Monday, June 24, 2024

If approved, 5 local businesses out so Wawa can come in

The Samelin Center, home to four local businesses, will be demolished if plans for redeveloping the property to make way for a Wawa are approved. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — Jay Ruth, owner of Tinyz Tavern, has vowed to never open another mom-and-pop shop within city limits. He is one of five businesses being pushed out of their location to make way for a popular gas station on 17th Street.

The Wilmington Planning Commission approved a rezoning request 4-1 (commissioner Danny Adams dissenting and Winslow Goins recusing himself) this week that would allow a Wawa to be built on nearly 2.5 acres at 2402, 2406, and 2420 S. 17th streets, as well as 1608 Wellington Ave. It would redevelop an area of town with at least 60-year-old buildings.

READ MORE: Wawas in the works: Popular convenience store proposed in the Cape Fear

The Samelin Center, at 2402 S 17th St., along with adjacent buildings will be torn down to make way for the fuel pumps and a retail store serving up fast food. The strip of businesses has been home to Tinyz Tavern for 17 years, PT’s Grill for 20 years, a hair salon, and medical supply store for at least five. 

“It’s very frustrating to say the least,” Ruth told Port City Daily Friday. “You know the joke about the town: There’s nothing but gas stations, car washes and storage units now.”

ALSO: Why Wilmington is flooded with car washes and storage units, and what local government could do about it

Within a 2-mile radius from the proposed Wawa site, there are at least four other gas stations, with Sheetz on the way at Independence and Shipyard boulevards.

“It makes absolutely no sense to me why you need that many,” Ruth said. “There just seems to be no plans in place for the city, as far as diversity of business. They’re literally just rubber-stamping and moving through whatever major corporations come here.”

Wawa was founded in Pennsylvania and has been a Northeast staple for more than 50 years. Only last year did the chain announce it would be moving into Southern markets, including Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas. There are more than 900 stores nationwide. 

Ruth has a second Tinyz Tavern located on Gordon Road that will remain open. But rather than relocate his flagship bar in Wilmington, he’s moving across county lines and is in the process of building a new bar in Hampstead. Moving forward, Ruth said he’s looking at expansion into Brunswick County too.

“I’ve had enough of red tape and how hard they make business to operate here in the city,” Ruth said.

Joe Pate is the owner of PT’s Grill in the same building and said he plans to relocate but is not sure where yet.

“It’s an unfortunate situation for us in the Samelin Center,” Pate said. “I am moving forward and cannot focus on things I can’t control.”

Tenants in the strip mall were never contacted by their landlord, Tom Melin, who is also part owner of one of the businesses, Hensler Surgical. He is represented by property manager and real estate agent Laura Schauer.

Ruth said last September he saw a flier about the neighborhood public hearing — a requirement before submitting a rezoning to the city. It was at that meeting he learned the fate of the building. 

Wawa is requesting the properties be rezoned from office and institutional, assigned since the ‘90s, to conditional central business district. 

“I called my landlord right away,” Ruth said, after learning Melin was under contract with Wawa. “It really hurt us as far as a personal thing. We’ve done business with them for so long.”

Schauer said she was first made aware the property was under contract in August but was not allowed to inform the tenants. She also is not privy to the contract agreement between Melin and Wawa.

“They could walk out at any time, so I wasn’t really given the ability to tell the tenants because the attorneys hadn’t made it clear how they were going to use the property,” Schauer said.

She also said it’s not the first time Melin has been approached to sell, though he never entertained the idea previously and the property was never listed. Schauer said if the deal fell through, Melin would continue to own it.

According to property records, Melin bought 2420 S. 17th St., a multi-unit strip mall built for $312,500 in October 1996. It’s been managed by Schauer since it opened. Three of the four businesses did not have a standing lease agreement since they had been there for so long, Schauer said.

Two of the units are vacant at this time, Schauer confirmed, but one, with a pediatrician sign, was recently used in the film “One True Love”; crews never came to remove the set.

