WILMINGTON — Meadowlark Lemon Memorial Bridge has illuminated the Northside of downtown Wilmington for a week now. Red, white and blue lights representing the Harlem Globetrotters — for which Lemon played for more than 20 years — have been shining bright, along with a rainbow of other colors. The bridge, located on Third Street between the WAVE Transit station and Wilson Center, lights up nightly around dusk.
It’s the first installation to color a part of the Wilmington Rail Trail — a 2-mile, six-block corridor of the old Atlantic Coast Line rail bed slated to become a linear park. It will feature greenway space and public art for visitors to enjoy as they run, walk or bike-ride from McRae to 3rd streets. The trail will go through the underpass of the Meadowlark Lemon Bridge and eventually connect to the Riverwalk, with a long-term goal of bringing back a passenger railroad.
In January, council passed the trail’s master plan, overseen by Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (WMPO), the Arts Council of Wilmington, Friends of Wilmington Rail Trail, and New Hanover County. WMPO is culling estimates now for its design and engineering study needed for federal funding, according to arts council executive director Rhonda Bellamy. The Wilmington Rail Trail is estimated to cost $5.4 million.
Bellamy told Port City Daily in January, the trail will represent the local and historical culture of the area: “I envision the Northside’s rich history as a great source of inspiration for artistic interpretation [along the trail]. Examples include the history of the Atlantic Coast Line railroad itself, the once-thriving business district, and Northside luminaries, like the late Meadowlark Lemon.”
Originally from Wilmington, Lemon died in 2015. The N.C. Department of Transportation completed the $4,433,584.74 replacement of the 100-year-old Third Street bridge between Hanover and Campbell streets in 2016. It was dedicated in Lemon’s honor in 2019.
The City of Wilmington funded the light installation for $481,244, according to city spokesperson Jennifer Dandron. More than $350,000 was budgeted from the N.C. Department of Transportation’s bridge enhancements.
“Council appropriated the remaining $175,000 to the lighting in 2020,” Dandron said.
Harber Contracting Inc, Skyline Arts LLC and Allen Peterson Electric LLC began the installation of lights on Apr. 5, and completed the project a week later, just in time for what would have been Lemon’s 89th birthday on Apr. 25.
The light installation falls in line with the Wilmington Rail Trail’s goal to create one-of-a-kind spaces to showcase art and foster an economy driven by the arts, which, according to the 2015 Economic Impact of the Nonprofit Arts and Culture Industry in New Hanover County, contributes 2,076 jobs and $55.8 million annually. The rail trail will commission artists to showcase work along the trail, much like Charlotte’s I Heart Rail Trail.
Though the arts council has been installing sculptures across the downtown area as part of its Pedestrian Art program and even at ILM, the Wilmington Rail Trail will amplify reach on murals, sculptures and other installations outdoors. The city is even updating its land development code (LDC) to explicitly address murals, according to Dandron. Before, the outside art displays were approved under the city’s sign code and have been regulated to take up around 20% of a building’s outdoor wall space.
“[It] will help alleviate any confusion or ambiguity,” Dandron said of addressing murals in the revised LDC. “Previously, murals were undefined and largely unaddressed, which led to issues in interpretation.”
According to a release the city sent out last week, the Third Street bridge light installation is “a key gateway for current and emerging arts districts in the heart of downtown.” The city had been toying with the idea since the 2013 N. Third Streetscape Project, which allowed resident input on enhancing downtown.
“The idea came from having seen decorative lighting used in other cities,” Dandron said.
She added the city and WMPO board were supportive of a request to light the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge back in 2006. Ten years later in 2016, they were reviewing potential installation options during a demonstration project.
“When NCDOT agreed to fund bridge enhancements, the opportunity presented itself to do something unique and to further set apart Wilmington,” Dandron said.
The lights will be used to celebrate annual holidays, like Independence Day, and commemorate specialized months. For instance, Dandron noted, the bridge could be lit pink for October’s Breast Cancer Awareness month.
There may even be a chance for the public to request light colors for an event of their own. Yet, that won’t come until the city thoroughly has worked through policies and developed the process a little further, Dandron confirmed.
“These decorative lights will enhance downtown and contribute to creating a shared sense of place among residents and visitors,” she said.
The bridge is lit from dusk to 2 a.m., before going white until 5 a.m., and switching back to its programmed colors from 5 a.m. to sunrise.
“The lighting of the Meadowlark Lemon Bridge will be a significant landmark for the Wilmington Rail Trail,” Bellamy wrote to Port City Daily Tuesday. “As we seek to develop the half-mile site into a pedestrian plaza, the bridge and its colorful lighting is a beacon foretelling all the arts available on the Northside and in the central business district.”
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