The Resurrection of a Downtown

by Tyme

"The downtown is the physical and social transmitter of a community's heritage. It has traditionally been the focal point for the community's 'sense of place'. It contains the community's historical resources, functions as the cultural hub and activity center, and essentially serves as the 'front door for the entire community." – Mayor's Task Force report, 1976

Wilmington, North Carolina, was founded in 1734. Nestled between the Cape Fear River and the Atlantic Ocean, it was the largest town in the State until the early 1900s. The downtown grew and flourished along the bank of the Cape Fear River. Life was good. The economy was good. As an official port of entry, the town supported shipping, lumber, naval stores, and rice industries. In 1804, the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad (later the Atlantic Coast Line) was started, thereby, increasing the town’s economic potential.

Wilmington’s history was shaped dramatically by wars and natural disasters. A fire, in 1840, destroyed 150 buildings along the waterfront. Then, the Civil War began. To add insult to injury, a yellow fever epidemic caused more than 500 deaths. Following this period of despair came a period of reconstruction.

On February 20, 1866, Wilmington once again became a city by charter and began to rebuild. The Chamber of Commerce was organized, Sea Side Railroad Company started a horse-drawn car business to service the downtown, and Congress appropriated river improvement funds that yielded Wilmington a major industrial port. Additionally, in 1876, Shell Road was completed to adjoin downtown to the neighboring beach resort community of Wrightsville Beach. Another railroad, Sea Coast Railway, was constructed to service the Hammocks (now Harbor Island).

During the next 20 years, the downtown boomed. Businesses of all types opened. In 1878, the first telephone was installed, and eight years later, the town operated its first electric lights.

But, once again, disaster struck. A fire destroyed a large part of the waterfront, the Charleston earthquake caused toll, and a great blizzard swept through the town. Moreover, Mother Nature responded, in 1899, with a devastating hurricane that destroyed many cottages and buildings on Wrightsville Beach, and damaged the Sea Coast Railway, as well as Shell Road. At least the War was over.

Not only did the 1890s bring ecological turmoil but racial turmoil as well. The new assertion of power by “Negroes” created tension among black and white communities, resulting in riots and fire bombings that caused loss of life as well as property.

The turn of the century brought prosperity to Wilmington. A new station and offices were built for Atlantic Coast Line Railroad, one of the five railroads that terminated there. More buildings were erected, a wooden sidewalk system installed, and a visiting President Taft was welcomed. Wilmington, after all, was the most populated town, with 25,000 residents. Even World War I did not tarnish the town’s economic success. In fact, the war contributed to the local economy by providing continued business for the shipyards. Four times as many lives (120) were lost to an influenza epidemic than to the War.

Wilmington struggled through the depression, as did cities all across the country, to welcome the 1940s. The new decade brought with it World War II. As had happened with previous wars, the town thrived with industrial activity. The North Carolina Shipbuilding Company employed 21,000 workers to keep up with the War’s demand for ships. The town’s population at the time was 33,407.

Another war over, it was nature’s turn, once again. In 1953, a fire erupted at the nitrate warehouse on the north end of town; and, the next year, Hurricane Hazel hit the coast at 140 mph, leaving behind $7 million of destruction. The announcement that the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad would relocate its operation to Florida hit Wilmington perhaps as hard economically as did some of its natural disasters. The newly opened State Ports Authority terminals would alleviate some of the financial burden. To help stimulate economic development, an organization called the Wilmington Committee of 100 was formed. One of the great sentimental losses during the mid-1950s was the Bijou Theater. It was North Carolina’s first permanent movie theater and, when it closed in 1956, it was the oldest continuously operated movie theater in the United States. With the departure of the ACL railroad and the relocated port activity, downtown’s activity declined. Its importance as a hub had diminished.

