Thursday, December 1, 2022

After hearing businesses’ concerns, city pushes back N. Front improvements past holidays

Downtown sidewalks and streets along two blocks of N. Front Street will be torn up beginning in early 2022 as part of a $3.5 million streetscape project. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna F. Still)

WILMINGTON — Businesses spoke, the city listened. The North Front Street streetscape project initially slated to begin in October has been pushed back to the beginning of 2022.

The delayed timing is a response to dozens of concerned downtown businesses and advocacy organizations, including Wilmington Downtown Inc. and the Downtown Business Alliance, which asked the city to refrain from tearing up two blocks during the holiday season.

RELATED: N. Front Street businesses brace for city’s streetscape project, missing out on holiday sales

The $3.5 million streetscape project, financed by the city’s 2014 voter-approved transportation bond, plans for a complete street and sidewalk redesign on N. Front Street between Chestnut and Walnut streets. Cape Fear Public Utility is also partnering with the city on the project to replace ’40s-era utility lines.

For many downtown retailers, the upcoming holiday season provides an opportunity to finally turn a profit, especially needed after enduring a difficult year of shutdowns due to the pandemic. With the possibility of street closures during the holidays, businesses feared whether they could continue to keep their doors open.

Councilwoman Margaret Haynes, who sits on the board of both WDI and the DBA, told council at an agenda meeting Monday morning the concern of starting the project in the fall is “we would basically, just by default, be putting people out of business.”

Project manager Bret Russell told council he felt the delay was the best decision after hearing from downtown businesses.

Councilman Neil Anderson said he would prefer to make the decision based on data. “Sometimes we react. Do we do any research? Does [WDI] have data? Does the chamber have data? Do we have sales tax data?” Anderson asked.

Missing Azalea Festival, Easter, Memorial Day, and the month of June will bruise revenue too, Anderson explained. “I don’t own a business down there, but I’d love to see what the data is, and not just what the opinions are,” he said.

Russell said while he doesn’t have sales tax data, the businesses’ concerns about the holidays seemed to be common sense.

“You can look at the calendar. There is not a good time to do it,” Councilman Charlie Rivenbark said. “It wouldn’t care what three, or six, or 10 months you pick. There’s gonna be outcry.”

Between the pandemic and Water Street closures, Rivenbark acknowledged the downtown businesses have not been dealt a good hand in the past couple of years.

Mayor Bill Saffo inquired whether the older, significant oak trees in front of the Cotton Exchange would be saved.

 “The plan is to remove all the trees,” Russell said. “The street has not been designed around the trees. But we would go back with new trees.”

Construction is planned to begin in January and end by April 2022. 

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