Real Estate - Commercial

Developers Share Details Of Three Projects That Could Fuel Downtown Growth

By Emma Dill, posted Sep 7, 2023
Wilmington Downtown Inc. hosted an economic development luncheon Thursday to discuss Project Grace, the Gateway project and Wilmington's new municipal campus. (Photo by Emma Dill)
The people behind three major downtown projects detailed their plans during an economic development luncheon hosted Thursday by Wilmington Downtown Inc. 

The panel conversation centered around Project Grace, the Gateway project and Wilmington’s new municipal campus, which is slated for the former Thermo Fisher Scientific building. Each project has its own potential to fuel ongoing economic development in and around the downtown area, developers and local leaders told attendees.

“The projects we will talk about today … are future multi-million investments that aim to drive economic growth and opportunity for our central business district and continue WDI’s great mission,” said Wilmington Downtown Inc. Vice President Christina Haley. “As the world around us continues to evolve and change, we must adapt and embrace these new opportunities to ensure our city remains at the forefront of economic vitality.”

Wilmington Downtown Inc. or WDI is a nonprofit organization that aims to promote economic growth and business development in the downtown Wilmington area.

Aubrey Parsley, director of economic development for the city of Wilmington, kicked off the conversation by providing an overview of the city’s new municipal campus, which he referred to as the “new city hall.” 

In July, city leaders closed on the former Thermo Fisher campus on downtown’s northern end for $68 million.

“For the last 30 years or so, the city has been exploring ways to bring everybody under one roof and the stars aligned just recently with the closing in July,” Parsley said Thursday.

The buy includes a 12-story office building along with a 1,022-space parking deck. Wilmington plans to lease back two floors of the office building to Thermo Fisher for three years, use five floors for city services and lease out the remaining five floors. The parking deck will be used to accommodate parking needs generated by events held at the nearby city-owned Live Oak Bank Pavilion.

The city’s purchase also included two vacant, multi-acre tracts that could be used for future downtown growth.

“These parcels are ripe for development and ripe to continue and accelerate the downtown development we’re seeing on the north end,” Parsley said.

North of the new city hall, McKay Siegel, a partner with East West Partners, is working with city leaders on a long-awaited northern gateway project.

The development firm signed a memorandum of understanding with city leaders this spring and the parties are working to iron out the details of a purchase and development agreement – something Siegel said he hopes will wrap up by the end of this year.

The primarily residential southern portion of the Gateway project will feature 320 apartments along with approximately 32,000 square feet of retail – an investment of around $100 million. Plans for the northern end of the Gateway project are still “in flux,” Seigel said, but could include a hotel with upwards of 300 rooms.

With the construction of the Gateway project, East West Partners hopes to “activate” the northern end of downtown and provide a more direct link between S. Third Street and the waterfront area.

Project Grace rounded out the conversation with Mike Brown, vice president of Cape Fear Development, providing an overview of the project’s timeline and evolution.

The project is expected to transform the county-owned block bordered by Chestnut, Grace, Second and North Third streets, which contains the downtown branch of the New Hanover County Public Library along with a parking deck. The transformation could include new residential and commercial space along with a new, 95,000-square-foot facility that would house both a new library branch and the Cape Fear Museum.

Brown highlighted the need to update and “modernize” facilities for both the museum and library.

The New Hanover County Board of Commissioners approved an amended agreement last month that capped construction costs at $56 million. Now, the project needs approval from the N.C. Local Government Commission or LGC before it can advance. 

The project and its developer have faced pushback from  State Treasurer Dale Folwell, who chairs the LGC. An old Project Grace plan was halted when the LGC failed to approve the financing arrangement the county inked with its previous development firm partner on the project, Zimmer Development Co.

Folwell has said he doesn’t plan to put the project on the agenda for the commission’s September meeting. At the WDI luncheon, attendees were encouraged to email members of the LGC in support of Project Grace.

The panel also discussed how their projects fit into the Greater Downtown Area Growth Plan, an upcoming effort from the city of Wilmington’s Planning and Development Department. The plan aims to help developers and local leaders plan for future growth in downtown and beyond in other commercial areas like the Cargo District, Soda Pop District and South Front District.

“We have a lot of big commercial projects coming forward, but we also have this great resurgence of our emerging commercial districts,” Haley said.

As these “satellite” districts continue to grow, local developers and city leaders need to focus on linking the emerging areas, according to Siegel, who chairs WDI’s Downtown Development Committee.

“The more we can connect all these districts so that they grow together,” he said, “the stronger they will continue to be.”
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