Out With The Old Role, In With the New

The buzz word for the 1960s was “urban renewal”. Unfortunately, this often translated to urban removal. Overzealous city planners often ordered the demolition of historic buildings that might have been refurbished. One regrettable decision by the city was to sacrifice several ship chandlers and ship company buildings – participants in the rich town history – for a two-story parking deck. Adequate parking generally would be an asset to any downtown. However, when it encompasses a two-block area of prime river-front real estate, it is considered a burden. Other, positive, structural growth occurred downtown: the Cape Fear Technical Institute (now Cape Fear Community College) was built; a large hotel, the only one downtown, was constructed; and the new Cape Fear Memorial Bridge opened (in 1969). All this in the name of urban renewal.

In 1966, The Historic Wilmington Foundation was founded in response to the city planners' harsh remedy for urban blight. The foundation aimed to prove that economic growth and historical preservation could peacefully co-exist. This private, non-profit organization was pioneered by, as today’s Executive Director David Scott describes, “...concerned citizens whose family roots were deep within the town.”

The Foundation has employed two primary methods of historic preservation: indirect – encouraging individual building owners to renovate, and direct – buying and renovating vulnerable structures. Encouraging others to participate in the town’s history is the more preferred method of preservation, as funds for direct purchase are limited.

For example, in the mid-60s, the city planned to tear down the 1893 courthouse and, in its place, build a modern courthouse complex. The Foundation interacted and was instrumental in the decision to renovate the town icon. (This classic structure has lured many filmmakers to the downtown area.)

In a few instances, the Foundation has purchased and renovated a building, as is the case with the historic deRosset House located in the downtown. In 1976, the 9,000-square-foot house was scheduled for demolition. Because of the project size, the Foundation got involved. Scott explains: “It was just too big a project for an individual to take on…So, we’ve taken it over, and we’ve put over $400,000 into this house…But, there’s still 6,000 square feet that are unrestored in this building. We continue to work on it.” This building is now home to the Foundation office.

Because the group’s primary concern is to preserve the history of Wilmington through its structures, the foundation is often labeled “anti-development”. Only later would the city recognize that downtown historic preservation paved a new and successful avenue of economic growth.

Enter Suburbia

In general, the development of suburbs was a constant threat to the vitality of downtowns all across the country. With the advent of the shopping mall, downtowns began to suffer greatly. Wilmington was no exception. In 1976, a mayor’s task force was dispatched to “thoroughly examine current efforts directed toward preserving and revitalizing downtown; to identify the obstacles and problems associated with these efforts, and determine the real needs for bringing together the various interests in an effective and efficient approach to City Core Revitalization.” So reads A Report of the Mayor’s Task Force for Revitalization in Wilmington. The task force admitted that while once the downtown “hummed with activity,” in the last three decades it had eroded. They noted that the problems included competition from shopping centers, limited cultural facilities, and that the nightly entertainment is “topless bars, pornographic movies, and shady bars.” A primary threat to downtown’s economic health was the development of a shopping mall.

One of the task forces’ recommendations was to create an organization to focus exclusively on the revitalization issue. Such a group was formed and appropriately named Downtown Area Revitalization Effort, Inc. or D.A.R.E.

The organization was established as a private, non-profit group, composed of 29 board members. As a subcontractor, D.A.R.E. receives money from the city (40%) and the county (20%). Private groups and individuals donate the remaining 40% of their funds.

Present-day Executive Director Robert Murphrey explains the initial goal of D.A.R.E.: “We knew that the department stores were going to leave…Certainly, one goal was to retain all that we could. And, second…to find what downtown could be in light of the flight, particularly, of retail stores.”

One of the mistakes that the city made, in response to the mall opening, was in trying to convert the downtown into a mall. At one point, a portion of the main street was blocked to automobile traffic in hopes of encouraging pedestrian traffic. Shortly after the road’s closing, the error was realized, and the street re-opened to vehicle traffic.

When the mall opened in 1979, the downtown had only about a 50% occupancy rate. Once city planners realized that transforming downtown into a competing mall was not the answer, D.A.R.E. devised a new strategy. “Downtown had to take a new direction. It could no longer be, would no longer be, a major retailing center where everybody came to buy everything that they bought,” says Murphrey. The organization reviewed the downtown area’s assets. It was still a government, legal, and financial center. People would continue to come downtown to conduct such business.

