$650K Could Tackle Small Improvements To Downtown Wilmington's Riverwalk, Officials Say

By Cece Nunn, posted Feb 14, 2024
The Riverwalk along the Cape Fear River in downtown Wilmington is nearly two miles long. Recently, a consultant suggested some minor improvements that could help make it easier for visitors to navigate the landmark. (Photo by Cece Nunn)

The Riverwalk in downtown Wilmington frequently strolls onto top 10 lists of the best riverwalks in the country, garnering the No. 7 spot in USA Today’s rankings last year.

But stewards of even the best tourist destinations can find room for improvements. Wilmington tourism and business leaders are seeking $650,000 from the city’s remaining federal COVID-19 recovery funds to accomplish some Riverwalk enhancements.

Some travel writers who have visited Wilmington’s Riverwalk have pointed out a few negative points of the 1.75-mile Cape Fear River landmark, said Kim Hufham, president and CEO of the Wilmington & Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Nothing major, but just enough to concern … and we thought, ‘Well, maybe we need to step back and take a look at how we could actually improve.’ Not that it’s not great, not that it’s not beautiful already, but how we might [make] some improvements,” she said during a January presentation to the Wilmington City Council.

A consultant from a Washington state company assessed the Riverwalk at the behest of a committee of representatives from the CVB and local organizations.

She said the consultant identified 10 areas with suggestions, including gateway signs.

“He said when he got there [to the Riverwalk], to be honest, he really didn’t know he was there,” Hufham explained to the council. “So what can we do to better improve our gateway so when a visitor does come into town, they know they’re there, that they’ve arrived?

“Because if you put Wilmington Riverwalk in a GPS, it’s not necessarily gonna take you to the foot of Market Street.”

Another area of improvement recommended by the consultant is the availability of visitor information, such as with a 24-7 electronic information kiosk. That could be in addition to “some other improvements down there that really put the information at the visitors’ fingertips when they get here, and that way they’re able to explore not only the Riverwalk but also up as we come into our downtown area,” Hufham said.

The consultant said a missing Riverwalk ingredient is programming.

“He’s saying we should have activities 250 days a year on the Riverwalk,” Hufham said. “Imagine a swing out on the riverwalk, just things that invite people to come down.”

The other suggestions were:

  • simplifying parking in numerous ways, such as adding signs that explain fees and time limits
  • making it clear where public restrooms are
  • inviting people back with tactics that include a banner announcing upcoming concerts and renderings of downtown projects in the works
  • improving pedestrian wayfinding with strategic signs
  • cleaning and screening, such as repainting benches and repairing boat docks
  • adding a main attraction to the Riverwalk, such as holiday lights
  • incorporating smaller projects, such as adding crosswalk markings and more benches

The consultant’s improvement suggestions that Hufham shared differ from the much more expensive Riverwalk extension project city officials are considering. Last year, city officials heard the results of a study that identified four potential Riverwalk extension routes with price tags from $5 million to more than $10 million.

At that time, city staff members planned to continue conversations with stakeholders, explore potential project funding options and partners and gather public feedback.

Like the extension project, the city council must approve the recommended $650,000 for the minor improvements.

Hufham told council members during her presentation, “We want to make sure that that Riverwalk isn’t just a beautiful walking path, that it’s also an economic generator for our city as a whole.”

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