The possibilities of Project Grace
By County Manager Chris Coudriet
The possibilities of Project Grace are exciting.
It has been over two years since we began talking about the opportunity of a public-private partnership to create a mixed-use development in downtown Wilmington – which we have coined as “Project Grace.”
From early on, the vision has been to transform a county-owned block into a hub of activity with a mix of uses, build a modern, state-of-the-art library, and bring our Cape Fear Museum to the heart of downtown – within walking distance of so many other attractions.
As we received input from the community, from neighbors, and from our Commissioners, it was clear that an innovative learning and community space like this was needed, but that it must be developed in a thoughtful and deliberate way.
About a year ago, the county conducted a space needs analysis of the current library and museum, to understand what it would take to up-fit the current spaces and what would be needed to ensure services could continue and thrive. The analysis made it clear that the museum’s building is undersized and has considerable limitations for exhibits, and that the library’s building has a significant amount of underutilized space. Neither building was built for its current use, and both facilities would need an extensive amount of work to address current deficiencies.
Investing in the current museum building would be upwards of $26 million, based on preliminary estimates. Even with this investment, the museum would continue to have space limitations, and therefore, service limitations. And it will continue to have location challenges if it remains where it is, outside of downtown and away from any other attraction.
In my opinion, doing nothing is not an option. No matter what, we will have to make an investment in the library and museum in some capacity.
New Hanover County has approached Project Grace as a public-private development opportunity, so that the county’s investment makes sense, risks can be mitigated, and the improvements can serve our community for future generations.
In December, we received a well thought-out Project Grace proposal from Zimmer Development Company, a local firm with national experience, and their team.
This proposal is divided into three phases. The first phase includes constructing a new downtown library and Cape Fear Museum that – together – would be approximately 80,000 square feet. It also includes public greenspace and approximately 125 residential units on the block.
After constructing phase one, library and museum services would move to the new facility and phase two would include constructing approximately 125 more residential units and supporting street level retail. The final possible phase would include a retail and office complex.
With this phased approach, the downtown library’s services would not be interrupted – allowing our staff to move library resources from their existing building directly into the new building once it is constructed. In addition, Story Park would remain for the time being and wouldn’t be affected until the third phase of the project. To me, this continuation of services and greenspace is an important part of the proposal.
Now that we have reviewed the proposal, we are again asking for the community’s feedback. We will be hosting two public meetings to discuss Zimmer’s redevelopment proposal on February 19 and 21 (details can be found here). We also have an online survey where the community can submit comments about the proposal and ask questions.
We are completing an outside financial analysis of the proposal now, and then we will take that information – along with the public input we receive – to our Board of Commissioners this Spring to determine next steps.
The question now is: do we invest in older facilities that are separate or do we invest in new facilities that are co-located?
As county manager, I am compelled to think that Project Grace is a way for New Hanover County to leverage a public-private partnership and build for the future. It is an opportunity to create synergy among our Public Library and Cape Fear Museum, increase services and learning opportunities for our residents and visitors, and provide greater economic impact for New Hanover County.
I hope you will take a look at the preliminary development proposal, share your feedback with us, and join me in envisioning the possibilities that Project Grace can have on our community.