The Wilmington Chamber of Commerce supports New Hanover County’s efforts with Project Grace to redevelop a key block of downtown Wilmington. Although we are growing quickly today, long-term economic success for our community is not guaranteed. We continue to stress the need for bold vision, robust leadership, decisive action, and the foresight to plan ahead to meet our rapidly growing community’s needs.
Personally, I believe that redeveloping the block of downtown Wilmington bordered by Grace, Third, Chestnut, and Second streets will be a catalyst for future economic growth and development in our central business district. A modern, welcoming, and purposeful space for residents and visitors will drive traffic and help connect our community to its past while opening a door to its future. Modern libraries and museums are serving communities like ours in a wider variety of purposes than ever before, and downtown residents deserve new investment to meet that demand.
Earlier this year, the New Hanover County Commissioners approved a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Zimmer Development to create the framework for Project Grace. For several months following that approval, a team from Zimmer Development and LS3P were meeting with staff and boards from the downtown library and the Cape Fear Museum for their input and feedback on a redeveloped community-centered and visitor-oriented space. The recently released Discovery Phase Summary highlights the summary of these meetings, the vision for success, and samples of some of the visually stunning and impactful architectural designs that help inspire us all to think more ambitiously about that particular block of downtown.
After reviewing the summary, I felt even more reassured in the leadership of Zimmer Development and LS3P on Project Grace. Their longtime local civic involvement and generational knowledge of southeastern North Carolina has already enabled these companies to create positive change in our community by regenerating infrastructure and renewing so many public spaces.
After a careful review and many meetings, it was decided that the new downtown library and Cape Fear Museum space will be built on the north side of the block. This means no services for current library users will be disrupted while the new library is being built, which was important to our residents. Moving the library and museum to the north side of the block also offers more consistent light throughout the day that’s much easier to control for our museum exhibits. This move will also make it safer for school busses to stage along 2nd and Grace streets when children come to visit. As visitors approach downtown from I-40, a northside location also offers a much more impactful visual presence.
In the new library, space for children and students will be on the first floor along with a planetarium and auditorium. The second floor will include library services for adults, and the third floor will feature most of the Cape Fear Museum exhibits, gallery space, SHTEAM exhibits, and classroom space. Intentionally placed service corridors and loading docks will also make working in the redeveloped space easier to maintain.
New Hanover County’s public libraries are a critical link to our community. Our libraries and librarians provide accessibility, trustworthiness, and an opportunity for people to improve themselves in a way that few other longtime institutions can offer. Libraries also offer social infrastructure and create a highly valuable sense of place. Every day in our community, people are using our libraries to improve their job skills, access new technology, pursue educational or vocational programs, do research, and start new businesses.
Similarly, the Cape Fear Museum is vital to public understanding and education in science, art, engineering, history, and more. At their current location, the Cape Fear Museum’s costs for basics in building maintenance, collection care, and conservation processes are likely to threaten the change and decay that’s avoidable with the right forethought and investment in a move to a newer, forward-thinking, and custom museum space. Project Grace has the opportunity to create a dramatic impact on the whole lower Cape Fear region, helping to tell our unique story.
Every single day, people are making decisions about where to live, where to work, where to retire, based almost entirely on what communities look like. Public buildings and institutions help to set the standard for a community’s visual personality. I am rooting for innovation, decisiveness, and a bold vision for Wilmington that will deliver a strong economy and a more resilient community.
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