Project Grace Reborn: County To Consider New Development Agreement

By Staff Reports, posted May 10, 2023
An LS3P rendering shows the potential look of a new Cape Fear Museum facility in downtown Wilmington. (File rendering)
New Hanover County and a Wilmington development firm could soon officially revive plans to transform a county-owned downtown block through a partnership.

A new development agreement for the block, bordered by Chestnut, Grace, Second and North Third streets, is expected to be presented to the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners at its meeting Monday, according to a county news release.

Referred to as Project Grace, the proposed redevelopment would still use a public-private partnership model, as was planned before the state's Local Government Commission did not approve its financing, but this time with Cape Fear Development rather than another Wilmington-headquartered firm, Zimmer Development Co.

As before, the project would update the main branch of the New Hanover County Public Library, which currently occupies part of the block; create a new Cape Fear Museum facility; improve the existing parking deck; and possibly add residential and commercial uses.

The release said the new agreement includes the following details: 
  • The cost to the county for the new museum and library, parking deck improvements and development fee is not to exceed $60,524,860. 
  • Cape Fear Development will undergo a competitive rebid process for the project, utilizing three subcontractors for each trade, and New Hanover County will engage a third-party construction consultant, who will provide an independent review of the work generated. "A construction manager at risk model will be used to ensure the project can be delivered at or under budget." 
  • Once the new museum and library facility and parking deck improvements are substantially complete, the county will sell the south parcel of the property to Cape Fear Development for mixed-use private development. Cape Fear Development has committed to pay no less than $3.5 million for the south parcel property. Two appraisals will also be conducted for the property, and Cape Fear Development will pay the higher of the two appraisals if it is more than $3.5 million.  
  • Within 24 months of the land sale, Cape Fear Development will begin construction of a mixed-use development, which may include a combination of commercial and residential space, on the south parcel (where the existing library is located). The private investment will be the greater of $30,125,838 or 25% of the cost of construction and renovation of the entire project.  
  • The existing parking deck, once improved, will be shared between the county and Cape Fear Development on mutually agreed-upon terms. 
After the company conducted a six-month analysis of the project, Cape Fear Development officials at the end of March presented their findings to the Board of Commissioners, including several potential cost savings for the project, the release stated. At that time, the board decided to allow the county's staff to negotiate the terms of the agreement.

The county has already worked with Cape Fear Development officials on the redevelopment of its government complex off South College Road. 

The new Project Grace development agreement uses the same architectural design of the library and museum that was part of the previous agreement, according to the release.

The board meeting is set to be held at 9 a.m. Monday at the New Hanover County Historic Courthouse, 24 North Third St., Room 301. According to the release, the public can attend and make comments (with a three-minute maximum) on the development agreement during a public hearing.

"If the development agreement is approved, the next steps would be for staff to finalize the design plans and for Cape Fear Development to put the construction project out for bid this month," the release stated. "Subsequently, a revised development agreement that incorporates the results of the bid process with final financials will be presented to commissioners for approval in July 2023." 

According to the release, if the agreement is approved in July, the county would submit the final financial arrangement to the Local Government Commission for potential review and approval at its September meeting.

Construction on the library and museum facility could then begin soon after an approval, the release stated.
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