Last week demolition began on the Water Street Parking Deck. It signals about three years of construction in our area. Though I have long-dreaded this as a business owner, I realize we are not the only place impacted by the project; just take a look at the other construction happening downtown.
The 200 block of Princess Street has been a corridor of renovation and construction for the past few years. Amy Grant, owner of Art in Bloom Gallery at 210 Princess, was kind enough to share some of her experiences purchasing and renovating a building downtown and trying to keep a retail space open throughout ongoing construction. It is not an easy process, as she reveals.
encore (e): When did Art In Bloom open?
Amy Grant (AG): The gallery opened officially on Oct. 2, 2015. I started it to fulfill a lifelong dream of presenting original art in an inviting space where all of the arts might converge: visual, performing, film, theater, music, literary, culinary, etc. I imagined a place where any original art and opinion about art would be welcome—traditional, abstract and experimental. The art and space would encourage people to have conversations and exchange ideas, even though people may not like the same works. I believe art has the power to help people think for themselves and respect other points of view.
My mother was a wonderful artist who encouraged me to explore all types of art. I took classes from elementary school through college. Instead of art, I chose science as a career and worked in the biopharmaceutical industry for over 25 years. After a corporate buy-out, I decided to be my own boss, move to Wilmington, and open the gallery instead of waiting until I reached retirement age.
e: Why did you choose downtown Wilmington?
AG: During my career as a scientist, my company would send me to other countries and parts of the US. During weekends, I would visit galleries, museums and artists’ studios wherever I traveled. Since 1996 I scouted many locations to open a gallery. As a test, I opened a small one in partnership with a nonprofit organization near Philadelphia from 2006 to 2009. I lived in Pennsylvania and was getting tired of the cold and snowy winters. I narrowed my search to a few places in the southeastern US.
In 2012, I spent my vacation in Wilmington, walking around and talking with people for a week. Downtown offered a walkable community where I could find an affordable place to live and work a few blocks away. Eventually, I was able to purchase an historic building and renovate it within my budget. The Downtown Business Alliance (DBA), Arts Council of Wilmington and NHC, other organizations, and individuals gave me practical advice and encouragement. I especially love the ocean, river and light in Wilmington. I also wanted to be closer to family in North Carolina.
e: You renovated the building you are in, yes? Share with us the process (timeline, necessary work, etc.).
AG: I found the request for proposal (RFP) and bid process very helpful and educational. I received four bids to renovate the building.
Thanks to the teamwork and vast experience of architect Clark Hipp and builder Dave Nathans of Urban Building Company, the renovation started in February of 2015 and was completed in September of 2015. The courtyard in the back was renovated and completed in April 2016, and includes a sculpted-metal gate by local artist Dumay Gorham III. Ballast stones were found under the dirt during the renovation of the front part of the building, and were incorporated into the new brick wall and bench in the courtyard. My architect and builder had over 30 years experience with the city, county, supply companies, etc. The plans and execution were based upon understanding all regulations, good working relationships, and previous successful renovations.
The building at 210 Princess was one of a few free-standing buildings left from the turn of the century. So it has small alley ways on either side. We do not share common walls with our neighbors. However, when a new roof was installed at 210 Princess, we worked with our neighbors on their drainage systems, so the water from our neighbors’ roof tops would flow toward the back of our building instead of into the alleyways and the areas of the roof where previous leaks were evident. We are fortunate all three of our buildings (in a row) use the same roofing company. So, rerouting the drainage systems was straightforward.
For the art gallery, I asked the architect and builder to open up as much space as possible and restore the building to its bones. All interior walls and layers of drop ceilings, walls and floors were removed to reveal a great structure, including the original brick, lintel and heart-pine ceiling of 1910. We left cutouts in the drywall to display the old barn walls circa 1858-1891. The Quinlivan family (four generations of farriers) kept the old barn walls when they built brick walls in 1910.
Moisture problems in the 100-plus-year-old floor were eliminated by removing the rotten wood and using ready-mix concrete for the new floor.
e: Tell us a little about the construction happening on your block. How many buildings—projected timeline?
AG: Currently, about five historical buildings are actively under construction on the 200 block of Princess (206-208 Princess St., 213 Princess St., 222 Princess St., 226 Princess St., and the Wallace Building at the corner of 3rd and Princess). I believe most projects will be completed by fall 2018 at the latest.
Between 2015 and 2017, there were about six building renovations completed. Renovations were completed on 215, 216 and 218 Princess in 2017. From 2015 to 2016, renovations were completed on the buildings damaged by fire at 202 Princess (the former Mugsy’s Pub, now Bespoke Coffee) and 204 Princess (Port City Cheesesteak Company). We also had the construction completed of a new BB&T building in 2016.
e: What is your plan to survive all the construction?
AG: The gallery team and I take a long-term view, remembering construction is an investment in an improved 200 block of Princess. We find other ways of marketing our business during the temporary disruptions due to construction. For example, at Art in Bloom, we asked for and received permission from the owner of the Pythian Building next door, 208-206 Princess, to paint a mural on the wooden construction wall that covers the front of the building. Our artists volunteered to paint the mural and did a wonderful job and helped children join in on the painting. We had fun, and the mural brightens the neighborhood. I often see people taking pictures in front of it.
We have expanded the number of locations we exhibit and sell art, too. For example, we had our first traveling exhibit in Southern Pines, NC, in October. We partner with several local restaurants to exhibit and sell art (The District, Platypus and Gnome, Pinpoint Restaurant).
We continue to partner with others in the community to look past the construction, and focus on the gallery and the vitality of the 200 block of Princess. For example, head archaeologist, Jon Schleier of Public Archaeology Corps (a nonprofit organization) held a fundraiser at the gallery. The Public Archaeology Corps aims to conduct archaeology on privately-owned land with help from the public. Jon and his volunteers conducted several archaeology digs at 206-208 Princess at the Pythian Building. Many people stopped by to see the dig and discovered artifacts. These people often visited us next door. We displayed some of the artifacts found during the renovation at 210 Princess, too.
Since people have a difficult time finding our business and/or parking, we make an extra effort to explain the location of nearby parking decks and communicate with our customers. We are hosting more special events and inviting people who love the art and know the artists, so people make an extra effort to visit the gallery. People who visit tend to bring friends and family to the gallery.
I believe good communication is also important between our business and the construction crews, too. It is important to ask questions and not assume anything if we see the yellow caution tape or see people working on the sidewalk. It could be a city or county project related to infrastructure instead of something related only to construction.
We support the construction crew and realize their work is very difficult. I believe the more support they have, the more efficient the project, and ability to complete the work on time. For example, it could mean offering the construction crew cold water to drink on a hot day, and showing respect and appreciation in other ways.
e: What do you hope the eventual outcome is?
AG: I hope our businesses and community will be stronger due to investment in preserving our historic buildings and improvements in infrastructure. We will have owners, government, architects, builders, and others who want to build structures that last with great design and high-quality materials.
e: How can the community support you during this?
AG: Visit the gallery and help us tell others the 200 block of Princess is open for business with many new businesses. The construction is temporary, and the result will be outstanding in the long-term.
We have two parking decks located within sight of the gallery: Second Street Deck and Market Street Deck (first hour is free, $1 an hour after, $8 maximum charge).
Metered spaces are free after 6:30 p.m. downtown and after 5 p.m. on 3rd Street, and are free on holidays observed by the City of Wilmington.