A Nationwide Insurance building and former Pizza Hut will be demolished to make way for a gas station. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

Wawa also plans to purchase three adjacent properties, one that housed a Pizza Hut (it closed in August 2022 and was sold to Wilmington 17th St WW LLC). The other, Nationwide Insurance, is located on a property owned by Daniel Parham since it was built in 1978. Both will be torn down to make way for the convenience store.

Thornefish Properties LLC has owned 1608 Wellington Ave. since 2011. Hamm Hearing Aid Center is currently located there. PCD tried to reach the company to confirm if it will close or relocate but did not receive a response by press.

All four property sales have not closed, so Wawa’s total purchase price isn’t currently known. 

Attorney Sam Potter, representing Wawa, was at the planning board meeting Wednesday and said Wilmington’s location would mark the second one in eastern North Carolina. There was a groundbreaking for Wawa in Kill Devil Hills last October. 

The convenience store prides itself on being a “restaurant” as well, though no indoor seating will be available at the 17th Street location, only outdoor picnic tables. Wawa is planning a roughly 5,500-square-foot retail building and has asked to increase the allowable parking on the property. 

Wawa’s real-estate project engineer, Payman Nadimi, explained at the meeting that half of Wawa’s customers are actually there for the food.

“The calculation city code looks at for restaurants is based on seating area and because we don’t have a seating area, we’re not being allowed the parking we need for our food business,” Nadimi told the commission.

To accommodate up to 51 parking spaces, the developers will have to prove the need to the technical review committee when they present the site plan. Located less than a mile from Novant New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s main campus, Nadmini said another food option will accommodate nearby Novant employees.

Wawa is reviewing the three closest, comparable stores — in Chesapeake, Virginia — to try and represent the need for more parking.

Potter said the company will bring 50 new, permanent jobs to the city, as well as roughly 50 temporary construction jobs. On average, it takes about $6 million to build a Wawa, he explained.

Staff at the neighboring doctor’s offices, Seaside Pediatric and Kidzcare Pediatric, spoke out at the meeting. Their main concerns were traffic cutting through their parking lot. Potter assured the planning commission there would be no direct access from their lot; it will be blocked off to vehicles.

There are currently two entrances and exits on 17th Street and two on Wellington Avenue that will be closed. Potter said crews will construct a new access on 17th, farther from the stoplight, and a new access onto Wellington as well.

To further appease the medical office employees, Wawa is purchasing 2422 S. 17th St., also owned by T & M Real Estate, and is currently used for parking. It will provide a permanent parking easement to the businesses.

Nadean Shovels, an engineer with Kimley Horn, explained the stormwater management plan on the property will be updated to combat any flooding concerns. It will prevent overflow of rainwater onto adjacent properties.

She said the new pipes, treatment system and infiltration pond will be “above and beyond” city required standards.

The rezoning request must next go to the TRC and then city council for final approval. 

Ruth said he plans to attend the council meeting and has also met with attorneys on the matter, to not have to close down his location, but doesn’t have much faith the redevelopment will fail.

“We can tie them up in court for a certain time, but it’s going to end up in their favor,” he said. “I fully expect [council] to railroad it through.”

Wilmington Planning Commissioner chair JC Lyle said while she supports small businesses, it’s not the board’s job to enforce how a landowner uses their buildings.

Adams, the sole opposing vote, didn’t think Wawa was the “highest and best use of the land.” He would have rather seen additional medical businesses or offices along the corridor. Adams also said bringing in Wawa would further increase traffic in the area. A traffic impact analysis may be required by the TRC when the site plan is submitted. 

In response, commissioner John Lennon said the convenience store serves a purpose.

“It’s indicative of the growth and new companies picking Wilmington,” he said. “I look at it as an ideal service to the whole area.”

Ruth said he’s in the process of “planning his exit,” though Schauer told the tenants they likely have until December before having to vacate. However, 30 days after the property sale closes, they will have to leave so the buildings can be demolished.

“Honestly, I don’t trust anyone at this point,” he said.

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