Wednesday, June 19, 2024

More than $25M to be spent in NHC on infrastructure, mental health strategy

New Hanover County commissioners voted to retain Bil Rivenbark as chair and LeAnn Pierce as vice chair for another year.

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The final county commissioners meeting of the year led the way for new investment in economic growth, as well as mental health resources but also retained the status quo in current leadership.

READ MORE: County rescinds Cheetah eminent domain authorization, wants to negotiate buying the property

Monday, Chair Bill Rivenbark and Vice Chair LeAnn Pierce, appointed by their colleagues to their respective roles last December, were unanimously voted to continue serving their positions.

Rivenbark and Pierce will maintain their titles until at least Dec. 2, 2024, when Rivenbark’s four-year term expires; he’s filed for reelection in 2024. Pierce was elected in December 2022 to serve through 2026.

Aside from commissioners voting to rescind the eminent domain process it enacted at the beginning of November on its neighboring property, Cheetah Premier Gentleman’s Club, the meeting also addressed infrastructure and mental health strategy spending. Here’s the breakdown:

The county will invest in $6.7 million for the Holly Shelter business park master plan and initial infrastructure construction for 52 acres of the 300-acre property.

Investing in infrastructure to draw in more business

New Hanover County Board of Commissioners also gave the go-ahead Monday to spend $6.7 million for an initial phase of infrastructure at the Holly Shelter Industrial Park. The park would offer available space for businesses looking to operate in the county and the county is procuring land to install infrastructure and attract industries. 

ALSO: Meeting breakdown: Commissioners agree to buy $11.9M building, fund study for business park

The cost to construct infrastructure for the entire Holly Shelter park is currently estimated at $18.9 million; however, at this time, the county is only looking to fund a portion of the work.

Chair Rivenbark said the county is the “banker” when it invests in infrastructure. The move attracts more development, which will then be able to hook up to water and sewer that wasn’t there prior.

Last October, commissioners approved a 52-acre property donation from Sidbury Land and Timber as the foundation of a new business park for economic development. The donated land sits on nearly 300 acres of the future economic hub, 70 of which are retained by Sidbury Land and Timber. Two hundred acres are available for the county to purchase, should it choose, in future phases. 

With the donation came two conditions: The county must fund the completion of water and sewer infrastructure to the property and pay to construct access roads.

This week’s vote was the first step toward bringing that to fruition. The county will spend the money on a master plan for the entire park and construct the necessary infrastructure for the 52-acre tract. Chief strategy officer Jennifer Rigby said the parcel can accommodate up to 600,000 square feet of buildable space.

The next phases, if the county buys the other acreage, would include building out infrastructure on 98 acres to serve nearly 1 million square feet of space, followed by 50 acres suitable for up to 200,000 square feet. The estimated cost for this work is $3 million.

The final phase would cost about $6.2 million to supply infrastructure to the remaining 52 acres. In addition, a water line connection off site will be needed, Rigby said.

“The timing of that is unclear since we’re unsure of the users for the site,” she added.

Initial estimates are $4 million for the final round of work.

The county will first release a request for qualifications at the end of the month for a design, bid and build contract for the master plan. The goal is to have final approval of a contract by April, followed by nearly a year of engineering design, construction document creation and permitting.

The hope is to begin construction, which should take about a year, by July 2025. The interior access roads are expected to be built by 2028. 

The county would then sell portions of the land to prospective companies.

Rigby said the county should realize a positive return on its investment for phase one of the business park within eight years of buildout. When the park is complete, estimates show New Hanover County could receive roughly $2 million annually in tax revenue, she added.

Wilmington Business Development CEO Scott Satterfield told commissioners the economic development opportunities the new park could provide will mirror that of Pender Commerce Park. The 330-acre park along U.S. 421 sits on the border of New Hanover County. It opened in 2013 with its first tenant Acme Smoked Fish and has added roughly a dozen businesses, including Coastal Beverage Co., Empire Distributors, FedEx, and Polyhose.

“The currency we deal in is jobs and investments,” Satterfield said. “We believe this will give us an opportunity, along with other great properties like Blue Clay Road, near the ports, near the airport, near 140, to support employers.”

The county is building out water and sewer to a 120-acre property in northern New Hanover as well — the Blue Clay Business Park. As of April, three tenants have purchased land in the vicinity: Francini Inc., Coastal Millwork and FTT Cabinetry. Combined, they will create more than 50 jobs, according to the company’s plans.  

