WILMINGTON — A city project to unearth ’40s-era pipes and enhance two blocks of North Front Street will arrive at a bad time for local businesses, battered and rebuilding as the pandemic wanes.
Really, there’s never a good time to tear up sidewalks and deter foot traffic from mom-and-pops — no matter how inviting A-frame “shops open” signs seem under scaffolding and construction equipment.
Beginning this fall, Wilmington and Cape Fear Public Utility Authority contractors will begin work on a $3.5 million streetscape project, financed as part of the city’s 2014 voter-approved transportation bond.
Work will carry on for four-to-six months between Chestnut and Walnut streets. Construction will continue through the holidays — which, aside from summer tourist season, serves as a time for peak sales, giving small businesses the needed boost to turn red numbers black. For those familiar with these kinds of projects, many business owners see self-deprecating amusement in the city’s assurance that access to their stores will remain open throughout.
“It’s not inviting,” said Gwenyfar Rohler, managing partner of Old Books on Front Street. “It’s the bare minimum that’s necessary for the fire department. That’s what it is.”
Rohler will find herself in the unusual position of having lived through N. Front Street improvements twice. In 2010, the city completed the first phase of enhancements on N. Front between Market and Chestnut streets, replacing utility lines and constructing streetscape elements, including granite curbing, brick plazas, mid-block crossings, waste and recycling bins, decorative lighting, bike racks, and landscaping.
Her bookstore was previously located in the construction area that go around, before the old building that housed it was condemned, forcing her (and her thousands of books) to a new location. That location now falls in the path of phase two.
Recognizing the need to update dated infrastructure, Rohler is still dreading the timing. She knows the “prison aesthetic” that comes with streetscape projects well and fears it will be a foot traffic killer.
“I want to be clear: Everybody acknowledges this needs to happen,” Rohler said. “Nobody’s saying it doesn’t need to happen.”
Asked which season she’d prefer to sacrifice if she were the one scheduling the project, Rohler said this year, it’s different. “If I don’t have Christmas, I’m not going to make it to next summer to sacrifice it,” she said. Tax values are up, and the bill is due Jan. 6.
A few shops down the same block, Miriam Oehrlein, art director at New Elements Gallery, is also worried about making it through the holidays. “January bills happen whether we’re open or not. That’s something that every single shop owner on this street worries about,” she said. “I wish they had done it last year when we were all closed.”
During the pandemic, New Elements was forced to survive without foot traffic and bolstered its online sales. Still, art isn’t as tangible on the internet.
“We’re excited that the city wants to invest in downtown. And we want them to,” Oehrlein said. “But I think it really does hurt the businesses on Front Street to have this happen around the holidays. Especially when everybody that’s still here is here through a great deal of perseverance from last year.”
Mavis Rose, co-owner of Desert Rose across the street, doesn’t understand why the city wouldn’t just delay until after the holidays. “It’s ridiculous not to,” she said.
Enhancing the street
Sprucing up the two N. Front blocks is a priority project for Wilmington, according to city spokesman, Dylan Lee. Design and permitting are expected to wrap up by late July. “Starting construction in the fall of this year keeps the project on schedule to reach completion in late winter 2022,” Lee wrote in an email.
The city delayed the project until wrapping up other major streetscape work on Chestnut, Grace, and Nut streets. “Completion of the N. Front Street project over the fall and winter would minimize disruptions for the subsequent spring and summer seasons,” Lee wrote.
One of 37 projects funded by the transportation bond, the city had 23 in the design phase on a timeline to complete construction by 2023 as of last year.
Pitching in $900,000 in design and construction costs, CFPUA is taking advantage of the opportunity to replace its old utility lines. CFPUA’s inventory of lines shows they’re 70-80 years old, with some sections possibly a century old, according to CFPUA spokesperson Cammie Bellamy. The in-service clay sewer and cast iron water lines aren’t presenting any issues, Bellamy said, but they’re approaching the end of their useful life.
“We find all kinds of weird stuff down under the street that’s been there for maybe hundreds of years,” city councilwoman Margaret Haynes said of similar projects.
Business owners have found an advocate in Haynes, who is in favor of a post-holiday start. “I do think we ought to do that,” she said. “People have already been through enough here.” Haynes said she’s already reached out to staff to request a delay.
Staff works hard to remedy the deterrences with signage, Haynes said. “We’re doing everything we can to support those businesses.”
“They’re just jumping through all the standard hoops and that’s just where the timing ended up,” she said. “I’m pretty sure — I’m certainly hopeful — that we can get it pushed to January.”
Terry Espy, owner of MoMentum Companies, Inc. said she knows staff understands the fear and stress small business owners are feeling. Downtown Alive was successful as a collaborative private-public effort, she pointed out. “The staff has proven that they care,” she said. Still, she said she reminds them of the uncertainty small businesses face: “There’s no money god that shows up every other week and puts money in their payroll.”
Espy remembers just a few years back, when Water Street closures dried up businesses, causing at least four to shutter. “I mean, everything on that corner went out of business,” she said. A decade ago, her company had a sales office on Front St. for the first phase of improvements. She saw firsthand how the blockades warded off customers. “People saw the barricades and just didn’t go there,” she said.
Business and downtown advocacy group, Wilmington Downtown, Inc., is keenly aware of the project; its offices will fall within the construction area. “While we are excited to see the City of Wilmington investing in these much-needed improvements to our streetscape, and we know this will have a positive end result for our businesses, we also realize that this fall is absolutely not the time to start the project,” Holly Childs, WDI CEO wrote in an email.
WDI has already been in touch with the city about pushing back the start date. Childs said staff have assured her scheduling will consider business impacts, but WDI will continue to push for a January start.
Thursday, Lee said the city appreciates the business community’s valuable feedback and is considering their suggestions. “When possible, we time these projects to have the least possible negative impact on the businesses,” Lee said.
Send tips and comments to Johanna Ferebee Still at firstname.lastname@example.org