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Ask a Journalist: Round-up of questions following Project Grace's approval

A sign celebrating the future Project Grace site, installed just days after the state approved the financing in early October. The sign has rainbow letters on a dark background, with a tree and the parking deck in the background.
Kelly Kenoyer
A sign celebrating the future Project Grace site, installed just days after the state approved the financing in early October.

After nearly a decade in the works, New Hanover County’s Project Grace is finally gearing up to break ground. In the latest edition of WHQR’s Ask A Journalist segment, WHQR’s Camille Mojica and Ben Schachtman answer some lingering questions.

CM: Ok, Ben, before we get into our listener and reader questions, a quick recap, what is Project Grace and how is it coming along?

BS: The project is going to totally redevelop the downtown Wilmington block bounded by 2nd and 3rd, Chestnut, and Grace streets — what’s currently the library is going to be torn down and be redeveloped as private residential and commercial buildings, but first, the Grace street side is going to be demolished and rebuilt as a combined new library and Cape Fear Museum. After approval by the state last month, the public side is now underway — it’s expected to open in 2025.

CM: Ok, so some of our questions had to do with putting the library and museum together. What will that mean for exhibits, management, and admission?

BS: All great questions. So, in terms of layout, you’ll walk into a joint lobby, and if you go to the right, you’ll walk — free of charge — into the library. If you go left, you’ll pay admission and go into the museum, although there will be free days!

The museum and library will still be managed separately, but they plan on doing joint projects and cross-promoting — like a science exhibit at the museum might include further reading you can walk over and pick up at the library.

CM: Another question we’ve had has been about the homeless population. Historically, some unhoused people have congregated there — and there’s been some complaints.

BS: This year the county banned sleeping on the premises, responding in part to those complaints, but during the day it’s likely people will want to hang out, inside and outside — there will still be a social worker as part of the downtown library team — and the county has a street outreach team that tries to connect the homeless to some important resources. And look, if were homeless, I’d probably want to use the library — say, in the summer, to get a break for the brutal Wilmington summer. There’s also free internet access there, which can be essential for people trying to get housing, or employment, or medical care. So, there’s probably going to continue to be some friction there with people who don’t want the homeless there or who have had bad run-ins in the past.

CM: Moving on, we’ve heard there’s also going to be some work on the parking deck… is that part of the project? And is that going to cause disruption for folks who use the deck?

BS: So, that’s part of the construction budget for the work that Cape Fear Development is doing, yes. And, unfortunately, there will be some disruptions — the plan is to keep the deck open, and to keep the loss of parking spaces to a minimum. We’ll have to see how that goes.

CM: Ok, so, you mentioned budget, we got numerous variations on this — what’s this all going to cost?

BS: So, there’s sort of two answers to that. The first is what the county is paying Cape Fear Development for the project, that’s probably the number people have heard most often recently — and that’s just shy of $56 million. That’s a guaranteed maximum — unless the county was willing to negotiate a higher cost.

CM: So ... what’s the second answer?

BS: The second answer is the total cost to the taxpayer. The county says bond financing is the best way to pay for it, and that includes interest — and even with the county’s excellent credit rating, there’s still going to be about $24 million in interest by the time the whole project is fully paid off, bringing the total cost to about $80.7 million dollars. That doesn’t include things like furniture, fixtures, and equipment — or ongoing costs like museum exhibits or facility security. So, we can’t put a decimal point answer on the exact total cost, but $81 million is probably a more accurate answer than $56 million.

CM: Thanks Ben!

BS: Happy to do it. And don’t forget if you’ve got a question you want answered by a journalist, write us at staffnews@whqr.org

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. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.