Spending $20 million to address mental health and substance use 

Also Monday, commissioners heard an update on the money spent toward mental health and substance use disorder resources, paid for by funds garnered from opioid settlement cases involving top pharmaceutical companies and the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center to Novant.

The board of commissioners voted last fall to adopt a strategic plan for three buckets of money: 

  • $38 million in opioid settlement funds to New Hanover County over 18 years
  • $1.4 million in opioid settlement funds to the City of Wilmington
  • The county’s $50-million mental health escrow account

CATCH UP: Commissioners to consider preliminary spending of $68.5M from hospital sale funds and opioid settlement money

Staff used the strategy to outline a five-year plan to spend nearly $20 million based on the first tranche of funding. It also wants to analyze the outcome of its chosen programs before providing further investment.

“There’s a strong correlation between substance use disorders and mental health,” Rigby said. “These investments both working in concert with one another is important.”

The strategy tackles resources in three categories: education and outreach, access to services and sustainable recovery and well being.

In fiscal year 2024, $85,000 has been allocated to education and outreach. Within that, $60,000 is being spent to train law enforcement for the D.A.R.E. program to prevent drug use and violence in youth. So far, 10 school resource officers have completed training, with 69 in the que.

Another $25,000 is being used to host a crisis intervention training for teachers and school professionals in March.

For access to services, the county has allocated $5.3 million. Of that:

  • Four clinicians have been embedded within the 911 center, with one position still open
  • Coastal Horizons ($56,000), New Hope CDC ($72,000) and Leading Into New Communities ($72,000) each received funds for community outreach efforts.
  • A first responder assistance program launched in August with 13 members taking advantage of the resource.
  • Novant is working to offer medical assisted treatment for EMS. 
  • Replacement of Narcan was funded for Wilmington Police Department and New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office.
  • An existing contract with Wellpath and Coastal Horizons has been expanded to continue offering MAT in the detention center.

Just over $1 million from the funds is being used for sustainable recovery and well-being.

New Hanover County reported its highest spike in overdoses in September, with 76 people. The average per month has been between 48 and 51 overdoses from 2021 to present.

Deaths by suicide in New Hanover County have increased by 53% from 2021 to 2022, with the majority of individuals impacted being middle-aged males.

“I share that data to level set with everyone and help us understand where they’re going and how the work that’s being done by many of our community partners is beginning to help folks in our community,” Rigby said.

The money, so far, has helped fund a fellowship program to increase the capacity of mental health practitioners in the community. Individuals who will be awarded the opportunity will be chosen by the end of the month, Rigby said.

LINC, a nonprofit whose mission is to help previously incarcerated individuals acclimate back into the community, received $40,000 to fund employment services. LINC also received funds for supportive housing services, as did Coastal Horizons and Tides, for a combined total of $250,000.

Coastal Horizons was awarded an additional $250,000 to provide outpatient treatment services.

In the new year, Rigby said public service announcements and outreach efforts will kick off to make the community aware of the resources available. 

There’s also additional money tagged for wrap-around services that has not yet been allocated. Organizations and stakeholders receiving mental health and substance use disorder funding meet monthly to collaborate. Rigby said once the initial programs are underway, the county will identify gaps before deciding where the money is best suited.

“And ensure none of the citizens within New Hanover County fall through the cracks,” Rigby said.

County commissioner Jonathan Barfield applauded the strategy but made a plea to do more for individuals suffering strictly from mental health issues.

“I’d love for us to figure out a way to develop a long-term facility for those suffering from mental illness, similar to The Healing Place,” he said at the meeting.

The county invested $24 million in The Healing Place, a substance-free, peer-recovery treatment center. The county also paid $1.5 million in startup costs for the operation and committed to spending $1 million annually toward 50 of its 200 beds.

“The real need is to have sustained assistance for folks long-term, not going to Coastal Horizons and popping in and out,” Barfield said. He added current options for anyone suffering from mental health issues are only in two-week stints or being transported out of the county.

Rivenbark said he agrees “100%” and commissioner Rob Zapple said it’s a “missing link” in the community. He pointed to a “decentralization” of mental health in the ‘80s and ‘90s, which has led to more focus on wrap-around services.

“Unless you’re at risk of harming yourself or someone else, it’s not recognized as an appropriate thing to go into a large setting,” Zapple said.

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