ON THE RISE: DOWNTOWN ILM’S ONGOING REVITALIZATION EFFORTS VISIBLY PROGRESS

Aug 12 • FEATURE MAIN, News, NEWS & VIEWSNo Comments on ON THE RISE: DOWNTOWN ILM’S ONGOING REVITALIZATION EFFORTS VISIBLY PROGRESS

Wilmington has evolved exponentially in the last 40 years; its current urban redesign and updates make it almost unrecognizable. Commerce left our cobblestone streets in the 1960s and moved to the suburbs. Since, locals have seen its transformation from a rather “promiscuous” business district in the ‘70s, to many boarded-up Front Street businesses in the ‘80s, to visible renovations trickling in through the ‘90s, to today’s updated riverwalk and thriving mix-business use pumping blood into Wilmington’s economic resiliency. In 2007 the Milken Institute even ranked us number two in the nation for projected job growth. It’s no shock to see people flock here because of the combination of a beautiful historic district, amazing beaches, well-ranked colleges, and of course a booming film industry (here’s to hoping the latter sticks around).

BUILDING A FUTURE: Cape Fear Community College’s Humanities and Fine Arts Center is slated to open in the fall of 2015. Photo by Christian Podgaysky

BUILDING A FUTURE: Cape Fear Community College’s Humanities and Fine Arts Center is slated to open in the fall of 2015. Photo by Christian Podgaysky

Anyone who has lived here for the past 20 years will have seen firsthand Front, Water, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd street change vastly, the outer areas of downtown—its quaint boroughs of the Castle Street Antique and Arts District and Brooklyn Arts District—now are catching up with its revitalization. On the rise are new businesses and apartment complexes and condos to help redevelop areas that reach beyond the central business district. It seems we’re finally seeing a great deal of the City of Wilmington’s Vision 2020 coming to fruition, as the plan “seeks to more fully connect downtown Wilmington and the Cape Fear River to achieve the vision of a waterfront downtown that is an inviting mixed-use destination, vital for living, working, learning, visiting, and playing,” all by the year 2020. 

NORTHSIDE/BROOKLYN ARTS DISTRICT

“For years the Northside/Brooklyn Arts District has been slowly getting the attention of developers, businesses and home buyers, but there has been a marked increase in the last year,” says Allister Snyder, who founded the Brooklyn Arts District Community Organization (BADCO) and will open a café, Detour Deli, on Red Cross Street in coming months. 

Only blocks from downtown and the river—including a soon-to-be fully functional marina, to house a boutique, hotel and fine-dining restaurant—Northside/BAD, or NOFO as it was once coined, most certainly will hustle with more traffic. Just over the last six months the area has welcomed a new restaurant, bar, hair salon, fitness studio, and computer store. Why now? Well, as the saying goes: It’s a buyer’s market currently, and anyone looking to invest in downtown properties will find prices of commercial and residential spaces cheaper in its boroughs than on Front, or even off the central business district’s side streets. Canapé owner and colonel surgeon in the US Army Ron Rene appreciates having bought 1001 N. 4th Street at the right time just a year ago. 

“This area, with much planned development, holds the key to the future of downtown,” he states. “It is the SOHO of Wilmington. Being from NYC myself, and graduating from NYU in Greenwich Village, I know what that means. I see the BAD area as a jewel in the crown of Wilmington.”

The Brooklyn Arts Center opening in 2011 really put the ball in motion for others to move in on the street. Hair Slayer, Half United, Wilmington Computer Repair, and Brooklyn 723 joined other businesses like the Goat and Compass and Eventful on the 4th Street thoroughfare. In a matter of months they’ll have even more neighbors, like the new craft beer and wine store, Palate, as well City Block Apartments, Folk’s Café, and Tin & Oak furniture. Because of the influx of growth, Snyder wanted to take an active role in his neighborhood’s quick expansion—something he already began last year by placing “free libraries” throughout the Northside. Folks can take books out of individual boxes, as well as donate books back, all in an effort to promote literacy and keep its residents actively engaged. Likewise, Snyder wants to see a dog park, an arts fair and beautification implemented to help foster a lively sense of community and activity. A mural painted on the exterior of the Hemenway Community Center and an update to the façade of the NC Department of Transportation property at 4th and Campbell are only a few inspired ideas.

“We are working on community gardens and getting bike racks along N. 4th and Red Cross streets,” he says. “We have initiated the neighborhood association to enhance our living in the Northside, and to attract businesses and developments that will improve our lives even further. If there is a place for a grocery store downtown, it is here. There is a lot of potential, and those that have already started investing, along with those soon to come, are going to benefit from getting in near the beginning.”

