WILMINGTON –– A game changing project for downtown Wilmington, Riverfront Park is eight years in the making and eight days away from its grand opening.
The city first acquired the 6.6-acre former Brownfields site along the Cape Fear River in 2013. Three years later, voters passed the 2016 bond, allowing the city to borrow $30.4 million for the city’s signature park, among a list of other projects. It then raised taxes 2.1 cents per $100 valuation to repay the bonds.
In 2021, the park will welcome its first visitors and big-name acts Lady A, Miranda Lambert, Train, Santana and more.
As the project wraps up, the city is able to tack a final $38-million price tag onto the park — more than the entire parks bond. The project went approximately $13 million over its original $20 million budget and cut planned amenities.
The end result encompasses 24,000-square-feet of gardens, 1.8 acres of open lawn, a playground and interactive water feature, 4,900 linear feet of paths, 30 restrooms, and the ability to quickly transform the park into a 7,200-capacity concert venue –– with a box office and concession stands.
The entire park is on schedule to open by the Fourth of July, with the exception of the southeast corner, also known as the west gardens. Once complete, that space will feature coastal plantings, benches and public art.
The city’s community services director, Amy Beatty, said the large amount of rain earlier this year forced the delay, but the garden will be complete before Widespread Panic breaks in the new stage July 16.
“The contractor is going to back out of the site so it’s the very last piece to be done,” Beatty explained.
Despite the holdup in that corner, Beatty notes the progress the contractor, Clancy & Theys, made in 18 months is impressive. Some of that work is underground, such as water and sewer infrastructure and a complex stormwater drainage system, and was the reason the project took longer and cost more than anticipated.
As it gears up for the first concerts next month, Live Nation is making final arrangements to manage the amphitheater. Beatty said the company collaborated with the city throughout the design process, compromising along the way to allow for an open-air stage that doubles as a greenspace.
“We very much wanted for the public to feel like they’re in a park when the space is in park mode,” Beatty said. “We did not want them to feel like we were in an empty performance venue.”
To host shows, the company will bring in 2,400 temporary seats, fencing and temporary restrooms capable of connecting to sewer on Nutt Street to the east of the park. Plus, the lawn holds a general admission audience of up to 4,800. The grading was kept at 4%, a viewpoint perspective Live Nation was agreeable to.
“Everyone’s going to have the sightlines, no matter where you are in the park during a concert,” Beatty said. “And when it’s in park mode, it’s flat enough for a family to sit down and have a picnic.”
Live Nation is contracting with concessionaire DLS to sell food and drinks during performances. Beatty said she believes there have been conversations with various breweries about pouring local craft beer.
The entertainment company is also contracting with Cape Fear Community College to increase parking options. Riverfront Park was built without any new spaces, an issue picked on by critics since the park was merely a concept. The agreement with the college will open up more than 2,000 spaces within three blocks in parking decks and on surface lots. Still, that is only a fourth of the concert capacity.
“A lot of people ask about parking, but really what we see is the positive,” Beatty said. “Where parking is dispersed throughout the city’s parking garages, concert goers are passing by businesses. We really think that that’s a great opportunity for people to step in and have a drink or have an appetizer.”
In recent weeks Live Nation announced a lineup of shows, spanning through October. Per its contract with the city, it is only allowed to schedule up to 20 concerts each year, plus 10 civic events. All have been scheduled already.
Live Nation can request authorization from the city manager to add more dates. They’ve yet to do so, but the city has communicated to the company’s management they may continue accepting calls from booking agents.
“We’ll just look at that on a case-by-case basis,” Beatty said.
She added the city is careful about booking too many shows too close together. The outdoor concert season is already operating on a compressed schedule due to the construction’s mid-summer completion date.
“During a regular concert season, I don’t think we would hesitate to add another couple of shows,” Beatty said.
While the city expected Wilmington to be a solid market for selling tickets, according to Beatty, it’s stronger than Live Nation anticipated. The projected attendance for this concert season is 130,000 people. That’s 50,000 over what Live Nation originally projected during the design stage. Hotels in downtown, midtown and Mayfaire sold out within hours of the announcement that Widespread Panic would play three nights in July, Beatty said.
The free and public opening of the park, located at 10 Cowan St., is July 4, 1 p.m. to 8 p.m., and includes live music from local musicians and standup from local comedians, activities for kids, food trucks and a beer garden.
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