Saturday, May 28, 2022

Developer projects, staff shortage could threaten Wilmington transportation bond project schedule

Internal emails from a city engineer to the deputy city manager express concern over new projects and staff shortages. City officials say the 2014 Transportation Bond projects are still on schedule but acknowledge that could change if vacancies aren't filled or new projects are assigned to the city's engineering department.

The 2014 Wilmington Transportation Bond, a $55 million project, has an aggressive seven-year timeline -- but progress could be threatened by assigning new projects to the city's engineering department, which is already short staffed. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)
The 2014 Wilmington Transportation Bond, a $55 million project, has an aggressive seven-year timeline — but progress could be threatened by assigning new projects to the city’s engineering department, which is already short staffed. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

WILMINGTON — City officials say that completion for the 2014 transportation bond road improvement projects is still on schedule, despite internal emails from city engineer staff describing concerns that dwindling resourecs would mean “death by a thousand cuts.”

The concern comes from a city engineer who tested several drafts on fellow staff and ultimately sent an email to Deputy City Manager Thom Morton in early January. The email states that the city’s seven-year deadline for projects to be completed in 2021 has been rendered “especially vulnerable” by a recent loss of staff and the department being tasked work associated with Jeffery Kentner’s Galleria project on Wrightsville Avenue.

According to these emails, work on the $55 million in roadway projects was on track as of November – despite significant additional work on RiverLights and the North Waterfront Park — but, shortly after the November transportation project update, Kentner submitted a Traffic Impact Analysis (TIA) for the Galleria project. The TIA included plans for a “complete street” overhaul of Wrightsville Avenue; Kentner threatened to back away from the fully developed version of the Galleria project if the improvements weren’t made, and suggested the City of Wilmington contribute financially to the project.

In December, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo met with State Senator Bill Rabon and Thomas Fetzer, former GOP Chairman and currently a lobbyist acting on behalf of Kentner to discuss the project.

In a January interview, Saffo said the protect was in the “very early” stage and “nowhere near” a discussion of cost-sharing, but it was at least far enough along that the city was prepared to conduct a cost-analysis.

In the email to Morton, a city engineer expressed concern that a project manager would be “taken offline” to handle this workload. The email suggests that a developer’s engineer handle that cost-analysis — “as it typical, and was initially done by McKim & Creed” — or that an outside consultant be hired.

A dramatic overhaul of nearly a mile of road along Wrightsville Avenue will likely cost millions; developer Jeff Kentner has essentially told the City of Wilmington these improvements are a 'pre-requisite' for the long-awaited Galleria project. (Port City Daily photo / City of Wilmington)
Developer Jeffrey Kenter of State Street Companies has essentially demanded sweeping improvements to Wrightsville Avenue before he’ll proceed with the Galleria project. The City of Wilmington needs to figure out how much that will cost before it can draft a resolution to commit any funding. (Port City Daily photo / City of Wilmington)

The email also notes that Saffo’s creation of an ad-hoc committee to review capital improvement projects had placed unexpected stress on the department, especially since both Project Manager Rob Kohler and Senior Project Engineer Phil Bevilacqua resigned from the city in December.

Bevilacqua, who now works for New Hanover County, said only that he left to focus on stormwater management issues, and that he had not worked on any developer projects.

Kohler, who left to work remotely for an Atlanta-based company, said he did have a few “quick and high-level conversations” about Wrightsville Avenue, but that these conversations were “limited.” Kohler said his decision to leave the city was had nothing to do with the work environment, but that the long hours with prevented him from spending time with his family and newborn daughter. Kohler did say “I imagine some of the team might be spread a little thin right now as they cover my projects until my replacement joins the team.”

City says projects still on track

According to Wilmington spokesman Dylan Lee, both positions are still vacant; Lee acknowledged that there was a workload crunch and that some projects have been put on hold.

“Yes, two engineers left their positions. Their skill sets are in demand and they moved on to other opportunities that meet their career needs at this time. This is not uncommon. That said, the Engineering Department management team recognizes that, with these two vacancies, staff is near capacity,” Lee said.

Lee also stated that the city had opted for an outside consultant to handle the Wrightsville cost-analysis.

“One task that is in the works is a cost estimate analysis for improvements to Wrightsville Avenue in the vicinity of the Galleria development. Neither of the engineers that moved on have been involved in any efforts related to Wrightsville Ave. The city will hire a private firm to conduct the cost estimate for the Wrightsville Avenue improvements project, based on the recently submitted Traffic Impact Analysis (TIA),” Lee said.

According to emails from a city engineer, staff initially “balk[ed] at full assignment” of the cost analysis, and noted that staff was still tasked with engaging the consultant, which diverted limited manpower since “task was not anticipated.”

Lee also noted that the cost-analysis was a prerequisite to any further investment by the City of Wilmington in the Galleria project or its adjacent streetscape.

“An independent cost estimate analysis will allow us to have a better understanding of the project costs for something that could potentially involve an agreement between the city, DOT and a private developer. Prior to presenting any proposal to City Council to share the cost of Wrightsville Avenue street improvements, landscaped medians, and installation of a multi-use trail, the city needs to understand the full extent that these improvements will impact the residents/taxpayers,” Lee said.

Over all, Lee said the transportation bond projects remain on schedule, but could face delays in the future, especially in the engineering department is tasked with additional assignments.

“The two vacancies require the attention of other staff members to ensure that the projects stay on schedule,” Lee said, “These vacancies, if left unfilled for an extended period of time, could delay completion of some of the Transportation Bond projects.”

The city has prioritized hiring for the two vacant positions. Lee noted that “some of the bond projects involve outside agencies (e.g., NCDOT, UNCW), whose actions are beyond the control of the City and could potentially impact project completion.”


Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at ben@localvoicemedia.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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