Allister enlisted the help of BAD resident Nina Bays-Cournoyer and Flytrap Brewing owner Mike Barlas to help oversee sectors of BADCO. Barlas, along with Tony Miller, lead the Community Improvement Committee, which has initiated neighborhood cleanups. Bays-Cournoyer has lived in the district since 2008 and already helped upstart events, like 12 Tastes of Christmas, the Poor Man’s Garden Party and local yoga/wine nights. 

“My first goal with the committee is to create a Northside Art Walk that will tie in the galleries on our side of town,” she says. Stops would include 621N4TH, ACME Art Studios, SALT Studios, and Cape Fear Community College’s Wilma Daniels Gallery, located one block over on Hanover Street. Bays-Cournoyer wants to bring local businesses and patrons together for an afternoon of experimental arts and vendor specials.

“The stops would expand beyond the visual arts to themed culinary and beverage experiences, from places like Canapé, Folks, Flytrap, and the upcoming Palate, [and include] musical acts [hosted at local record shop] SquidCo and [neighborhood bar] Goat & Compass, to parlor games held at the Brooklyn Arts Center, and projecting short films on the exterior wall of Brooklyn 723.” 

Mainly, she wants the walk to be all-inclusive—even with businesses not normally associated with the arts. She envisions spots like Rip-X Fit and Eco Chic Blossoms offering classes in salsa dancing or flower-arranging. 

“Hopefully, this will turn into its own regular happening or even a larger festival,” Bays-Cournoyer foretells. “Some of the local businesses are already taking advantage of our arts status.”

Brooklyn Arts Center frequently hosts concerts, like the sold-out Art Garfunkel in July, and SALT and 621NTH welcome cutting edge artists. “Canapé has done a great job drawing people with its art/music shows,” Bays-Cournoyer says. “With the growth spurt that’s happening, the Brooklyn Arts District finally can be a destination point where people can spend an entire evening: have dinner, see a show, hear some music, get a cocktail.”

A BEACON OF ARTS, ENTERTAINMENT AND EDUCATION

Within a stone’s throw of the Brooklyn Arts District, Cape Fear Community College’s Humanities and Fine Arts Center will open in the fall of 2015. Headed by Shane Fernando—who graduated and worked at UNCW for almost a decade before resigning from his position as director of Campus Life Arts and Programs in the spring—the inaugural season will launch around 80 events.

Having been involved with over 150 theatre productions himself, as well as serving on the board of Thalian Hall (which caps out at 600 seats), and programming visual and performing arts shows at UNCW (Kenan Auditorium seats 1,000), Fernando’s booking talent runs deep. He currently serves on the NC Presenters Consortium, which encourages partnerships between venues, artists, and presenters. They ensure block-booking helps route artists across our state to various regional venues. As well, Fernando will work in tandem with Thalian Hall’s executive director, Tony Rivenbark, as a progammer to see that the two venues closely coordinate, partner and collaborate effectively on what audiences will see. “Having the two venues will give me extra negotiating muscle with artists and agents,” Fernando states. The born-and-bred Wilmingtonian will work with Durham Performing Arts Center (DPAC), too, which has welcomed legendary greats like Neil Young, Broadway touring shows like “The Book of Mormon” and even comedians like Joan Rivers. 

“The bookings will be of a larger caliber, given the scale of the facility and the stage technology that will be present.” Fernando says about the 1,500-plus seat performance hall. The center takes up an entire city block of downtown, covering 159,000 square feet bordered by N. 3rd Street, N. 2nd Street, Hanover and Brunswick streets. It will contain three levels—an orchestra, grand tier, and balcony.

“The lobby is over 10,000 square feet and will serve as a wonderful gathering place for our patrons, along with a large central courtyard, which will be available for receptions and other events,” Fernando says. 

Accordingly, it will host shows by local theatre companies, promoters and nonprofits. Various arts organizations, schools and businesses have contacted Fernando already. Plus, CFCC will host its own internal arts programming, as well as book its 150-seat studio theatre. It also features a drama lab, complete with sprung flooring for dancers. The building will be a beacon of arts education for its students.

“It is going to substantially bolster CFCC’s academic mission through the state-of-the-art performance spaces, labs, classrooms, and studios,” Fernando explains. “I am so excited, as is my partner in this project, Brandon Guthrie, the chair of the academic department of the Humanities and Fine Arts. This space will give our faculty incredible teaching tools, and our students an incredible environment to learn and gain real-world experience. This project is a game-changer for our region.”

Students in visual arts, communications, drama, foreign languages, humanities and film studies, music, philosophy, and religion will have access to the facility through their studies. Not only will it boost the educational and entertainment reputation of our town, it will anchor further development in the BAD/Northside.

“You can already see the amazing growth occurring all around the facility,” Fernando says. “There are 1,100 housing units under construction [at City Block Apartments] all within a block radius of the new building. I firmly believe a necessity in revitalization is the establishment of residents in that area, so that a community can form—people who will not party and leave a place, not caring how they leave it, but people who call the area their home and will care for and take pride in their surroundings.”

