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Sunday, May 26, 2024

Proposed 177-room hotel on CB draws ire from residents, land trade with town proposed

Harmony Hospitality proposes building an Embassy Suites in Carolina Beach. (Courtesy Embassy Suites Carolina Beach)

CAROLINA BEACH — Tensions flared at a Carolina Beach community meeting Thursday as residents argued the development of a potential new hotel in Pleasure Island would not serve the town’s long-term interests.

READ MORE: Hospitality group that bought SeaWitch requests rezonings for multipurpose development

ALSO: SeaWitch Tiki Bar purchased by Cloud 9, Embassy Suites owners

Virginia-based hotel management company Harmony Hospitality — which owns Cloud 9 and Embassy Suites in downtown Wilmington — purchased the SeaWitch Café and Tiki Bar in January. The company wants to use the SeaWitch property as part of a multipurpose development, including a 177-room hotel, 240 parking spaces, and a rooftop bar and restaurant. 

“We’re going to try to incorporate a lot of their menu,” Harmony president Page Johnson told Port City Daily. “Duplicate the music. And we’re going to try to make it look as much like SeaWitch as possible.”

In addition to Johnson, Harmony representatives presented the proposal to more than 100 residents at Community Life Center Thursday. The meeting was held a little more than a month after Harmony representative Brooks Johnson confirmed the acquisition to PCD from owners Jenni and Alex Gilewicz. Johnson said there were no plans to change SeaWitch and the company liked it “just the way it is.”

However, if the project moves forward, SeaWitch would be demolished to make room for Harmony’s to build an Embassy Suites, with its rooftop restaurant mirroring aesthetics of the SeaWitch. In total six parcels would need to be redeveloped upon the approval of a conditional zoning amendment to increase allowed height from 50 to around 90 feet. 

Embassy Suites general manager Zach Brigman — who also gave a presentation at the meeting — increasing height was essential to make the project economically viable.

During his presentation, Brigman said Harmony believes the project will bring in approximately $2.6 million in additional tax revenue and 200 jobs.

“Our idea is just to take the whole SeaWitch atmosphere and vibe and lift it 90 feet in the sky,” Brigman told Port City Daily. “And put it on a rooftop bar with views of the ocean and the harbor and the coastline.”

SeaWitch general manager Grant Meyers also spoke in favor of the project. He told PCD he believed the rooftop bar would be as similar to SeaWitch as possible, while creating a year-round venue to attract revenue and benefit local businesses.

The properties Harmony wants to develop are in the town’s tourism area, currently zoned central business district. 

Three of the parcels — 223, 225, and 227 Carolina Beach Ave. —  are owned by Page Johnson and his wife, purchased for $2.6 million in January from P Pottamus Properties LLC. The SeaWitch Cafe and Tiki Bar is located there and includes adjacent parking. 

The other three parcels part of the conditional rezoning request are located at 235, 237 and 239 Carolina Beach Ave. They are owned by Carolina Beach Hospitalities LLC, purchased in 2014 for $2.1 million from CBP3, the Town of Carolina Beach’s nonprofit entity. Johnson said Harmony currently has them under contract, in addition to 234 and 236 Carolina Beach Avenue.

“To tell you the truth there’s not that much more developable land in Carolina Beach, in this central district,” Johnson said. “That’s why you want to do something special.”

Harmony is proposing a land trade with the town. Brigman said Harmony would trade two parcels on the oceanfront across from SeaWitch Cafe — 234 and 236 Carolina Beach Ave. — for town-owned property at 224 Canal Drive. 

PCD asked Harmony if it has any other Carolina Beach properties under contract or is interested in purchasing but did not receive a response by press.

Town manager Bruce Oakley told PCD no conditional zoning application, site plan, land trade, or any other formal request has been submitted to the town for review or consideration at this point. 

“I will be reserving my thoughts and comments on the proposal until it comes before council in a public hearing,” Mayor Pro Tem Deb LeCompte told PCD Friday.

Council members Jay Healy and Mike Hoffer did not respond to a request for comment by press. Council member Joe Benson said a land trade could provide a benefit by allowing the town to conserve oceanfront property.

Benson told PCD he believed Harmony’s project designs are “pretty remarkable,” but expressed concern about granting the height exemption. 

“I think you lose the faith of the citizenry when you grant a height exemption for a hotel after sticking it to hard and fast,” he said. 

He noted smaller exemptions had been made in the past, but not one of this scale, and thought it would become harder to deny similar projects in the future. Though Benson liked the idea of a rooftop bar, he was also concerned the development could diminish Carolina Beach’s family-friendly atmosphere.

“There’s a vibe that you don’t want to lose, I think,” he said.

Resident Kristen Dunn, founder of the Facebook group Speak Up Carolina Beach, asked Johnson which members of town council Harmony met with before purchasing SeaWitch, noting past emails between the president and town staff. He responded only staff, to coordinate on utilities ahead of time.

Emails show consideration of the proposal preceded Harmony’s SeaWitch purchase by almost two years. In April 2022, planning director Jeremy Hardison and Johnson discussed the conditional zoning process for changing height limits. An August 2023 correspondence discussed anticipated water and sewer needs for the project.

Asked if other investors or developers had raised concerns about the town’s 50-foot height limit, Mayor Lynn Barbee responded: “Every one that I have spoken with over the last four years.”

More than a dozen residents also spoke out in opposition at the meeting. They argued a large new hotel would strain infrastructure and overshadow the beach’s inviting small-town atmosphere.

“SeaWitch is the real Carolina Beach,” resident Dan Smith said. “This isn’t the real Carolina Beach.”

Brad Dutterman argued 95% of residents were against the proposal and tied the issue to other proposed developments in Carolina Beach.

“I was wondering if maybe we ought not just wait and see how the 300 apartments work out before we build a hotel,” he said.

Dutterman didn’t specify which project he was referencing, but Benson told PCD it is likely the Proximity mixed-used development, currently under construction on North Lake Boulevard. It’s anticipated to include an apartment complex with 250 units and multiple commercial businesses. 

“You have very limited commercial space,” Johnson responded to Dutterman, to which a resident countered: “It’s not a problem that needs to be solved.”

Suzi Hunneman, of Carolina Beach, argued a zoning amendment sets an unfavorable precedent.

“Who’s to stop us from turning into another Myrtle Beach?” she asked.

Johnson told PCD he believes residents’ concerns are valid. He also said residents in favor of the project tend to be less outspoken than detractors, and some walked up to him after the meeting to express support. 

Johnson cited the hotel could also be used for event needs, with spaces and conference meeting rooms equaling roughly 8,000 square feet.

Owners of nearby businesses Savannah Inn and SeaWitch Inn did not respond to PCD by press, but Nollies Taco Joint owner E.J. Grant spoke in opposition to the proposal. Nollie’s is located on 3 Pelican Lane, less than 500 feet away from the proposed hotel construction.

Grant believes the hotel developer will seek to purchase his property; Johnson told PCD Saturday acquiring the property is not included in Harmony’s plans.

“They want to take me out,” he told Port City Daily. “And take out all the things they want and build this monstrosity here on the island.”

Johnson plans to address residents’ concerns in an upcoming community meeting at the SeaWitch.


Tips or comments? Email journalist Peter Castagno at peter@localdailymedia.com.

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