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“When I started looking around [downtown] and seeing things that were just being completed, already under construction or being announced, I got to a total of just about $208 million worth of projects,”  Ed Wolverton, CEO of Wilmington Downtown, Inc. (WDI), says grinning. After less than a year holding the job, that comes as great news to share.

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Ed Wolverton discusses downtown growth. Photo, courtesy Wilmington Downtown, Inc.

He is quick to point out his arrival eight months ago coincided with an improvement in our regional economy and banks increasing a willingness to invest. Still, $208 million is quite a significant number. Wolverton attributes the economic growth to newly (or soon-to-be) completed projects: Marriot Courtyard, City Block Apartments, CFCC’s Humanities and Fine Arts Center, the Convention Center hotel, Hotel Indigo, Pier 33, Sawmill Point, and the list goes on. That’s a lot of people working downtown to get these projects built. Hopefully, once finished it will be even more compelling to live, visit, and spend downtown “A million [dollars] here, a million there—and it’s an impressive number,” Wolverton agrees.

What will it mean when those projects are completed? What does that investment look like? Wolverton aims for a larger trend toward tourism for downtown.

“There’s convention business out there that we need to be perusing in a better way,” he points out. He informed that outside of the beaches, ou riverwalk is one of the major draws of the area.Connie Nelson, PR director at the Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau, elaborates.

“Based on surveys,  it has been identified as one of our two key ‘attractors’ for the destination,” she says. She defines an “attractor” as “an asset that, on its own, has the ability to inspire someone to travel to a destination, regardless of what else the destination has to offer.”  

Per the visitor bureau’s measurements (that’s what they do: measure things), the Riverwalk doesn’t stand as the only main attractor. “Our two key attractors are our historic riverfront town (which includes the Wilmington Riverwalk) and our island beaches,” she says. “Thus, much of our marketing is centered around the riverfront and our three island beaches.” 

After a little discussion with some friends, one person pointed out the “A River Runs Through It” edition of Southbound Magazine out of Atlanta from earlier in the year. It included Wilmington in its roundup of riverfront towns to visit.  

The riverwalk can be utilized in many ways. It’s a wedding destination, not to mention a locations hotspot for film and television (“Dawson’s Creek,” “One Tree Hill,” “Matlock,” “A Walk to Remember,” and “Empire Records,” to name but a few). There’s no denying it that everywhere we turn in Wilmington, film money is spreading through our economy. And, of course, filming downtown has greatly contributed to not only businesses’ survival in the short-term (rentals, prop purchases), but also the long-term. We get investment from tourists and even the creation of new business, like the Hollywood Location Walking Tour. 

There are many issues facing downtown, but that proves no different from any other main-street area in the country. There must be an ongoing discussion about what is happening now and what the future will hold. Of many issues on the table, there are two that seem to be capturing most attention. One discussion addresses the redevelopment of the parking-deck site. 

While Wolverton was in Greensboro with Downtown Greensboro Inc, he was involved with the development of the Center City Park. It is not an identical project to ours, but it holds similarities. One key difference between the two projects is the Center City Park is privately owned, but publically available. Conversely, if the parking-deck site were redeveloped as a park (one possibility on the table), it would be publically owned. As it looks now, it would have to be privately managed. 

“A key difference between Greensboro and here, in terms of that kind of park development, is that there was a definite intention of the park also being an economic development engine,” Wolverton elaborates. “In this case, there is not much of an opportunity to do that.”  

The development and management of the Center City Park relied heavily on a Municipal Service District (MSD) in Greensboro.  “[It] is essentially a special tax on downtown businesses and property owners to pay for extra services,” he states. 

Wilmington had a failed effort to pass a MSD, one led by WDI before Wolverton was hired. (FYI: I was an opponent; my major opposition being that it was presented to us as a frait accompli). Such project leaders need to interact with stake holders to make them feel involved. Wolverton is doing just that. 

“It officially started last night,” he tells, referring to a city council meeting. “We actually asked for some additional funding to do this evaluation and the council has approved that.”

Wolverton agrees there has to be significant community input, especially form the merchants and property owners. “We do have to understand that the merchants and property owners are ultimately paying for this,” he continues. “Now, they may say, ‘We don’t want it. We don’t need it.’ … I understand that’s a potential outcome.” 

Wolverton stresses that he wants to spend time talking with everyone to really hear what it is they want and need. In his short time here, he has directed a lot of energy to getting to know his new community, and surveying residents, property owners, and downtown patrons about their experiences, desires and visions for our community. (It’s probably most visible through the extensive surveys that WDI conducted earlier this year.) Though it was great that Wolverton wanted to learn more about the community he moved to, it’s even more refreshing that he takes active interest in hearing from the people that he has been brought here to serve. He mentions the Downtown Sundown Concert Series’ tremendous amount of support, according to the survey. It accomplishes its purpose of bringing folks downtown to walk around, get food, visit shops, and feel at home in Wilmington. 

Two years ago one of my neighbors on Front Street observed downtown’s revitalization, and if we compare it to the Front Street of my childhood, he is right. As a downtown property owner, my neighbor pondered the future of downtown. It’s good food for thought. We have a community that is involved in this conversation, and more importantly a voice at WDI stimulatating discussions. That’s an aspect of leadership we should recognize as valuable.

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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