WILMINGTON — Tackling the conservation of Eagles Island is no small feat, but one Unique Places to Save remains confident it can handle it. The nonprofit has been around for 10 years and features entrepreneurs and experts in a variety of fields — real estate, investment, science, business, chemical engineering. It focuses on the merging of environmental efforts, public space and financial reward.
The team has a large task ahead of it: raising $16 million, through grants and from public and private donations, by the end of the year in order to save a large swath of land along the Cape Fear River currently threatened by developers.
If accomplished, it will conserve 83 acres on Eagle’s Island. Even though the money isn’t secured, the land is under contract, with a $100,000 down payment from the nonprofit. If the money doesn’t come through, the land will convert back to real estate company Diamondback Development, which will work with resort builder Bobby Ginn to construct Wilmington Hotel and Spa.
The deal was announced by Unique Places to Save (UP2S) on Monday after the nonprofit applied to acquire the land. Ecological restoration and park development will follow thereafter, but control of the property is needed before any other work can continue.
UP2S science director Christine Pickens said her entrepreneurial-minded colleagues are all “experts in their fields” with a shared mission to preserve the environment and create community spaces.
“This is kind of a dream project because of the incredible conservation value and excellent wetland habitat on site,” Pickens explained. “That’s worth preserving in and of itself.”
Diamondback co-owner Jay Shott confirmed this is a new concept for his company, which has never entered into a deal similar before.
“We decided through lots of conversations to say, ‘Alright, well, if the people want to conserve it, this is the opportunity we’ll give a chance,’” he said.
READ MORE: River Barons of the Cape Fear
Efforts on Eagles Island
UP2S is an innovative operation. With its varied staff and public-private strategy to ecological efforts, it received its 501(c)(3) status in 2012. Prior, it acted on “hyper-local issues,” as a state nonprofit, according to conservation director Michael Scisco. He founded the organization along with board chair Jeff Fisher, both of whom worked in conservation for decades.
“We wanted to create an organization that was more entrepreneurial and seized opportunities with a more ‘business’ approach, as opposed to a traditional nonprofit approach,” Scisco explained.
Fisher also owns a portion of the wetlands on Eagles Island under Wilmington Unique Places LLC (separate from UP2S). According to Brunswick County property records, it amounts to two parcels totaling 40 acres directly adjacent to Diamondback’s land.
A Wilmington native, Fisher was familiar with Eagles Island prior to his purchase of neighboring land four years ago. He’s been advocating for its conservation since.
Unique Places to Save first got involved with Eagle’s Island when it was awarded funding through the Kerr McGhee Chemical Corp. settlement in 2009. The money, paid out to remediate land polluted from the creosote site, is controlled by the Natural Resource Trust Council, made up of NOAA, Fish and Wildlife and the N.C. Department of Cultural and Natural Resources.
The Multistate Trust handling the settlement funds opened up grant opportunities to interested parties. Unique Places to Save submitted a proposal, in partnership with the New Hanover County Soil and Water Conservation District. They received $2.6 million for the restoration of Alligator Creek, a project currently underway.
If the Eagles Island efforts fall through, all donations received for the Wilmington campaign will be diverted to the Alligator Creek undertaking.
Located off Highway 17 in Brunswick County, the waterway cuts through Eagles Island and has been filled in over the years from trucks using the route to access a dredge disposal facility. The disposal site cut off a hydrological point.
UP2S is working to restore the creek and create a benthic — lowest level of a body of water — habitat. This would establish a home for native species.
The 83 acres Diamondback owns is located less than a mile from Alligator Creek.
The current deal
A few of the six UP2S board members approached Diamondback owners about the 83 acres in early 2022, Scisco explained.
“[We] showed them both the financial and environmental benefits of conservation,” he said.
The financial benefits associated, according to Scisco, are not having to go through years of costs analysis, stress and efforts, including with government and environmental engineers, required to develop the site.
The acreage is valued at roughly $26 million. Diamondback would get a tax break on the price difference of $16 million for the UP2S sale price.
Landowners and municipalities partner with Unique Places Conservation, a nonprofit arm of UP2S, to retain a return on investment for restoring natural systems. UP2S works with the mitigation banking industry, Scisco explained, so “landowners restore degraded streams, wetlands and species habitat and receive ‘credits’ for doing so.”
