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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

Wilmington's DEI chief shares thoughts on Independence Blvd. extension

NCDOT's proposed Independence Boulevard extension project map.
NCDOT's proposed Independence Boulevard extension project map.

The Independence Boulevard extension project in Wilmington has been on the books since the 1970s, but only recently has the NCDOT started working on it. It’s raised some concerns about disparities in how the project will impact the area.

Independence Boulevard currently ends in mid-town Wilmington, turning into the narrower Covil Avenue, which spills onto Market Street. NCDOT's proposal would extend the major roadway across Market Street, through several neighborhoods and the Creekwood area, and connect it with MLK Parkway. You can find more, including maps, project history, and more, here.

The project is expected to cost over $200 million — with nearly $90 million of that going to 'property acquisition.' That could mean anything from a few feet shaved off the road-facing part of someone's property, to taking a whole property, depending on the extension's path.

Below: NCDOT visualization of the proposed extension.

That's where concerns about whose property will be impacted, and how they'll be compensated by NCDOT, come into play. While the City of Wilmington doesn't have a role in the project, the city's Chief DEI officer, Joe Conway, has voiced some of these concerns. So WHQR's Camille Mojica sat down with him to hear more.

Camille Mojica: My understanding is that it's also going to be essentially going through a neighborhood that's already existing there. Um, can you tell us a little bit about that neighborhood, if you know anything?

Joe Conway: So you're talking about Independence Boulevard and it kind of ends at a particular spot where these neighborhoods and businesses actually are. It is predominantly African American. But there's also a lot of minority women-owned business enterprises, their small businesses, which as we know, in our country, makes the world go round. And when you think about the impact on the businesses…

Cami: So what are those business-owners thinking right now?

Joe: Many of them are considering, can I stay in business? If the berm is put where it's put, you know, it'll impact my property, I'll lose half of my building, will I be able to accommodate? Can I find another place to move to? And then for our homeowners in that area? Well, there's been several studies that have come out in the city of Wilmington, and in New Hanover County, where we understand that just to move here, or even to live in New Hanover County city of Wilmington limits, it's pretty tough. You've got to have the right salary, the right job, the right everything. And we were hiring and employing teachers for our county schools that have to live in Brunswick or Pender County just to make ends meet.

Cami: And if people are basically ‘bought out’ of their homes, does that give them enough to move somewhere nearby? To stay in their community?

Joe: Well, there's a complication, with those homes that the fair market value assessment. Any organization that's affiliated with the government can really give, we might be able to provide some funds for displacement or those kinds of things.

Cami: I moved around a couple times when I was younger, but there's one home that I spent 15 plus years in, so I definitely understand. You know, my stepdad was talking about selling the house a couple years ago. And I got a little sad, because I was like, I grew up in that house

Joe: “That’s my house.”

Cami: I have my own room there. A house is a very special place for people, particularly when they make it into not just a house, but a home.

Joe: But a home.

Cami: So I wonder. Like, what, what kind of help is there for the people that are going to be affected by this project? How are there? How are their concerns going to be addressed?

Joe: So, information is power to me. So one of the things that I think every citizen should do is specifically those that are in this zone, and you're talking about between the businesses and the homeowners, I would probably say right around a little bit less than 120 impacted. Now, when you consider employees, it's going to go a lot more than that or but I think one thing is information is key. Keep yourself informed about this project.

Cami: Conway admits, though, that steps have been taken by the state. They’re not being cold and callous about the project.

Joe: Over the past couple of weeks, the deputy director actually came down here in July, and was very concerned and wanted to make sure that disparity issues in you know, were addressed so that we were not repeating the hurts of the past, right. And so how do we make sure that the message gets out in such a way? And how do we make sure that these folks feel like they're a part of the process, and not getting railroaded by the process? And I think a lot of steps have been done.

Cami: Conway acknowledges that the extension project will address a real issue – providing a cross-town evacuation route. But he thinks that needs to be balanced with the needs of the impacted neighborhoods…. When all is said and done, Conway just hopes people can remain empathetic for their neighbors and fellow Wilmingtonians, and to look at the very real disparity issues that lead to a bigger conversation.

Joe: So as we begin to move into this project, these are lives not just houses and homes that are being displaced. These are the lives of people. And I think as long as we continue to move with that sensitivity will be fine. But it's when we forget, and we're just looking at the glitz and glamour in the business and all the dollars that are going to come into the area and I can move faster from one side to the idea. That's all about you. Yeah. So you've taken your eye off the ball — what makes a community great is community.

Camille hails from Long Island, NY and graduated from Boston University with a BS in Journalism and double minors in Classical Civilizations and Philosophy. Her story focus revolves her deep care for children, young adults and mental health. You can reach her at cmojica@whqr.org.