WILMINGTON — Is the city allowing the north riverfront developer to break an agreement without paying a $250,000 penalty?
The agreement, made in April between the city and the Northern Riverfront Marina and Hotel, requires the developer to provide public bathrooms along the Riverwalk until permanent facilities can be built. It is part of a series of negotiations that allowed Northern Riverfront Marina and Hotel (NRMH) to receive $5 million from the city to build a section of the Riverwalk and then make the public walkway into private property.
The public bathroom agreement
Several months ago, the BlackFinn Ameripub restaurant opened as part of a deal with the City of Wilmington. In exchange for modifying a 2013 development agreement to allow the restaurant to open in time for the Wells Fargo Championship, the owners of the BlackFinn would provide public bathrooms.
The deal – known as a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) – between the City and Northern Riverfront Marina and Hotel (NRMH) – allowed BlackFinn to use its own bathroom to satisfy the public bathroom requirements, but only for 90 days. After that, the deal required NRMH to build temporary bathrooms. (All of the documents referenced in this article are attached in full at the bottom of this page.)
The MOU included specific designs for the bathrooms – and specific penalties for not completing them within 90 days. According to the agreement, if NRMH did not provide these bathrooms in time, they would pay the City of Wilmington $250,000 and the city would then take over the bathroom project.
The agreement was passed unanimously by City Council on April 18; nearly 120 days have passed since then, a month beyond the MOU’s deadline.
90 days and counting
While there are bathroom trailers like those required by the MOU, they remain on private property and are closed to the public. BlackFinn Ameripub’s bathrooms are still open to the public.
Chuck Schoninger, manager of NRMH and CEO of USA InvestCo, the company that owns NRMH, did not respond to emails. Natalie Cirigliano, a spokeswoman for USA InvestCO, would say only the restaurant’s bathrooms “satisfied everything we were asked to do.”
Cirigliano declined to comment on the 90-day deadline. Meanwhile, City officials seemed at a loss to explain the oversight.
City Spokesman Dylan Lee initially said “they (NRMH) have made the restrooms in the Blackfinn available to the public, with appropriate signage. This is in compliance.”
When asked about the MOU’s 90-day deadline on Friday, Lee referred the issue to the office of the city’s attorney. Lee said he had not received a response from the city attorney before publication on Monday.
Emails to most of the City Council members were not returned. Councilman Paul Lawler said he was not aware of the details – or that the 90 day deadline had passed – and suggested that Tony Caudle, of the city manager’s office, would know the details of the development deal with NRMH. Caudle has managed the city’s ongoing relationship with NRMH since 2009.
Caudle did not respond to email. Chris Compton, executive staff assistant, declined to forward calls to Caudle. Compton said it was city policy to forward all questions to the communications office (where Dylan Lee works).
How the public Riverwalk became private
The city made its original development agreement with NRMH in 2009. According to NRMH’s business plan for the property, the agreement included a $5 million dollar reimbursement from the City of Wilmington; the funds covered the construction cost of the section of the Riverwalk around the marina and BlackFinn. NRMH agreed to build the Riverwalk as part of developing the property.
Then, in 2013, NRMH renegotiated its deal with the city. In exchange for selling the city 7 acres of land for what would become the North Riverfront Park, the city allowed NRHM to move the path of the Riverwalk. According to the Nov. 19, 2013, agreement, the Riverwalk would be rerouted behind the BlackFinn Ameripub restaurant and the walkway along the actual river became private property without public access.
In essence, the city would save money reimbursing the less expensive, rerouted section of Riverwalk, but the public would lose access to the riverfront section of walkway.
As part of the 2013 renegotiation, NHRM was required to build public bathrooms before it could open restaurants — that’s the agreement that was modified when NHRM again renegotiated with the city last April.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at email@example.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.