More so, he sees CFCC’s newest addition a bonus to help in the shift of rebranding downtown’s arts and entertainment district. Thalian Hall situates itself on the end of 3rd, with Brooklyn Arts Center on 4th, the Wilmington Convention Center on Front and Nutt streets, City Stage/Level 5 on Front, and the Community Arts Center at Orange and 2nd, among innumerable art galleries, music venues, museums, and the Cape Fear Riverwalk scattered between. 

“It truly marks an exciting time for our residents and visitors,” Fernando notes. “Overseeing this project has been such a blessing and challenge, and I love it! My colleagues at CFCC are phenomenal . . . [we] are wholly committed that this new center be a source of great pride for our region.”  

SOUTHSIDE/CASTLE STREET ANTIQUE AND ARTS DISTRICT

On the Southside of town, Jamie Thomasson, owner of Jester’s Café and Urban Revival, has been in the Castle Street Antique and Arts District for a decade now. Thomasson and current merchants are looking to start the Castle Street Business Alliance. Part of their mission is to change the perception folks have about Castle Street.

“I think certainly the biggest misconception is the safety issue,” he says of the once bustling shopping district from the ‘50s and ‘60s. “As owner of Jester’s, I have been on the street for over 10 years and haven’t experienced any problems. . . . I am on the street from morning until night and have never feared for my customers’ safety.”

Thomasson and area merchants meet frequently to discuss ideas about keeping folks abreast of Castle Street’s constant evolution. Nearby at 721 Surry Street, Waterline Brewing Co. is scouting the Jacobi Hardware building to set up shop under the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. It will help foster more visitors to the street. “Also, a couple of different craft brewers are looking at the street but waiting for zoning decisions,” Thomasson adds.

The addition of craft breweries are sure to bring greater economic viability to Wilmington as a whole. The Brewers Association revealed that NC brought in $791 million in 2012, putting the state at No. 14 nationally. Matthew Shepard, partner in Era Gallery on Castle and Third streets, thinks a broadening of entrepreneurial enterprises will only add to what he refers as “The New Downtown.” “The diversity [on Castle Street] is just one of the many things that makes this area so special,” he says.

Entertainment comes in many forms already, thanks to in-store concerts often held at Gravity Records, theatre productions at Big Dawg Productions, Vinyl Wednesdays at Wilmington Wine, dining at Rx Restaurant, and art shows at Era. 

The merchants were holding a Peddler’s Market the first and third Saturdays of the month from April to November in the vacant lots in the 500 block of Castle Street. Yet, they were blocked by the city at the end of July. The city indicated they weren’t following land development codes to hold special sales on commercial properties. Michael Moore of Michael Moore Antiques sent a request to the city council to change the rules, citing the inability for such guidelines to help revitalize this borough. Despite the red tape, Thomasson says they’re wanting to continue bringing events to their district in some form.

“Chrissy Absi from Wilmington Wine is heading up the events committee,” he notes. “Plans are to schedule a major community event every quarter with an emphasis on promoting a community nonprofit.”

Matt Keen, owner of Gravity Records, already does fundraising events for the Tileston Outreach at St. Mary’s Catholic School, located around the corner on 5th Street. He and his wife, Lindsey Zimecki, moved Gravity to Castle Street in January 2013 from Kerr Avenue because they wanted their record shop to be a part of a community-minded group of entrepreneurs and neighborhood residents. They also suspected the widening of midtown’s Kerr Avenue in coming years to hinder customer access to the shop, whereas Castle Street’s close-knit businesses offer multiple reasons for people to trek by foot among its many storefronts.   

“I think Castle Street is slowly but surely growing with much more to offer than just the antiques that it was once known for,” Keen says. “If we can continue to gain new, like-minded businesses with unique offerings that are willing to be involved in the neighboring community, then Castle Street should attract plenty more foot traffic.”

All that’s needed moving forward is the city’s support. Keen hopes the city will perform regular maintenance on the street, as well as entertain the idea of better public transportation. Merchants agree that having a trolley run from downtown to Castle Street would help greatly in the constant attraction of tourists. Once there, folks can meander among Luna Coffee, Every Good Thing Artisan Gallery, Elsewhere Salon, Just Sew, Muddy Muse Pottery and Art Studios, Second Skin Vintage, Dan Beck Fine Art Gallery and Kids Making It, among others.

Area residents also are stepping up in helping keep the area attractive. “Homeowners have been working extremely hard on the blocks of Castle from Third to Seventh, renovating, landscaping, and creating a much more inviting space for people to come and visit,” Shepard says.

“The more that the local businesses on Castle reach out to the community and work together, Castle Street will become a more thriving hub for the shop-local movement at large,” Keen says. 

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