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Thursday, May 23, 2024

The futures of two public institutions are on the table in Project Grace

A replica of a giant sloth looks out of the Cape Fear Museum on to Market Street. (Port City Daily/Preston Lennon)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Project Grace is taking shape. Finding a future for two of the county’s most pre-eminent resources, the downtown library and Cape Fear Museum, has been a topic of discussion for years among a wide cast of stakeholders. 

County officials and elected leaders, who have strived to find ways to upgrade the facilities or start them anew, led the way. The library and museum staff, too, have been a voice. The next generation of their institutions has been on the table.

The plan to redevelop the county-owned block of land in downtown Wilmington has also been influenced by private developers, who will build residences and other amenities alongside the new county facilities. 

The existing Cape Fear Museum building will remain on Market Street, available for storage space and the staff’s other administrative needs. The museum itself is moving to the northside of the Project Grace block, between Chestnut and Grace and Second and Third streets, where it will share a newly constructed, three-level facility with the downtown library. 

During construction, the library will stay open at its existing spot on the south side of the Project Grace site. When the new building on the north side is ready, the library and museum will occupy it and Zimmer Development Company will begin on the south side of the block, the private sector portion.

The square footage allocations for the new library-museum have been nailed down and a general layout of the building is available; getting to this point has been years in the making. Future steps involve sign-off from the Local Government Commission, demolition approval from the City of Wilmington and county overview of the final development plan. 

For Wayne LaBar, the new museum director still in his early months, and longtime library director Paige Owens, Project Grace is a chance to weigh in on the creation of a new era. 

The county released documents earlier this month showing the layout of the future shared building. The lobby, fronting Grace Street, will segue into the library’s circulation desk and the museum’s Cape Fear Stories & Ecology Gallery, as well as a jointly used auditorium.

READ MORE: Project Grace: Docs reveal analysis of new library and museum in redevelopment plan

LaBar and Owens — as well as staff and members of boards that advise the institutions — have vouched for their respective priorities throughout the process. The design firm LS3P, spearheading the aesthetic of the new library-museum and private development components, met with many different stakeholder groups as plans took shape. 

LaBar and Owens both told Port City Daily they are excited for the days ahead. 

For LaBar, hired after the Project Grace roadmap was already settled, this is an opportunity to deepen the Cape Fear Museum’s community presence and find new ways of engagement. Before coming to New Hanover County he was helming a consulting firm that offered creative direction to museums and other institutes. His entrance into the museum world came after a few years starting his career at NASA’s Langley Research Center. 

“We are trying to articulate this right now as a staff,” LaBar said, about the museum’s future. “It’s about engaging people and providing relevant engaging experiences that start conversations, instill pride, expand understanding, so people can actively take part in improving our future.” 

Owens has been part of the New Hanover County Public Library System for more than 20 years, moving from reference librarian to branch manager, and then from assistant director to director. 

A veteran of the local facilities, Owens said she welcomes the prospect of a new building for the downtown library. The existing flagship on the Chestnut Street side of the Project Grace block was a Belk Beery department store before being renovated 40 years ago.

“This building is so compartmentalized, it’s just not a really great experience,” Owens said. “As time went on and the idea was introduced — the idea of being side by side with the museum — it was exciting.”

LaBar has played part in major overhauls like Project Grace before. In 2005 he oversaw a transformative $109 million “renewal” of the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, N.J. His firm ALCHEMY studio planned the first science center in Puerto Rico and many others around the world. 

Former director Sheryl Mays led the Cape Fear Museum for seven years and announced her retirement in March. Project Grace was brought up during his job interview, LaBar said. 

Similar to the library’s situation, some museum materials are stored in the basement where they’re vulnerable to water damage. Having the Market Street building on standby will increase storage capacity and room for exhibit fabrication, LaBar said, making the basements no longer needed for exhibit housing.

“We have mitigated that to the extent possible,” LaBar said. “But the move to Grace Street will allow us to, first of all, redo our collection storage so we can actually, in a smaller space, house more stuff with a more modern collections ability. And expand as well.”

