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OPINION: Embracing Project Grace Means Embracing A 'visionary' Plan

By Christina Haley, posted Aug 8, 2023
Christina Haley
As a mother, downtown resident and leader of Wilmington Downtown Inc., my passion lies in fostering the economic growth and prosperity of our city's core.
 
My goal is to further mold downtown Wilmington into a vibrant and prosperous hub where businesses can thrive, families can flourish and visitors can fully experience the rich offerings of our community.
 
Project Grace presents an incredible opportunity to advance this mission.
 
The thoughtful and visionary plan established by New Hanover County leaders several years ago, focusing on the city block bordered by Grace, Chestnut, Second and North Third streets, offers an extraordinary chance to shape the future of downtown and create a beautiful new landmark the region can enjoy for generations to come.
 
The proposal by Cape Fear Development, however, goes beyond constructing another building; it aims to elevate and enhance the public treasures already present in our Cape Fear Museum and Main Public Library. By integrating these valuable assets into a modern facility that pays homage to Wilmington's heritage and embraces the evolving needs of a progressive city, Project Grace has the potential to be a cornerstone of our community.
 
A partnership between New Hanover County and the reputable entities of Cape Fear Development, LS3P and Monteith Construction can ensure a strong and reliable team capable of bringing forth a lasting development that revitalizes an underutilized public space downtown. This collaborative effort will breathe new life into this county-owned block.
 
Collaboration has been fundamental to downtown Wilmington's growth and redevelopment since WDI's inception in 1977. I expect such a partnership to be essential to carry out this project and ensure our city continues to thrive.
 
WDI understands the redevelopment of this downtown block has long been a topic of discussion. When this property was being considered for redevelopment, WDI worked with the county in 2016 to engage with a qualified firm to conduct a Market Demand Analysis of this site. Our work helped determine the highest and best use of the county’s property and understand the market demand for new and exciting future uses.
 
The existing proposal for this site offers a vital opportunity for a remarkable transformation in our Central Business District. Now is the time to turn these plans into reality.
 
The commitments and investments by our civic leaders, private developers, and business owners have sparked remarkable faith in our downtown. Over the years, this newfound confidence in downtown Wilmington has transformed our region’s largest center of commerce block by block. Downtown has undergone an economic metamorphosis since 2014, with over $650 million invested in the Central Business District in the past six years.
 
Rather than maintaining our outdated library, the county has the chance to continue this paradigm by relocating our Cape Fear Museum and Main Library in a single state-of-the-art civic facility with space for showcasing public exhibitions, hosting a myriad of events, and areas to properly preserve our historical artifacts – all built to meet modern standards. The present location also eliminates the need for the county to acquire land for this significant development.
 
Beyond the project’s financial aspects and architectural features, the significance of Project Grace lies in its ability to contribute to a robust and diverse economy. This development will provide new opportunities for businesses, create jobs, and attract visitors to our vibrant city.
 
This space will serve as a catalyst for progress and promote unity. The presence of an inclusive community gathering space, characterized by its welcoming environment, enriched educational and cultural resources, and a commitment to nurturing diversity, will play a pivotal role in propelling the economic development goals of our region.
 
I invite all New Hanover County citizens to consider how this one development can serve them in the future.
 
As a mother, I see Project Grace as a radiant center where I can witness my 4-year-old son's growth, share in his joy and create cherished memories together. It will be a special place to host his birthday parties and gatherings with friends and family, where we can walk hand-in-hand through its doors any day of the week, filled with excitement and anticipation.
 
Should New Hanover County move forward with a final vote of approval later this month, obtain approval from the Local Government Commission for financing and initiate its construction timeline as anticipated, the facility could welcome visitors before my son finishes elementary school. This timely completion would offer additional opportunities for him and his classmates to embark on school field trips and engage in community storytelling sessions, as well as explore captivating new exhibits at this grand new learning center.
 
For the community I serve, I envision a vibrant and dynamic cultural facility that will strengthen our sense of community like never before.
 
Project Grace will function as a gathering place, bringing families together to delve into our region's rich history and culture, offering abundant opportunities for learning and personal growth. This space will enrich our lives and serve as a focal point for forging new connections and fostering lasting friendships in our community.
 
Project Grace not only fulfills many of the economic development objectives established in the county's strategic planning initiatives but also carries on the mission to revitalize downtown Wilmington initiated by my predecessors 46 years ago.
 
Amidst the competition to provide meaningful economic development opportunities for our citizens, Project Grace stands as a critical key to achieving the goals of this mission. Our region deserves a flagship cultural facility in the heart of our city that embraces and embodies its true essence.
 
Most leading business districts across the nation include large civics centers similar to the one proposed in Project Grace. Our Central Business District should be aligned with the best practices observed in other successful cities to remain competitive.
 
I encourage our community to join me in taking a collective step toward a more vibrant city. I am confident that embracing this project will lead us to a more prosperous and thriving downtown.
 
Let us move as one in support of Project Grace and call upon our fellow business leaders and elected officials to rally their support for this vital project moving forward. Together we can help our county shape a brighter, more promising future for our children.
 
Christina Haley is vice president of Wilmington Downtown Inc. a nonprofit economic development organization.
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