Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Council delays vote on economic incentives, approves Oleander Drive improvements

Wilmington City Council met Tuesday evening to vote on upward of 20 items on its agenda. (Port City Daily/File)

WILMINGTON — To the tunes of “Footloose,” Wilmington leaders moved through 20 items of business Tuesday.

Apparently, some crossed wires, or frequencies, were happening between the mics in Thalian Hall and council chambers, located upstairs from the historic theater. Opera House was in the throes of tech week for the opening of its Friday-night musical during the council’s meeting.

“I was hoping that we were haunted,” council member Neil Anderson quipped.

Business continued, sans music, with council discussing almost $700,000 in economic development projects, voting on decreasing the speed limit on Avandale Drive, and approving the contract for sidewalk improvements along Oleander.

Here’s a look at what happened:

Companies seek economic incentives to bring over 1,000 jobs to area

Four economic development investment grants were presented to both city and county leaders last week; the companies seeking incentives remain anonymous. 

“All four of these items will be receiving state funding,” Wilmington city manager Tony Caudle explained to council during Tuesday’s meeting. “That is pending right now at the state level and so it awaits that funding. And, of course, when the funding is actually authorized, the state reserves to itself the right to make the announcement. So that’s the reason for the cloak and dagger on the names.”

Referred to as projects “Transit,” “Clear,” “Speed,” and “Buckeye,” the companies are asking the city to invest a total of $695,000 to bring more than 1,000 jobs to the area.

From the county, it’s asking for a $1.9-million investment. Commissioners will consider the requests at its Feb. 21 meeting next week.

The incentives are contingent upon “milestone employment goals” and ongoing operations and impacts the businesses will have on New Hanover County and Wilmington. 

“Even though we have to legally use the word ‘incentive,’ people should know these companies do not receive money up front,” Mayor Pro-Tem Margaret Haynes said. “They have to actually establish a number of jobs within the salary range that they state — and that is proven by the state employment commission, not the company itself.” 

Haynes suggested most of the businesses would operate brick-and-mortars, in turn increasing the tax base. “In a way, it’s sort of a refund of some of the taxes that they spend,” she said.

In letters sent to both city council members and county commissioners, three companies explained the money would help them invest in “real and personal property” — two within city limits, the other in the “region” — calling the funds “competitively necessary.” It’s unclear whether these companies already do work in the area; three of the letters mentioned expansions, while Project Speed indicated the money would “encourage the location of this business in the City.”

Project Transit is asking the city for $40,000 annually over five years ($60,000 a year from the county) in return for bringing 300 jobs, with an average compensation of $62,000 each.

Project Clear proposed the city pay $50,000 annually for five years ($250,000 a year from the county) with a goal to bring 485 new jobs to the region, each averaging a $131,000 wage.

Project Buckeye also is requesting $40,000 a year over five years ($60,000 a year from the county) and will usher in 204 new jobs, averaging salaries of $113,000 each.

Project Speed has a goal to provide 75 jobs averaging $64,000 a year each in wages, in return for $9,000 a year over five years, paid by the city ($13,500 from the county).

City council voted unanimously to address the items at the next meeting to prolong the public comment period. Only one response was heard Tuesday: Former council member Kevin O’Grady, who didn’t seek re-election in 2021, sent in an objection, as read by the city clerk, Penny Spicer-Sidbury.

O’Grady indicated the projects “depart from the mythology established by council regarding the last economic incentive item considered for National Gypsum.” He said in that case council determined it should look at whether job positions and their comparable salaries equaled living wages “across the economic range.”

“None of the four items meet that test,” O’Grady added. “Rather, each refers to ‘average salary’ … All four items require further demonstration of benefit to city objectives, particularly to employment equity, before they are considered by council.”

The public comment period for all four projects will remain open until the council’s next meeting, to be held at the Wilmington Convention Center on Mar. 1.

Sidewalks improvements along Oleander Drive

As part of the 2014 transportation bond, the city voted on moving forward with improvements along Oleander Drive. Construction will include new pavement, curb and sidewalks, pedestrian signal, sign and markings, and traffic control from Wooster Street to Mimosa Place. Concrete medians along the intersection will be converted to grass medians.

According to city staff, most of the work will take place at night, for minimal impact on daytime motorists, over the course of seven months.

Senior project engineer Jason Pace told council the decision to do the improvement at night drove up the price some. 

A $722,677.15 contract was awarded to DeMorgan Trucking and General Construction for the project. 

Speed limit reduced along Alandale Drive

At the suggestion of the N.C. Department of Transportation, a change to a state-maintained road near North Kerr will have motorists slowing down while driving through the Alandale subdivision.

NCDOT completed an engineering investigation regarding Alandale Drive, upon a citizen’s request to review the speed limits. It based its conclusion to decrease the speed from 35 to 25 mph “on the road characteristics and surrounding environment,” a “small part” which is within city limits.

Council unanimously adopted the state’s concurring ordinance at the suggestion of city traffic engineer Denys Vielkanoqitz.

Lighting reimbursement for nCino Sports Complex

In early January, council approved entering a contract with MUSCO Sports Lighting, LLC for $800,000 to install lighting at nCino Sports Complex, which will have 11 fields functional for nighttime games. Council unanimously voted for Cape Fear Youth Soccer Association, Inc. to reimburse the city $225,000 of the lighting costs.

The association and city entered an agreement in 2019 to build the sports complex — funded by the 2016 parks bond. The complex will promote a variety of programming for both youth and adults, including lacrosse, football, and ultimate frisbee.

Last spring, it was announced Cape Fear Regional Soccer Park, off U.S. 421 near the Duke Energy Sutton Steam Plant, would become home to the 64-acre sports complex — one of the largest in the state. nCino also signed on to a $1.3-million title sponsorship, paying $125,000 a year for 10 years. 

Removal of 24 decaying or dead trees

Council voted unanimously to enter a contract with Davey Tree Expert Company for the removal of 24 decaying or dead trees, as determined by the Urban Forestry staff, at various rights-of-way across the city. The contract awarded was for $123,200; Dave Tree was the only company to bid on the work. The city noted in its supporting documents for the agenda this bid is exempt from state law — normally requiring three bidders — since it is a service contract. 

City staff suggested contracting the work to alleviate a backlog of duties, due to “prolonged vacancies in the City’s Tree Maintenance” department. The end result, staff suggested, will allow for work to be done in a more timely manner.

Once Davey’s begins the work, it will take four weeks to complete.

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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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