LaBar emailed an assistant county manager after about three weeks on the job, according to public emails, writing that he was concerned about not yet having had the chance to meet with the architects, and that some of his thoughts on the building might differ from those of the former museum director. 

In response, assistant county manager Sheryl Kelly suggested to Labar that he could have high-level discussions with an LS3P architect during an introductory meeting that had already been scheduled. Kelly emailed LaBar a few weeks later, after becoming aware of changes to the museum layout he had proposed in a meeting.

“We need to ensure there is county management involvement when it comes to these types of requests,” the assistant county manager wrote to LaBar, “so I would ask that you consult with me first in the future.”

The site analysis of Project Grace shows the library and museum facilities concentrated on the parcel’s north side. (Port City Daily/Courtesy New Hanover County)

LaBar and Owens are enthusiastic about collaboration, given how their two institutions will be interwoven into one structure in the coming years.

“I think there are some really exciting possibilities,” LaBar said. “It’s going to allow us to do some special things that we couldn’t do if we were in separate buildings.”

Owens views the downtown library as a community centerpiece. There are the “transactional activities,” she said, like the flow of books in and out of the building, but also other missions. 

The New Hanover County Public Library eliminated late fees on children’s materials this summer. The move ensured residents won’t be cut off from the library’s resources at a young age. And picking up on a West Coast trend that began in the last 10 years, New Hanover County recently introduced a library social worker position. 

“It makes me proud that libraries are on the forefront of evolving toward addressing social needs,” Owens said. “People joke that library workers are social workers, in a sense, because people come in with needs and we match those needs with resources.”

Jan Brewington is a member of the Library Advisory Board, a 12-member group appointed by the board of commissioners, which makes recommendations in the library’s interests. When negotiations between the county and Zimmer were at their height this spring — as the Memorandum of Understanding between the two parties was evolving in anticipation of the public hearing in March — Brewington was the board chairwoman. 

Brewington and her counterpart on the Cape Fear Museum Advisory Board, former chairwoman Donna Pope, wrote letters to the board of commissioners that laid out the top priorities of the library and museum when it came to Project Grace.

READ MORE: Project Grace: Redevelopment of county-owned property planned in high-dollar deal

In the time since, the design team has brainstormed alongside stakeholders from the library and museum in the pursuit of the final schematics. 

“At those meetings they’ve been very willing to answer our questions and take suggestions,” Brewington said. 

Susan Barbee, current chairwoman of the Museum Advisory Board, said it’s been a collaborative process. “As a board, the things that we’ve seen so far, we’re excited about them.” 

Now nearly seven weeks into his tenure as museum director, LaBar is looking to build on programs old and new to push the Cape Fear Museum forward. One museum venture that originated prior to LaBar’s arrival, for example, teaches Wilmington Police Department officers about the racial geography of the city. It examines 1898’s influence on today’s neighborhood layouts. 

“For me, that’s like quintessentially a role a museum has never really played,” LaBar said. 

In the coming months, the Local Government Commission will weigh in on Project Grace. New Hanover County’s pitch involves letting Zimmer borrow the money for construction. Then the company would collect 20 years of rent payments –– totaling at most around $90 million –– from the county.

READ MORE: Project Grace gets thumbs up; developer to overhaul block of historic district

“There are some architectural relationships between exhibits and the architecture of the building, and we need to figure those out,” LaBar said. “And those need to be figured out a little bit earlier than programmatic things.”

There is still much to be set in stone. Details on the private development components, which could include multi-family residences, and space for commercial and retail institutions, are still forthcoming. 

But the fate of at least one prominent museum exhibit, the replica of a locally discovered giant ground sloth skeleton, has been determined. 

“He is what we call in the business, ‘an iconic exhibit,’” LaBar said. “He’s coming to Grace Street. He’ll be the mascot of Grace Street, and you will definitely see him. Our goal is to make him pretty prominent.” 

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