Sunday, March 26, 2023

Riverwalk extension could lead to brewery and restaurant, more development on north end downtown

The downtown Riverwalk ends at Sawmill Apartments. If an extension is approved, it would go under the Isabel Holmes Bridge to a northern part of the Cape Fear River. (Port City Daily/Alexandria Sands Williams)

WILMINGTON — North of downtown Wilmington’s Isabel Holmes Bridge, 12 acres of riverfront land was purchased in 2020 by Off the Hook Yachts founder and CEO Jason Ruegg. By 2026, it could be developed into Ruegg’s long-term vision, which includes the headquarters for his yacht sales and service business, and a brewery and restaurant accessible by foot on an extended downtown Riverwalk.

“If the Riverwalk extension doesn’t happen, the brewery and restaurant won’t happen,” Ruegg told Port City Daily last week.

Tuesday evening city council approved in a unanimous vote a $50,000 “Riverwalk Tidal Marsh Extension Feasibility Study.” The Riverwalk currently ends at Sawmill Apartments near Riverfront Park; its extension is planned north under the Isabel Holmes Bridge to Off the Hook property located on J.E.L. Wade Drive, off Cornelius Harnett Drive. 

The conceptualization of the Riverwalk extension along the northend of downtown would be built under the Isabel Holmes Bridge and through tidal marshes to connect to a possible brewery and restaurant Off the Hook wants to build on its property in the next three or four years. (Courtesy City of Wilmington)

Ruegg will put $10,000 toward the study, with the city picking up the remaining $40,000, paid from its contingency fund.

While the extension would connect all of downtown to Off the Hook’s campus, it also opens up other opportunities, Ruegg said. The area, south of the CFPUA Sweeney Treatment Plant, is ripe for more development — something addressed in a letter city staff sent to council ahead of their vote.

“There are other commercial redevelopment opportunities along the river north of Off the Hook,” city staff wrote and recommended moving forward with the feasibility study. “Extension of the Riverwalk has the potential to spur economic growth in this area of the city.”

The feasibility study would assess site conditions, identify potential alignments, opportunities and constraints, as well as evaluate permitting and estimate costs of the Riverwalk. Its design includes offshoot pathways to reach other areas of downtown too. 

“There are three possible routes,” Ruegg said of the Riverwalk’s fabrication. “The study would determine if any can work and what would be the best way — if it’s going to cost a fortune to run underneath the bridge and through the marshes.”

Created in 2019, a map shows the extension also connecting to a potential pocket park at Front and 3rd streets. The crossing then continues under the Isabel Holmes Bridge to lead to another pedestrian path to reach Jervay Freedom Walk, a city park connecting to downtown’s Northside neighborhood.

The extension would end at a future Riverwalk parking area, just north of Off the Hook’s restaurant and brewery.

“This will give people a reason to come and take a walk to the restaurant, or people can come back down after a concert,” Ruegg said. “It would just make it a lot more desirable.”

An early rendering of the Off the Hook Yacht Sales campus, including a brewery and restaurant at the top of the property. (Courtesy City of Wilmington)

Ruegg founded Off the Hook Yacht Sales in 2012 and has grown it into one of the largest marine wholesalers in North America, acquiring over $100 million in used boats and yachts. The company — with locations in Florida, Maryland and New Jersey — brokers sales with new boat dealers and private customers.

Two years ago, it purchased Bennett Brothers Yachts and Boatyard, adjacent to Cape Fear Marina, at 1701 Jel Wade Dr. Suite 16 on the Cape Fear River. It expanded services to include repair and refit, travel lift services, hurricane haulouts, and act as an agent for slip owners.

Ruegg said the company is finalizing a $42-million loan for its expansion, though he is hoping to increase it to $100 million. He envisions new corporate offices, marine renovations, dry dockage, and creating a partnership with a popular brewery and eatery in Asheville, N.C. Ruegg said he would remain a silent investor. 

“I have no experience in the restaurant industry,” he said, “but this place is very popular and one of my favorites.”

Ruegg remained mum to yet reveal its name. 

“We are early in this process — we’re probably talking three or four years out before something like this would happen,” he added. 

To get the ball rolling, he has been talking with the city, as well as with engineering and community services staff and people from WMPO, for a year. The property also would have to be rezoned from industrial to move forward.

“We’re actually allowed to do a brewery just not a restaurant there,” Ruegg said. He is aiming for mixed-use.

Ruegg plans to work with the property’s concrete buttresses, a centuries-old retaining wall and “really cool archways” to build the restaurant.

“It’s like a hidden, cool room that you would never know is there,” he described. “As you go right up to the top of the property, there are record views of the river, the bridge, everything.”

He wants to include outdoor seating and build a stage to welcome live performers riverside.

Ruegg has met with site planners and architects to begin conceptualizing blueprints. Yet, it all hinges on the Riverwalk extension. 

“We’re going to try to do whatever it takes to get it done,” Ruegg said.

There would be offshoots from the Riverwalk extension, including a path to Jervay Freedom Walk Park. (Courtesy City of Wilmington)

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Shea Carver
Shea Carver
Shea Carver is the editor in chief at Port City Daily. A UNCW alumna, Shea worked in the print media business in Wilmington for 22 years before joining the PCD team in October 2020. She specializes in arts coverage — music, film, literature, theatre — the dining scene, and can often be tapped on where to go, what to do and who to see in Wilmington. When she isn’t hanging with her pup, Shadow Wolf, tending the garden or spinning vinyl, she’s attending concerts and live theater.

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