Thanks to the strategic planning of Downtown Wilmington Incorporated and significant business investment, downtown Wilmington is once again the heartbeat of the Cape Fear region.
In the early 1970s historic downtown Wilmington was in dire economic straits. Construction of the area’s first mall and other shopping centers resulted in an exodus of downtown’s many longtime department stores and businesses. What was left was a humble mix of shops, restaurants and offices interspersed between neglected and abandoned buildings. In the wake of the cultural and economic shifts, city and community leaders quickly realized that something needed to be done to revitalize the downtown area.
In 1977 a nonprofit economic development group now known as Wilmington Downtown Incorporated (WDI) officially formed, and it’s still around today. Led by a board of directors that includes downtown business owners, property owners and community representatives, the group’s mission is to promote economic growth and development in the downtown area. Since its inception, WDI has worked hand in hand with the community and local government to direct a range of downtown improvement efforts.
By fulfilling multiple roles as needed, WDI is able to help guide the big vision in regards to priorities and strategies. From the planning aspect, WDI works with downtown businesses by assisting in their marketing and public relations efforts. Another emphasis is on the business and investor recruitment side. WDI helps individuals looking to invest in big or small downtown projects make informed investor decisions. Ultimately, it all boils down to building the tax base, adding jobs and working with downtown businesses to perform at their best.
The most recent revitalization phase began in 2013 as the area saw a huge influx of investment at the end of the housing recession. New apartment complexes built since then include City Block Apartments on 3rd Street, Sawmill Apartments on the riverfront and Pier 33 Apartments, which are scheduled to open next to the Convention Center in the fall of 2019.
“One element of our current focus is an emphasis on housing,” says WDI President and CEO Ed Wolverton. “We realize that having people close to the shops, restaurants and museums is a very smart economic development strategy in helping support those businesses. People who live close are more frequently going to use them, so we wanted to add more residential base.”
Another emphasis that WDI continues to work toward is the hospitality industry. When the Convention Center opened in 2011, it became clear that in order to maximize access to it, downtown needed to increase its hotel room inventory and have more rooms available in order to attract bigger convention groups. New hotels now open include Courtyard by Marriott, Hampton Inn and Embassy Suites, with two others currently in development.
“In the last five years we’ve added 140 percent to our hotel capacity with what’s been opened and in the pipeline, and we’ve grown our residential numbers by about 45 percent,” Wolverton says. “We’re also improving our mix of retail shops. With just over $500 million worth of new investment, we’re repositioning the role that downtown is playing in the entire area.”
Last year WDI began an initiative to improve downtown’s public space. The organization created an ambassador team of paid employees who circulate downtown seven days a week to provide an extra set of eyes and ears for public safety purposes. These ambassadors are there to give directions and offer recommendations for restaurants and shops, as well as be on the lookout for things such as broken streetlights or littered sidewalks.
“They’re handling the little things that are important in ensuring people have a good experience when they come,” Wolverton says. “Our hope is that they’re offering a human touch that’s approachable and knowledgeable.”
In an effort to introduce more green landscaping elements and beauty in a limited space, last summer WDI installed more than 150 hanging flower baskets from downtown streetlight poles. The organization also helped start the Riverfront Farmers Market, an important community activity that helps support local growers and artisans while fostering social interaction. Each summer WDI also directs and operates the Friday Night Downtown Sundown Concert Series, a free attraction that brings tourists and locals downtown every Friday night between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends.
WDI hopes that residents of New Hanover County, Brunswick County and beyond will continue to look to downtown as a cultural and recreational destination. In 2015 the Wilson Center opened, offering the community a 1,500-seat performing arts center that complements Thalian Hall’s more intimate space. The 1.75-mile Riverwalk is now complete, and construction of the new North Waterfront Park is slated to begin by the end of the year. The City of Wilmington plans to develop the $20 million park on 6.6 acres that will be available for recreational use and performance events.
“Performing arts have always been big downtown, but both the Wilson Center and this new park will add another aspect of further growth to our cultural offerings available,” Wolverton says.
Downtown Wilmington is now thriving. With more than 880 businesses, it stands as the region’s largest business district. It also has the largest property tax value in the area, as well as the largest employment base with more than 11,000 people working downtown. Wolverton says that it’s because of these successes that WDI’s work is more important now than ever. “When you put those three things together, it’s crucial as a community that we support and make sure we are improving businesses and the business conditions of folks who are already here. We want to protect those businesses and enhance and grow them even further.”
Long gone are the days when downtown Wilmington was only an afterthought as opposed to a destination. Port City visitors make a point to visit the historic riverfront while on vacation, and residents continue to choose downtown as a top location for dining, shopping, entertainment and diversity.
“It’s the one place in the community where you can see a lawyer in a $500 suit walking down the street by a kid carrying a skateboard with dyed hair and tattoos, and they can look at each other and say ‘Hey, how’re you doing?’” Wolverton says. “That sort of chance interaction that happens downtown just doesn’t happen elsewhere. It’s a place that’s unique to the world. There’s just no other place like downtown Wilmington.”