The hidden jewel that has finally been found
“Wilmington is a big word,” one local business owner and lifelong resident told me recently. Why, yes it is, thought I, Lord Wilmington, the very man whose name graces this beautiful and curious coastal city. “It has three parts,” she added. “Old white Wilmington, old black Wilmington, and all the people who have moved here.” The latter, I have learned, are arriving at the rate of four or more per day, mostly from the Northeastern realms. It’s an invasion not seen since the Civil War as the aesthetics of this sweet spot — climate, coast, culture and cost — have become more widely known to those weary of the cold, high-tax bustle of their home states and the expensive density (and mosquitoes) of previous escape destinations such as Charleston and Savannah.
But there are more Wilmingtons than those quite distinctive three my friend mentioned, I have learned during my constant and fabulously revealing wanderings of this town, first and most ably governed by my protege Gabriel Johnston, who learned at my silken knee when I was speaker of Britain’s new House of Commons in the early 1700s. (By the way, my new passions for surfing, motorcycling and fishing have been joined by shuffleboard at the Barbary Coast — thanks to my delicate and well-manicured touch — and pool shooting at the Duck & Dive, where I have been coached by local landowner Charles Alexander, who learned how to “hustle” while growing up in a pool hall owned by a one-armed gambler.)
There is, of course, the daylight downtown and the after-midnight one, in which inebriates topple the city’s IQ and rekindle its long-held reputation as a wharf town of questionable virtue. There’s inner Wilmington and the outer one, where the city annexed vast farmlands to make way for the college and its professors and developers, thereby giving us our eastern halo of malls, subdivisions and tangled roadways. There’s the south end of downtown and its scrappy warehouse developments, music, its lake, venerable Sunset Park, its port, River Road and lots of land ripe for development. Now there’s even a northern downtown of new apartments, condos and fresh residents where an old sawmill once stood, growing more distinctive from the old port core. And there are the satellite Wilmington towns of Castle Hayne and Leland and the rapidly growing sprawl of subdivisions in Pender, Brunswick and New Hanover counties, practically within sight of the city and certainly within its planning footprint. Roughly 50,000 people a day come here from these other areas to shop, work, go to school or to the hospital. Double that in the summer. And that’s going to quickly double again as the rest of the nation gets a taste of our easy salt life.
“It’s wild,” Mayor Bill Saffo told me. “We’ve been a hidden jewel for many years. Now, they’ve really found us.” So how can these disparate Wilmingtons — nearly all of them rapidly growing — work together for a healthy present and future?
Sorting out these kinds of tangles in our vast realm is how I became a favorite of Kings George I and II; why I was accepted by both the Whigs and Tories (the liberals and conservatives), even though I was widely considered to be lax, ponderous, and overly rouged.
“We’ve got a really exciting time right now,” Ed Wolverton told me when I went to his Front Street office to talk vision for our city. He’s the president of Downtown Wilmington Inc., a nonprofit steering and planning group guided by 38 board members made up of residents, business owners, college representatives and other stakeholders, including, of course, developers. (I wasn’t here long before I heard of the mighty reach of local development families like the Camerons, Trasks and Kenans. Thus is how it’s ever been for the landed gentry.) Wolverton, clad in a crisp lavender shirt, matching paisley tie and midnight black slacks, opened his books for my skilled perusal. We reviewed the city’s previous two-decade master plan — Wilmington Vision 2020 — and I was surprised to see how many goals were met, including the Convention Center, new hotels, business and housing complexes, the Riverwalk expansion and public transport. There was even the addition of a new and quite successful 7-acre marina dredged out of a north-center-city shoulder of the mighty Cape Fear.
Wolverton, the kind of planner and problem-solver I used to send to our many colonies during my upsetting time as prime minister, has been here five years after similar stints in Greensboro, Wichita and Savannah. “We’re in a fortunate situation,” he told me as he laid out the addition of roughly 1,000 new downtown dwellings in developments like Sawmill Point, River Place, City Block, Pier 33 and Flats on Front, most of them with parking built in. (Parking, of course, is the city’s Achilles heel. It’s why my Queen Street landlord loaned me one of his Harley-Davidson motorcycles.) The idea is to mate new downtown residential and business development with the old historic riverfront core as the entire area expands and many more people look to downtown Wilmington as a destination. That will make this a four-season, 24-hour town.
So why does the downtown riverfront seem to have fewer visitors now? Why are there more vacant storefronts and more vagrants on the benches? Why is downtown so dirty? My mother, Mary Noel — the best-dressed woman in England — would not tolerate it. And why has riverfront Wilmington not bounced back from Hurricane Florence more quickly?
Part of it is public relations, Wolverton said. National news depicted Wilmington as devastated, a perception they’ve worked to correct. The storm took out the Salvation Army’s downtown shelter, leaving more people on the street. And Wilmington’s rebuilding process has been hindered by the historic and multi-floored nature of its buildings, Wolverton explained. Different floors can be owned or leased by different people or businesses. One on the ground floor, like Waffle House, might be ready and anxious to repair and reopen but couldn’t until those above took care of their problems. “Who owns the roof?” becomes a crucial question.
And there are hidden structural and even personal issues. For example, Farmin’ on Front, downtown’s healthy grocery, not only suffered storm damage but also the death of a prominent family member. More than a few businesses that were just starting to enjoy the steady new growth got punched right back into survival mode by Florence.
But there seems to be a strong confidence in the future — and in city leadership — among those business owners I’ve visited since the storm. “Absolutely,” said Bobby Hamelburg, the fourth-generation owner of Finkelstein’s Music at Front and Market, where I buy strings for my lute. He’s not a guy to mince words. And given that they’ve been on that corner for 113 years, it’s rather strong when he says the outlook and governance is the “best ever.”
Friends, despite my reputation for frippery, I’m quite serious about the business of the realm. I’ve seen healthy colonies suffer or fail due to lack of vision and follow-through. I want to know the details of how my namesake city will cling to its small-town charm while dealing with all its new regional-city pressures. “It’s a challenge,” Mayor Bill Saffo told me as we went over his views for the future and how they’ll be funded and accomplished. As the entire area rapidly grows, “How do we keep the quality of life?” he asked. “How do we keep from wrecking the place?”
Saffo, a real estate man, grew up here. He’s been mayor since 2006 — the longest tenure in city history. He knows where Wilmington has been. And it seems he knows where it’s going. We talked new roads and interchanges — traffic is another obvious Achilles heel — parking, port expansion, tree canopies, the new festival park, funding streams, public-private partnerships and budget responses to public desires, such as how your neighborhood looks. Both Saffo and Wolverton said they’re very conscious of the importance of preserving and enhancing the flavor, feel and beauty of the city — the feng shui of it. “We have a lot of work ahead of us,” Saffo said.
Yes, lots of work, big and small. As my mother used to say, it’s the little things that tell the difference between ugliness and beauty. Wash that dirty fire hydrant or street sign on your block. Keep your yard and sidewalk tidy. Join your fellow gardeners and artists to add beauty and character to the city. And stay on Wolverton, Saffo and City Council to keep this city in tune with itself.
It’s no coincidence that I, Spencer Compton, Earl of Wilmington, have come to my namesake city at this crucial fork in the road. You may email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or approach me on our fair streets. I’m the 6-foot-9-inch (without heels) one wearing longish hair and only a hint of powder on my newly tanned face.
Yes, Wilmington is a big word. But it’s really just spelled us. — Spencer Compton