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Real Estate - Commercial

Aiming To Possibly Revive Project Grace, Firm Seeks Business, Community Support

By Cece Nunn, posted Jan 31, 2023
A public-private plan for Project Grace, which would transform the downtown Wilmington library block, could be revived if a development firm's efforts result in a new proposal. (File photo)
A Wilmington-based development firm investigating what role it might be able to play in the next iteration of Project Grace shared an update on its efforts Tuesday. Their work has included asking other businesses for support as it considers navigating what could be a difficult bureaucratic endeavor.

The outreach effort is part of a series of steps Cape Fear Development (CFD) officials, in consultation with architecture firm LS3P and Monteith Construction, say they have taken toward presenting an analysis to New Hanover County in February, according to a CFD news release Tuesday. That report will include looking at "value engineering," meaning looking at the lowest possible costs.

Project Grace, a redevelopment plan that has been in the works for several years, would transform the county-owned 3-acre block bordered by Grace, Third, Chestnut and Second streets into a mixed-use complex with public and private facilities.

A previous plan in the works involving Wilmington-based Zimmer Development Co. came to a halt when the state’s Local Government Commission failed to approve an $80 million lease agreement the county was pursuing with Zimmer.  During the debate before the lease denial, LGC officials aired concerns about various aspects of the deal, chiefly in the county's decision to finance it privately through Zimmer at a higher rate than it could obtain on its own. In addition to the public facilities, Zimmer planned to build residential and commercial space.

Brian Eckel, partner in Cape Fear Development, stated in the release Tuesday, “Our downtown has come a long way over the past decade, yet, it still needs more economic opportunities and amenities like a grocery store. The success of Project Grace and the surrounding block may be able to help spearhead that continued progress.”

The CFD release pointed out that "there is no formal relationship between New Hanover County and Cape Fear Development currently as it relates to Project Grace."

New Hanover County Manager Chris Coudriet said Tuesday the county "understands and supports the due diligence" that CFD is undertaking.

"The project is about more than just the public purposes and investment on the block; it’s equal parts private investment with private money at risk. So it’s important for any private developer to do their due diligence to conduct outreach and also see if there is value and a market in general for being part of this block with a museum and library – both today and going forward," Coudriet said in an emailed statement. "The vision from the beginning of Project Grace was to bring private investment and public purposes to the block to help transform downtown Wilmington. So we look forward to hearing an update from Cape Fear Development after their initial evaluation for the project is complete.”

The CFD release comes after an email from Eckel to Natalie English, president and CEO of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, and other business interests began circulating on social media, including neighborhood site Next Door. 

Diana Hill, spokesperson for Save Our Main Library and Museum, who received and posted the letter on Next Door, said the group wants to see the 100,000-square-foot main library continue to be used rather than demolished, as was planned in the earlier Zimmer partnership iteration of Project Grace.

"They should really consider renovating that library right where it is for educational purposes," she said.

Hill also thinks such a renovation could help with potential private uses on the property, including turning one portion of the property, the Borst Building, into a "city/farmers market."

"I believe that by enhancing the Main Library, the apartments/condos would be even more desirable to potential residents – especially with the added city/farmers market in the Project," Hill wrote in a letter to Eckel requesting a meeting with him. Eckel has been in touch with Hill, she said, about setting up that meeting.

CFD has been focused on several aspects of its "uncompensated evaluation" of the project, including:
 
  • "Working directly with the project team (LS3P and Monteith) to identify efficiencies that will allow us to value engineer the delivery of Project Grace, making it a more affordable project for county taxpayers, while not compromising quality and functionality."
  • "Proactively addressing concerns the Local Government Commission raised in their Sept. 15, 2022 letter highlighting changes the LGC recommended to the financial framework of the original Project Grace delivery approach."
  • "Meeting with local community leaders and stakeholders to gather feedback to ensure the vision for Project Grace is in alignment with key needs of downtown Wilmington. In addition, CFD is working to determine how Project Grace can best serve as a catalyst for the advancement of our community and fulfill its intended role as a cultural and educational hub in service of New Hanover County residents, school children and visitors to the area for generations to come."
The release stated that CFD has started reaching out to businesses as part of its evaluation. In the Jan. 21 letter to the chamber, Eckel mentions Live Oak Bank as an example.

"Working alongside the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, CFD has begun outreach efforts to employers and their constituencies and [plans] to complement these efforts with expanded community outreach to the public at large during the month of February," the Tuesday release stated.

An official with LS3P, the firm that came up with renderings for the Zimmer-county partnership version of Project Grace, added his support to the CFD release. The county purchased Zimmer's plans for $2 million in November.

“LS3P is excited to be a part of this project because of the amazing impact it will have on downtown and we welcome the opportunity to work with the team at Cape Fear Development,” stated Charles Boney, vice president and principal at LS3P.

Bryan Thomas, president and CEO of Monteith, said in the release, “Since November, we have been working with CFD to fully review the plans for Project Grace, including tightening the project budget and ensuring the final product speaks to the hopes and aspirations of the broader community. We are committed to ensuring this project is done within budget and that it helps to address some of the key needs for growth within downtown
Wilmington."
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