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New Hanover County excited about Project Grace progress, but not everyone's on board

Benjamin Schachtman

The county recently completed a new phase of Project Grace, a multi-million dollar plan to redevelop the library block in Downtown Wilmington. The county believes it has solved some problems with the latest plan -- but some hurdles, and discontents, still remain.

The plan is to build a new downtown library and a relocated Cape Fear Museum, paired with private development. After several false starts and delays, the county reached an agreement with a new design team — made up of Zimmer Development and LS3P — earlier this year and is ready to move forward.

The latest plan met with resistance, including concerns from the library and museum about limited square footage. Other concerns included keeping the library open during construction and utilizing the current museum building — and protests from the Historic Wilmington Foundation over the likely demolition of two historic buildings on the site.

Chief Strategy Officer Jenifer Rigby, who has helped lead the county’s side of the team, was pleased that some of those issues appear to have been resolved.

“We were able to really look at their needs their programming and their spaces, and really determine the space that they made...And that existing Cape Fear museum is intended to be used as a research facility and for our collections that are have currently housed at the Cape Fear Museum museum," Rigby said.

The county noted its excitement about improved and expanded features of the new library and museum, including a planetarium, outdoor, and green space, and expanded services. In a release, the county summed up some of the features:

  • There will be a shared entrance and lobby with an auditorium, and staff supports for both the library and museum.
  • The Public Library will have dedicated spaces for adults, children, teens, local history, and multi-purpose uses.
  • Cape Fear Museum will have dedicated spaces for science and history exhibits, changing and traveling exhibits, a planetarium and engaging immersive experiences, and education rooms for hands-on learning activities.
  • Outdoor space will be integral in the design, including an urban plaza with dedicated drop-off school staging, a safe outdoor reading terrace dedicated to children, and an outdoor rooftop area that will feature exhibits and interactive learning opportunities.

Still, not everyone is on board.

During the latest design phase the county decided the former Belk or Borst buildings could not be saved. Officials several reasons for the decision — including the prohibitive cost of renovating the Borst buildings — none of which assuaged the Historic Wilmington Foundation, which called the county’s move disappointing and a dangerous precedent.

Executive Director Travis Gilbert released a statement on Wednesday, which read in part: "The demolition of the Borst Building, as detailed in the recently-released Project Grace Discovery Phase Summary, has disappointed the Historic Wilmington Foundation (HWF) and our community of local preservationists. The site analysis created by New Hanover County (NHC) for Project Grace creates a dangerous precedent of local government eroding the character of our region’s National Register Historic Districts" (Full statement available below).

There’s also the Save Our Main Library and Museum group, which is hosting a meeting Thursday evening to share information and concerns about the project (you can find details on the group and the upcoming meeting on Facebook).

And, of course, the county still needs approval from the Local Government Commission, part of the state treasurer's office. The county could save roughly $24 million on the project if it was self-financed -- but the developer has said it will only move forward with private financing. The state has shot down similar developer-financed deals, like the county’s government center redevelopment -- but officials are still confident they can make it happen.

Related: New Hanover County could save $24 million on Project Grace. The deal could also self-destruct

“We are constantly having informal conversations with the local government commission. As a part of the process. We need to have all of the documentation on the private side of the project and so we're still gathering some information. So we do not have a date calendar due yet, but we're still working towards that," Rigby said.

Below: Statement from HWF and summary from NHC.

Below: The 'discovery phase' summary from New Hanover County; schematics and diagrams from the private design team of Zimmer and LS3P.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature.