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Project Grace sputters out

Port City Politics wide

On this episode: after years of planning, and numerous iterations, New Hanover County’s ambitious and controversial proposal to redevelop the downtown Wilmington library block as part of a public-private partnership has apparently reached the end of the road. When the proposal went in front of the Local Government Commission, it died for lack of a second vote to consider the project. Now, the county says it will go it alone.

Back in 2017, the county first introduced the idea of Project Grace. The project burnt out — but resurfaced two years later. Facing criticism from historic preservation groups and financial experts, the county forged ahead with its plan to partner with Zimmer Development Company.

The project would see the three-acre block completely redeveloped, with the old Belk building torn down and turned into a mixed-use development with a hotel, commercial space, and apartments. The north side of the block would be the home of a new downtown library and the relocated Cape Fear Museum. The county would make fixed payments — roughly $4 million a year for twenty years – and then own the museum and library.

County commissioners presented a unified front, arguing that the economic development benefits of Project Grace would more than make up for the fact that the lease-to-own deal would cost taxpayers millions of dollars more than if the county self-financed a new library and sold the rest of the land.

State Auditor Beth Wood and Treasurer Dale Folwell questioned the fiduciary responsibility of the project, voicing skepticism over the summer, and asking for changes to the county’s agreement with Zimmer.

County Chairwoman Julia Olson-Boseman finally asked Folwell, who chairs the LGC, to give Project Grace an up-or-down vote. But on Thursday, the project failed to garner even the two votes necessary to be put up for discussion. After the motion to consider failed for lack of a second vote, Project Grace, as it’s been known for the last three years, died — with a whimper, rather than a bang.

The county remains committed to the public part of the project, though, and will purchase the library and museum plans from Zimmer for $2.5 million and move forward. Zimmer has long said it won’t be a part of the project without the profitable lease-to-own financing, and it’s not yet known whether they’ll change their minds or if a new developer will step in. And the fate of the south side of the block remains an open question — the county could sell it, turn it into a park or other public facility, or find some other way to utilize it.

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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.