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What Next For Project Grace? Good Question

Why tear down a library? That was the most frequently-asked question from local citizens at the latest Project Grace public meeting. New Hanover County sponsored the session last Thursday to answer concerns about the three-acre county project bordered by Grace, Third, Chestnut and Second Streets. 

“When you have house and it's no longer fitting its use, do you tear it down and build and pay for a new one or do you renovate? Most people renovate, most people don't tear down and put up for something new. We have proven time and time again in historic Wilmington that we take our history and we make it into an asset.”    “So there is a library that's yet to be built in our community that I believe the board has said is a higher priority and that is to a library ...” 

New Hanover County Commissioners Jonathan Barfield and Rob Zapple and County Manager Chris Coudriet took a lot questions from the public at Cape Fear Community College – many asking the same thing:  why tear down the downtown library and build a new one, rather than renovate what exists?   

This spring county commissioners voted to allow staff to negotiate with the Zimmer Development Group. Zimmer was the only developer to respond to an RFP for the project.

The plan is for the county to sell all or part of the block for a development that features a new library, relocated Cape Fear Museum, plus retail and housing.

Beth Rutledge is Executive Director of the Historic Wilmington Foundation.

“I would say that for me it was interesting to hear how many questions there were that seemed like that they maybe should have been answered two or three years ago. We're talking about, you know, millions and millions and millions of dollars and some of the answers were, well, we don't know or we don't know yet, or we have to look into that.”

I asked Commissioner Rob Zapple if it was time to go back to the drawing board on Project Grace, since the only proposals from Zimmer involve demolishing the existing library.

“I don't think so. I think again where we've come for a year so far, up until April 15th is when we finally said as a commission, yes staff you can sit down and negotiate. In my mind what we've seen are some very top line concepts that came as a result of the request for proposal that the Zimmer Company Development Company presented, but they are simply concepts and they didn't come with any real numbers attached to them.”

Zapple says over the next 10 to 12 months, there'll be a negotiation process between county staff and Zimmer to flesh out what the actual designs will look like. County Manager Chris Coudriet says there is plenty of time to change plans.

“I believe there is, yes. And certainly it's a policy decision for the board as to whether to proceed with a development agreement if we're able to secure good parameters for one. So the county commission has not said we are proceeding full speed ahead. Instead it said go and keep, keep your discussions, get into a negotiation, continue to take public input and consider the scale and scope of what the county will or will not do on the block.”

Gareth Evans has been a critic of the public-private proposal since day one. He runs the Bellamy Mansion and is on the North Carolina Museum of History Board.

“And I would really like to see an adaptive reuse of that library to maximize the potential of the building we have in the library being the original building. The original Belk. It's adaptive reuse. It already was an adaptive reuse to turn it from the Belk into a library. It's works perfectly well this minute as a library its 102,000 square feet.”

Thursday night’s meeting was the last one scheduled by the county to discuss Project Grace. However commissioners tell the public to keep sending them comments and feedback on the plan. Vince Winkel, WHQR News.