First and foremost, D.A.R.E.’s challenge was to make downtown more appealing. Up to this point, downtown’s main street had a concentration of topless bars and adult bookstores. This was not the image that would turn the downtown around. In response to this problem, the city passed an ordinance restricting adult establishments within 1,000 feet of each other. In addition, the ordinance stated that such establishments had to be at least 1,000 feet from a public park, a church, or a residential area. Given the downtown area, it would be difficult for the adult entertainment establishments to meet these requirements and still remain in the historic downtown district. The restrictions did not apply, of course, to those businesses protected by a grandfather clause. D.A.R.E. answered the call of this challenge by buying the buildings that the adult establishments leased. Then, the organization would exercise its option not to renew the lease. In other cases, it would evict the tenant when a violation was committed. By these methods, the city was successful in removing the unwanted element.

Now with a clean slate, so to speak, D.A.R.E. could begin recruiting new businesses. Executive Director Gene Merritt, and later, Mary Gornto, were the early D.A.R.E. pitch people. “They had, I think, the toughest job of anyone,” Murphrey declares. “They had to sell a dream.” They had to remind prospective business owners of downtown’s unique properties, such as the historic Thalian Hall theater, the St. John’s and Cape Fear museums, and most importantly, the Cape Fear River.

Along with the promotional savvy of the Convention And Visitor Bureau, D.A.R.E. has marketed the downtown as a tourist site. Through this avenue, they recruited businesses that cater specifically to the tourist trade, such a horse-drawn carriage tour of the historic districts (residential and commercial), a riverboat cruise, and gift shops. Also, they sought quality restaurants – businesses that would appeal to the tourist trade as well as the locals.

Retail centers The Cotton Exchange and Chandler’s Wharf were the anchors of the downtown, occupying the north end and south end, respectively. They committed to the commercial district in the early years and ‘toughed out’ downtown’s hard times.

Since the late 1970s, Rob Parker owned and operated a boat tour along the Cape Fear River, from the downtown area. In 1985, D.A.R.E. contracted his company to provide a river taxi service to bring tourist from the Battleship – a well-visited attraction – to downtown. While the organization still manages this service, they no longer underwrite the program.

D.A.R.E. offered financing packages and other incentives to investors, particularly for tourist related businesses – a direct focus of the revitalization effort. John and Janet Pucci were from out of state, and had been looking for a city in which to fulfill a dream: a horse-drawn carriage service. They came to Wilmington, and D.A.R.E. welcomed them with open arms. The organization secured a facility, rent free (for five years), where the company could house their operation and keep their carriages.

Not every business to downtown was cajoled by the organization. Carl Marshburn, owner of the Henrietta II, came to Murphrey with his riverboat cruise idea. Murphrey told Marshburn, “I haven’t the slightest idea [if] you could make a living at that, but boy wouldn’t we like to see it.” (Two years ago, Marshburn bought Parker’s river tour boat.)

Another pioneer of the downtown tourist trade is Bob Jenkins, a natural as the one-man welcoming committee. Jenkins offers a walking tour of historic downtown. “That came into place pretty much by an entrepreneur seeing an opportunity and doing a [good] job with it today,” says Murphrey.

Soon, the retail industry began to flourish. Longtime resident Harper Peterson is one of downtown’s newer commercial property owners. During the past three years, he has launched several businesses, including two retail shops, a river-front restaurant, and a restored historic City Market where farmer’s market meets local arts and crafts. “[For] the Market Street property and the Water Street Market, we received assistance from D.A.R.E.,” Peterson says. “They were very helpful not only in finding the property and assisting with the purchasing, but also helping with the loan mortgage package.”

Peterson is an advocate of historic preservation and its economic benefit. He describes The City Market as an ongoing project that will be renovated in phases. “We are going to try to go back to not the original state of 1880 but the 1920 look, which was a Spanish revival look – two stories with lots of shops, offices, apartments, and the market itself,” Peterson explains.

