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On Potential Michael Jordan Museum, Commissioners Share Thoughts

By Cece Nunn, posted Dec 15, 2023
New Hanover County Manager Chris Coudriet discussed Project Grace, including a potential Michael Jordan and Jordan family museum, during Thursday's Greater Wilmington Business Journal Power Breakfast. (Photo by Alecia Hall)

As a teenager living in Wilmington in the late 1970s, Jonathan Barfield attended basketball games that included a Laney High School player named Michael Jordan. 

Barfield also watched Michael Jordan’s brother Larry show off his own basketball skills at Sports World, a popular Oleander Drive skating rink that later became the now-closed Jelly Beans Family Skate Center. “He’d always win the slam dunk contests,” Barfield said of Larry Jordan.

The Jordan family moved to Wilmington when Michael Jordan was 5 years old. The basketball icon is 60 now.

“In high school, I saw Michael Jordan play,” said Barfield, 57. “It is amazing to see where he started, but also where he is now – a worldwide phenom.”

These days, Barfield, as a New Hanover County Commissioner, is in a position to help plan a Michael Jordan and Jordan family museum at the corner of Third and Chestnut streets in downtown Wilmington.

Relatives of Michael Jordan have entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the county to work on a potential museum. The facility would be part of Project Grace, a redevelopment project underway on the county-owned downtown block bordered by Third, Chestnut, Second and Grace streets.

After County Manager Chris Coudriet announced the Jordan family museum vision Thursday, Barfield and other county commissioners shared their thoughts on the plan.

“To me, whenever you have somebody of that caliber, that level of excellence, an opportunity to create a museum that honors him and his family is truly once-in-a-lifetime,” said Commissioner Dane Scalise. “I think it’s Battleship 2.0 [referring to the community effort to bring the Battleship North Carolina to Wilmington]. So we have got to follow the string out on this to see where it lands. I’d love for us to have any number of private and public partners come to the table and help us make this a reality. But that’s precisely what we’re working out in the months to come.”

According to Coudriet, the museum’s planning phase includes exhibit design, schematic design and operational details of the partnership. This phase will be part of the overall Project Grace planning budget and is expected to be discussed next year. 

Regarding where money for the museum might come from, Coudriet said Thursday, “I can assure you, this would not go forward with borrowed money or with an increase in local taxes.” 

Commissioner LeAnn Pierce said she would never have supported an increase in taxes for the facility.

She said Thursday, "Hopefully, we can do some really good fundraising for it."

'TRANSFORMATIONAL' PROJECT

While he doesn’t know the funding details yet, Barfield said, “What I do know is that this project will be transformational for our community. It’s also honoring a hometown hero, not as a hometown hero, but a worldwide hero, a man who has elevated the game of basketball but also the name of New Hanover County and Wilmington to higher heights, and a man whose name is synonymous with athletics, period.”

In 1982, the community hosted a Michael Jordan Day after the University of North Carolina Tar Heels won the NCAA National Championship. Jordan made the winning shot.

“It was somewhat of a roast/honoring him,” Barfield said of the Wilmington event. “And on that day, I kept my ticket. It’s in my memory book from high school. It was autographed by his mom, by him and Dean Smith.”

Scalise said the museum will help tie Michael Jordan and his family to Wilmington and the state. 

“This museum is going to be a beacon,” Scalise said. “It’s going to help bring people to Wilmington, to recognize the beauty of this place, the uniqueness of this place.”

WORKING OUT THE DETAILS

The vision for the Jordan family museum began to take shape long before Thursday’s announcement. “I have been working with the team since the spring, and after the [Local Government Commission] approved the debt issuance for the first phase of [Project Grace], I think it’s fair to say things have accelerated,” Coudriet said.

“Now, I don’t want to speak for anybody on our staff or speak for the Jordans, but we have had a very long-standing relationship.”

He referred to displays featuring Jordan memorabilia and Michael Jordan’s name at The Cape Fear Museum of History and Science. Coudriet said Deloris Jordan, Michael Jordan’s mother, expressed interest in what was happening over the years with Project Grace because of the Cape Fear Museum component. 

The Cape Fear Museum is one of the only places in Wilmington where Michael Jordan’s name is highlighted.  Project Grace is set to include a new Cape Fear Museum and main branch of the New Hanover County Public Library in 95,000 square feet on the opposite side of the redevelopment from the Jordan museum site.

“It felt like the right time, assuming that the project would be approved by the LGC, that it would be the right time to begin thinking about what this vision could actually accomplish,” Coudriet said.

Part of that vision, shared by the county and the family, is that New Hanover County and the Cape Fear Museum would operate the Jordan family museum. 

“It’s a natural extension of where we are, and so it would not be a replacement of that great Cape Fear Museum,” Coudriet said. “It is a value-added component to helping tell the story of our region. What a story we have to tell…. We’re going to spend the time planning and designing how we take the vision and make it a reality.”

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