Tuesday, March 5, 2024

Riverwalk holiday decor plan illuminates larger issues for businesses on south end

WDI’s pilot light initiative helped to increase the holiday decor downtown but some businesses at the sound end of the Riverwalk were disappointed they did not extend farther. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

WILMINGTON — “If you’re not on Front Street, you might as well be invisible.” 

That’s the sentiment Courtney Osgood, co-owner of Sauce’d on the Riverwalk, sent to city council members and Wilmington Downtown Inc. Tuesday, one day after an announcement was made to install more Christmas lights downtown.

Osgood was writing in regards to Wilmington Downtown Inc.’s recently launched pilot initiative to light up the Riverwalk, visitor’s center and other areas of Water and Market streets. However, the holiday decor does not continue far enough south to include her business at 224 S. Water St. due to electrical capacity issues.

READ MORE: WDI’s pilot lighting initiative to amp up the holiday spirit downtown

Osgood said when she read about the new lighting in Port City Daily, it was an emotional rollercoaster.

“I saw your article, and I think I audibly was like, ‘Yeeessss!,’” Osgood said. “Then I started reading it, and I literally was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’”

WDI had a $40,000 budget and hired contractor Double Check Pressure Washing to install the lights and add to the already decorated Front Street. The city installs upward of 70 wreaths on Front Street, some of Market, in front of City Hall and on Castle streets.

The additional lights funded by WDI stop at Anne Bonny’s restaurant near Dock Street — right before Osgood’s place, as well as a dozen or so other businesses on the south end of the Riverwalk. This includes Chandler’s Wharf businesses, The Rooster and the Crow, Wilmington Water Tours, Elijah’s, The Pilot House and a handful of art and gift shops.

“Given the dollar amounts thrown out in the PCD article, I find it extremely hard to believe that there isn’t anything that can be done about trying to help out that last remaining quarter of the Riverwalk,” Osgood wrote to council and WDI.

While Osgood understands the electrical challenges that WDI faces, she suggested alternatives, such as solar lighting, garland, holiday flags.

Port City Daily asked the city how much it would cost to upgrade the electrical infrastructure but did not receive a response by press.

“I’m not asking for hundreds of thousands of dollars,” she said. “But why can’t we try? It felt like, ‘Welp, unfortunately, we can’t go down there; that’s it.’”

WDI vice president Christina Haley told Port City Daily she explored the idea of solar lighting, but the contractor advised against it due to cost increases and reliability concerns

More holiday spirit is something Osgood favors to draw in more customers. She was excited to see an investment in small businesses, especially during the off-season when they struggle most, but not when she learned it left off some downtown businesses.

“The Riverwalk is the most iconic staple of downtown Wilmington,” Osgood said. “And I think to myself, ‘How gorgeous would it be to be all lit up at night like a little Hallmark movie?’”

She told Port City Daily when she opened her business two years ago, she began networking with other owners, who expressed concerns about feeling invisible if not located on Front Street.

“I never knew what that meant,” she said.

After two years of being open in the winter, Osgood said she has seen first-hand how stressful winter is for small business owners, with less foot traffic from tourists. It’s also the season where small businesses would appreciate extra help from the city or downtown organizations, such as WDI, to promote the Riverwalk — in its entirety — for attracting people to the area.

“This was a prime example of how the city could do that and create that Christmas holiday ambience to draw people down here,” Osgood said.

She referenced how businesses take it upon themselves to decorate, set up fireplaces and heaters outside. As a marketing and public relations professional, Osgood takes extra steps to promote her establishment, but if people don’t venture down that way, they may not even know the businesses are there and open.

“We’re in survival mode,” Osgood said. “We’re trying to figure out how to keep people down here, keep it exciting, keep it fun and vibrant since it’s cold and chilly.”

Osgood explained to PCD there are already limitations to the south end of the Riverwalk. For example, it narrows in that area, making it difficult to host festivals, farmers markets and fairs. Many events that pop up on the riverfront stop at Orange or Dock streets, located up to 1,000 feet from Sauce’d.

“What happens is, people when they’re out and about, walking around, if you give them a parameter to walk around, they’ll stay within that parameter,” Osgood said. “There’s a whole entire block of businesses that are left out on the strip between Orange and Anne, including our businesses on the river.”

It’s not the first time owners at the end of the Riverwalk — what Osgood says is actually the most “condensed” cluster of businesses — have expressed frustrations with initiatives and actions taken within the city.

Most recently, the city voted to restrict public parking along the 300 block of S. Front Street — one block up from the Chandler’s Wharf area. Businesses signed a petition asking the city to reconsider this move, calling it a “small business killer,” since there is already limited parking on that end of downtown.

READ MORE: ‘A small business killer’: Owners push back against restricted parking on S. Front Street

Wilmington Water Tours owner Doug Springer told Port City Daily in October, the lack of parking extends to concern for employee safety as well as create impediments to visitors.

Osgood said when she launched her business two years ago with partner Jeremiah Ramos, it was the first bar on the Riverwalk. She was excited for the opportunities the prime spot offered.

“The city was really trying to get more small businesses down on the Riverwalk to make it more of a small commercial boardwalk feel,” she said.

However, the location has since come with challenges, not only with parking but also being a “destination.” She said people come to her establishment for a purpose — having to know they’re there — unlike the ability to hop from bar to bar, or shop to shop along Front Street.

Council member Charlie Rivenbark responded to Osgood’s email agreeing the city should invest more in decorations as it did when he was younger. Rivenbark is a Wilmington native and said the city used to decorate “heavy” along Front Street from the Atlantic Coast Line building, now Union Station, to Nun Street.

He added N. Fourth and Castle streets were treated the same.

“Wilmington was LIT UP!” he wrote in an email to Osgood, which she shared with PCD. “It continued that way until the ‘70s.”

Rivenbark was unaware why the decorations stopped. When he shared photos of how it used to be with city staff, they were unaware of the extent that was undertaken, he wrote in his response to Osgood.

Rivenbark said he complains yearly that more should be done.

Port City Daily asked the city how much it budgets for holiday decorating and if it plans to extend decor farther north toward its new headquarters at 929 N. Front but did not receive a response by press.

“I think I can give you my assurance that the city will step up and do it right next year,” he added to Osgood. “I have allies now!”

Rivenbark also praised WDI vice president Christina Haley’s efforts for taking the first steps to do more.

Haley said she shared the small business owner’s frustrations and plans to address them in future holiday seasons. WDI intends to launch a dedicated committee to develop a comprehensive holiday lights and festivities plan for upcoming years.

“Additionally, I urge the small business community and downtown property owners to actively participate in this pilot program by illuminating their properties, storefronts and Riverwalk-facing facades, thereby fostering a stronger sense of community support around the holidays,” Haley said. 

Osgood said she didn’t complain about the lighting to be a nuisance but to bring awareness of the struggles businesses are already facing.

“The lighting seems so small and so trivial maybe to some people,” she said. “But it’s such a potentially really impactful thing for us down here.”

A newspaper shared by council member Charlie Rivenbark about how downtown was decked out with Christmas decorations before the ’70s.

Tips or comments? Email amy@localdailymedia.com.

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