Credits are then bought by developers that otherwise would destroy natural habitats and instead turn their investments toward efforts to offset environmental harm.
Current landowner Shott said the financial payoff will be about the same whether Diamondback sells the land for conservation or development.
The company originally planned to construct a single-family residential neighborhood on roughly 18 acres it acquired in 2016, but through feedback from municipalities, and with the district being a mixed-use riverfront, it decided to switch gears.
Diamondback purchased the surrounding 60-plus acres within two years.
Shott said so far UP2S has impressed him.
“They seem to be very competent and know what they’re doing,” he said. “They’ve put down hard money; it’s just dependent on whether the public wants this to happen or not.”
The board is savvy to how start-ups and “cutting edge” ideas succeed, Scisco said.
“Our small organization has accomplished a lot in the past 10 years, and we could have only done that with staff and board who think outside the box and beyond what most others see.”
For example, Unique Places to Save’s flagship program, NatureXR, is a digital platform that creates virtual reality representations of nature. It develops biologically accurate nature assets in coordination with biologists and botanists, to be used for education and research. Its most notable example is a representation of a longleaf pine and ecosystem, demonstrating a controlled burn and how it will impact the environmental surroundings.
While bridging the gap between nature and technology is a focus, land stewardship is the nonprofit’s main driver. It works in a three-pronged approach, by buying land to ensure ecological resilience, restoring natural habitats, and partnering with communities to create public spaces, like parks and education and historic centers.
UP2S currently upholds 50 conservation easements over 5,429 acres and more than 100 miles of streams. Projects are underway nationwide, from Nevada to Texas, Ohio to Tennessee to South Carolina, with the bulk across North Carolina.
According to Scisco, its stewardship endowment, having drawn in over $2.3 million in just five years, is a “much larger effort” than fundraising for one project.
“Yes, raising $16 million is a big deal, but we will either be successful or not and it will be over,” he explained. “Our conservation program is a perpetual responsibility and grows significantly every year.”
But “money isn’t everything,” he added. The 10-person team is responsible for continual monitoring of 50-plus properties and has over 20 projects currently in development.
During a Friday meeting with the Eagles Force Central Park Task Force, Pickens said UP2S submitted a $12-million grant proposal to the N.C. Land and Water Fund’s acquisition program. If awarded, it would put the group 75% closer to its $16 million fundraising goal.
UP2S is also applying to the N.C. Land and Water Fund’s flood risk reduction program, as well as pursuing additional financing opportunities from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
It plans to reach out to the New Hanover Community Endowment to secure further funds and has launched a capital campaign, with assistance from hired firm CapDev, to source private funds and donations.
So far the group has received about 23 donations in the last three days, totaling $3,000.
Memberships are also available for purchase, with funds going toward the project.
Pickens called the UP2S team “eternal optimists” with strong ambitions. To see through the Wilmington project, it first has to hire an executive director by Aug. 1 — salaried $80,000 to $100,000 out of UP2S’s annual operating budget of $1 million in 2023. Pickens said the director will “make it shine” and be required to fundraise for Eagles Island during the first four months on the job, in order to meet its end-of-year deadline for the land acquisition.
The Eagles Island Task Force — a diverse Cape Fear community group that started in 2020 with a shared vision to establish the island as a nature park — has already developed an extensive “vision” for the area. It includes recreational assets, such as trails, kayaking and birding opportunities. Pickens said her team will incorporate their ideas.
Flooding resilience is also high on the priority list. In 2020 alone, the N.C. Battleship site, located just north of Eagles Island, recorded 174 flood events, according to Pickens. Studies show Wilmington deals with the highest amount of “sunny day flooding” on the entire East Coast.
Protecting wetlands will help reduce flooding by absorbing water and then releasing it slowly.
Pickens said they also want to preserve the rich history of Eagles Island. Nearly 300 years ago, until the early 1900s, the land was fertile with rice and indigo crops and is steeped in Gullah Geechee heritage.
“You can still see the historic rice farming canals on the northside of the island,” Pickens explained. “It’s important to tell that story.”
In its final phase of educational outreach, proposals show the park would recognize the Gullah Geechee culture and also hone in on the shipbuilding history of the area.
Yet, UP2S does not intend to be the primary landowners forever. Its goal after preserving the land and building a public park is to turn ownership over to the county or state. But no plans have been fleshed out in this regard.
First, it needs $15.9 million more to make any of it happen.
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