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The Dive: Sour in Southport

File: The City of Southport in Brunswick County.
File: The City of Southport in Brunswick County.

Every week, WHQR's Ben Schachtman sits down with The Assembly's Johanna Still to talk about our joint newsletter, The Dive. This week, a contentious development and unusual allegations in the city of Southport

An otherwise routine set of meetings has rekindled rancor over development in the quaint, coastal city of Southport.

Back in 2020, Bald Head Island Limited and East West Partners unveiled plans to develop Project Indigo, which could double Southport’s population. As originally designed, it aimed to create more than $700 million in new taxable value and add more than 1,500 housing units in Southport.

Planned on mostly undeveloped land west of the city’s historic downtown, the project has, predictably, elicited strong community interest. That interest came with heaps of backlash from residents concerned about density and preserving the city’s character.

Southport’s planning board rejected the proposal in 2022, and developers later withdrew their original application.

In the interim, developers have been eager to receive explicit guidance from city leaders so they can put forth a plan the community can live with. Meanwhile, city leaders see the ball in the developers’ court, as the team has some complex land rights issues to sort out.

Read Johanna F. Still's piece, Sour in Southport, in this week's edition of The Dive.

You can sign up for The Wilmington Dive, a free weekly newsletter from The Assembly and WHQR, here

BS: All right, Johanna Still, thanks as always for being here. In this week's edition of The Dive, you got into a contentious development in Southport that some people may have heard about as Project Indigo. But for people who haven't been following along, what is going on here?

JS: So project Indigo is a sweeping development that is planned for a little bit west of downtown historic Southport. And as first proposed a couple years back, it was going to bring in maybe 1,500 residential units, some commercial, a marina – an estimated $700 million in new tax value for the city. It's understandably created a lot of concerns over preserving the area's charm. The companies behind the project, Bald Head Island limited, run several operations on Bald Head Island, and they developed it originally. And their presentation is we've created this conservation-heavy island next door. We're part of these very charming projects. And so we understand more than anyone that we are going to create something that's going to match with the character of the community.

BS: So back in 2022, the planning board of Southport rejected this proposal, and the developers East West Partners and Bald Head Island limited withdrew their application. And now they're in sort of a negotiation pattern where they're talking to the new leadership at Southport. But some of these meetings have caused kind of a surprising level of reaction.

JS: The new mayor and a new member of the Board of Aldermen met with the development team – met with them twice in January, and a couple of existing aldermen board members took great issue with this. And they feel chiefly, you know, two things. One, the meetings should have never happened without the approval of the full board. And then, that they should have been told about meetings beforehand. Now they were told of the second meeting, one of them was told the day after that had happened. So a lot of this controversy and issue definitely boils down to board communication. But what's kind of boiled over in the public sphere is the two board members that took issue with the fact that these meetings happened have accused the other new board members who you know – basically the point of the meeting, according to the developers was to get acquainted with the new members, right kind of catch them up to speed get to know you know who they're dealing with the new people – but they have accused those members of acting unethically. Rarely will you ever hear board members accusing each other in a public setting in a meeting of acting unethically.

BS: Right. And what's interesting here too, is that people may not like the coziness of local government with developers, but there is nothing illegal or unethical with for example, you and I have covered many developments here in Wilmington, and it's basically standard operating procedure for councilmen or the mayor of Wilmington to meet with developers, or county commissioners to meet with developers – with the sole exception of special use permits, which is a very special kind of rezoning request, where the board members, whether that's city council or county commissioners, aren't allowed to have any involvement until the actual moment of the hearing. I remember former city councilman Kevin O'Grady once told me he wasn't even allowed to Google the location of the property before they actually went into session. But that's not this. So aside from SUP, special use permits, we see this kind of stuff all the time. So, not taking a side of the debate, but we've just never seen this much hay made by a fellow board member about this kind of meeting.

JS: Yeah, definitely inflamed some feelings. And of course, now the board under the new leadership of the mayor, he said he feels that this is going to affect their ability to attract a new city manager. They've had a lot of administrative turnover in recent years. So with a project as large as Project Indigo on the horizon, they certainly need to find some cohesion to be able to navigate the future of the project - which isn't going away, the developers behind project Indigo tell me that they're very much wanting to move forward, but they're kind of looking for some guidance.

BS: All right. Well, it's a fascinating story in this week's episode of The Dive, Johanna Still thanks for being here.

JS: Thank you

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.