Hosts Breakfast With State, Federal Representatives

By Johanna F. Still, posted Feb 10, 2023
Local leaders met with state and federal officials during a legislative breakfast hosted by the city of Wilmington Friday morning. (Photo by Johanna F. Still)
Wilmington officials hosted a breakfast Friday morning in city hall, welcoming state and federal elected legislators. 

City councilmembers and other officials took the opportunity to highlight for the representatives top issues and funding priorities for the region. 

The conversation spanned a variety of topics, with highlights including transportation and infrastructure funding needs. 

Funding transportation 

Councilmembers addressed the need for a replacement of the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge, the main gateway to the city. The unfunded project is a priority for the region, and the potential to toll the roadway to pay for the lofty endeavor resurfaced last year. Consultants for the N.C. Department of Transportation (NCDOT) are conducting a traffic and revenue study to estimate how a tolled bridge would impact driver patterns and how much the crossing rate would be. Results from that study are expected this fall. 

“Why are we the only ones in the entire state being used as guinea pigs?” Mayor Bill Saffo said, adding that free-to-travel roadways in North Carolina have never before become tolled.

Councilman Charlie Rivenbark commended the N.C. General Assembly for its action in the latest budget cycle when it added a requirement that 6% of sales tax be attributed to NCDOT. Dwindling revenues, ballooning project costs and the advent of electric vehicles – which don’t contribute to gas tax revenues – have contributed to NCDOT’s funding crises in recent years. 

“We’ve got to come up with a better plan for a more sustainable income for our DOT,” Rivenbark said. 

Region's water line

A big-ticket ask local leaders put forth was for $25 million to finance a major water supply project. 

In November 2021, the pipeline that carries raw water to customers in the region became disjointed, prompting a months-long leak. This section of the pipe, owned by the Lower Cape Fear Water and Sewer Authority (LCFWASA), was in a remote and swampy area. 

An engineering analysis determined the region has an about 10-mile-long vulnerability where the pipeline crosses underneath the Cape Fear River to reach customers. 

Last year, the legislature granted LCFWASA $23.5 million to address the issue to install a new parallel pipeline in that area. But that falls short of the total project cost, currently estimated at $60 million. Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and Pender County are pitching in $11.7 million, which leaves a $25 million funding gap. “It’s critical that we get that funding,” Rivenbark said. “We’re so grateful of the funding we’ve already received.”

Should this line leak during the busy summer months, CFPUA director Kenneth Waldroup said utilities would not be able to keep up with demand. 

“We’d appreciate any amount the delegation could make,” Waldroup said. 

Civilian crash investigators

State Sen. Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) told the group that he had plans to soon file a bill on behalf of the Wilmington Police Department. 

WPD is one of the few departments statewide that utilizes civilian crash investigators thanks to special permission from the General Assembly. Now a team of five, these investigators respond to vehicular accidents with no injuries and take about 20% of the workload off of uniformed police officers, assistant chief David Oyler said. 

A bill filed in the state Senate last week would allow these investigators to issue citations for minor infractions, which would prevent officers from traveling across town to write a ticket. 

“That would free up our officers and allow them to be in our city and in our community where they need to be,” Oyler said. Lee said based on conversations with colleagues, he doesn’t anticipate a statewide rollout of the rule will catch on, but that he anticipates support for a city-specific version of the bill he plans to file soon. “Wilmington has done a great job and is kind of the model” for the use of civilian crash investigators, Lee said. The Senate would like to see how WPD handles the requested civilian ticket-writing before expanding the idea statewide, he said. 

“I’m hopeful that we get it through intact,” he said of his soon-to-be-filed bill. 

Another request Oyler had was to increase the criminal penalty for discharging a firearm in city limits, a class 3 misdemeanor. “You have to be convicted five times with a class 3 misdemeanor before you go to prison,” he said. “There’s no disincentive to stop somebody from pulling the trigger.”

Bringing Brunswick back

Saffo rehashed an economic development pain point, now a decade old: the Wilmington Metropolitan Statistic Area (MSA) alignment. In 2013, federal officials removed Brunswick County from the Wilmington MSA and placed it instead in the Myrtle Beach MSA. 

Nearly half of Brunswick County’s residents are in the workforce, and of those individuals, nearly 27% travel to New Hanover County for their jobs, according to a 2021 Cape Fear Collective analysis. That captures the largest share of the county’s traveling workforce, compared to the 3% that head to Horry County, South Carolina. 

Brunswick’s absence from the Wilmington MSA can skew economic data, which prospective companies and researchers use when making determinations about the region. “It had an adverse effect” on the city’s economic development opportunities, Saffo said. “This is something extremely critical.”

A representative for U.S. Rep. David Rouzer, R-N.C., said just this week his team had asked for an update on the issue and expects to hear a final answer this summer. 

Big names, big money 

2021 was a banner year for the film industry in Wilmington, a sharp comeback following deal-killing legislative inaction in 2014. After the state’s film incentive grant process was allowed to sunset, it took years before projects gained momentum, welcomed back by friendlier policies. 

“We’ve had some dire times,” said Wilmington Regional Film Commission director Johnny Griffin. 

After luring about $300 million in film-related spending to the area in 2021 – the highest on record – the region drew about $200 million last year, Griffin said. 

This year, Griffin said he anticipates Wilmington will attract a minimum of $250 million. “I think this is going to be another record year,” he said. 

Griffin highlighted the $21 million in private investment being planned in an expansion for newcomer Dark Horse Studios, which will increase film options for the area. “Combined with [Dark Horse’s] existing space, Wilmington’s marketable sound stage space will increase by over 50% when this project is completed,” he said. 

The film commission’s main request of legislators is to continue to maintain the integrity of the incentive program and look for ways to grow it, he said. Also, he encouraged lawmakers to consider removing or reworking the program’s highly compensated individual clause, which has kept major projects from selecting the area. 

“We've had projects that we've gotten 75% to 80% down the pathway with recruitment, and all of a sudden we hit a snag, and at that point, the project leaves,” he said. “And we're now seeing a $20, $30, $50 million project leave the community that could have been here except for that one part of the incentive."
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