Perhaps the most surprising success for the commercial district of downtown has been its residential community. D.A.R.E. has vigorously campaigned property owners to develop the otherwise vacant upper floors of their building for residential units. At present time, only a small percentage of this potential space has been restructured for apartments. Approximately 265 people live in the commercial district, 89 of whom are elderly residents living in one apartment building. The residential occupancy rate of downtown is 99%, and most apartments have a waiting list. Many of these units are luxury loft-style apartments that command a respectable rental rate. Moreover, a few buildings have been ‘condominiumized’ to offer individual ownership.

While downtown was growing according to D.A.R.E.’s vision, it was developing in an economic and cultural way that the organization had not expected. The burgeoning Carolco Studios has enticed film production companies to the area; and consequently, the filmmakers have discovered the downtown area, rich in locations. The economic impact to the community has been dramatic.

Additionally, downtown has molded itself into a cultural center. At present time, the downtown area supports three museums, six art galleries, with more galleries expected.

At this stage, D.A.R.E.’s expectations for downtown had been exceeded. They were happy, the city was happy, and the Historic Wilmington Foundation was well pleased. Then, along came the mother of all revitalization hopes: a buyer for the historical Masonic Temple building. The 65,000-square-foot building was saved from demolition by actor/director Dennis Hopper. This acquisition was a bonus, if ever there was one.

Project Architect, John Parker of Synthesis, Inc., describes the Masonic Temple structure: “The building is incredibly unique. The building was built about 1898. It was quite an exceptional building for that period of time and would remain that way today, in terms of the spaces that are inside: large two story spaces in the center of the building, a theater on the top, and the facade overall. The original architect, Charles McMillen, who has done a number of other features downtown, was really quite accomplished in his time.”

Hopper purchased the building in October of 1992. Based upon current plans, the building will be an amalgamation of all of downtown’s features: residential, cultural, retail, office space, and possibly restaurant. The remainder, and largest portion, of the building will be for Hopper’s private use.

“The kind of vision that Dennis Hopper has,” David Scott opines, “compliments that building to the great extent that anything else could. If I dreamed up somebody to do something, Dennis Hopper’s vision is what I would have dreamed up.”

While the Masonic Temple building renovation is a dream come true, the Stone Towing Company building is a dream unrealized. This 20,000-square-foot landmark sits on the bank of the Cape Fear River, in the heart of the commercial district. (It actually extends over the water, thereby possibly subjecting it to marine regulations.) The building embodies the history of downtown Wilmington, when the river was alive with maritime activity, and the adjacent railroad served the downtown. Although the 1890 building is in very good condition and is well maintained, it is a disappointment to D.A.R.E. who feels that it could provide great economic benefit. The building has been owned since 1976 by the Stone family. Presently, the family has no intentions of selling the building or developing it in anyway. Although family member Rick Wommack admits, “Things might change in the near future.”

As the original goal of D.A.R.E. was to keep businesses from leaving the downtown area, their goal today is more ambitious, as Murphrey describes: “Twenty-four hour vitality: an 8-hour shift of people working in the offices, an 8-hour shift of people getting entertained downtown, and an 8-hour shift of people living downtown.…That’s the goal. And we’re making good progress towards that.”

Looking Forward To Tomorrow

How familiar is the quotation, “It’s not over ‘til it’s over.” For such organizations like D.A.R.E. and the Historic Wilmington Foundation, it will never be over. They know that today’s star buildings can be tomorrow’s derelict has-beens. D.A.R.E. has a city plan through the year 2000 and hopes, this year, to begin a plan that will extend to 2020.

Among the organization’s objectives for the downtown commercial district is to provide more Class A office space and more residential units, and to improve the landscaping and amenities. Likewise, they hope to develop a viable alternative to the imposing parking deck. Over the years, several ideas have been proposed. “The big question is for what, and what do we do about the 500 people [who] park there every day,” says Murphrey. The current presentation has been on the boards for four years.

The progress will most certainly continue, since several choice buildings remain for sale. No matter, downtown has been resurrected. “You come down here on a weekend, people are walking around, things are happening, the streets are alive,” says David Scott. “They weren’t alive five years ago.”


Tyme is a freelance writer and filmmaker.

(c) 1994 Tyme | Unpublished.