Saturday, December 5, 2009

X-Mas Parade on Front Street

The Annual Wilmington Christmas Parade is Sunday night beginning at 6:00 pm. Best viewing is along Front Street, preferably by a coffee shop (hot chocolate).

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Monday, October 12, 2009

The Importance of Place Making - Right Now

The Front Street Streetscape 100% design phase is complete, and I got my first review last week. They are okay, I was frankly hoping for something really cool, or unique. Besides, this is our last chance to make a really cool impression on the next couple of generations.

When I was in Milwaukee attending the IDA Conference, I sat in one session presented by the folks from Vancouver on their Granville Street project. They went the extra mile, and put recycled glass in the concrete as an aggregate. The end result was a sidewalk that sparkles when it rains. We have some interesting aggregate that is indigenous to our area. As a child, I remember scraping the shark teeth from the sidewalk and pavement in our neighborhood. The local cement plant that used to provide the aggregate is no longer in business, but it sure would be cool to have something like that in our new sidewalks. Perhaps we can find a way to add shark teeth into the cement as it is poured. This will give us a unique look that won’t look like “Anywhere, USA” and will have a truly unique aspect. This would be something a little special that the tour operators can point it out when giving tours.

One thing that has gotten some people fired up lately is the use or re-use of granite curbing. In the past, the city would keep all of the granite that was pulled up. In fact, there is a field somewhere off of River Road where this “stockpile” is. You see, almost every session I’ve been in, someone says, “Are we going to use granite curbs?” The typical refrain from the city staff has been, “it’s not in the budget, we can’t afford it.” Well in my opinion, if we can’t afford it, go find the money. If we can’t go get the money, cut the project down in size. This is a historic street, one of the oldest in the state, and granite curbing is a vital part of our urban fabric. Granite curbing exists throughout most of our city. Wilmington is home to the state’s largest historic district, and we need to act like one.

Granite curbs will take no longer to install than poured in place concrete. This project has been designed by engineers, who have tried to “value engineer” this project. Front Street is too important to “value engineer” so let’s pull out all the stops and make this project special.

Similarly, we’ve gotten feedback on the idea of installing recycling bins. You see, I feel it sends an important message to visitors when they see a recycling bin. It also gives the locals an option. Many of us recycle at home, and to be on the sidewalk and not be able to recycle is bothersome to most. You see, humans are a creature of habit. I know the experts will say, recycling bins in public space does nothing to reduce the amount of trash. Well it’s not always about the trash, but the public relations.

This project is going to hurt; there is no doubt about it. A few small businesses are almost always casualties in projects like this. But this reminds me of another session I sat in on. Jon Schallert gave a presentation on “Destination Retail.” You see, Jon found businesses across the United States that do huge numbers. Not big box or chain stores, but small Mom & Pops who do huge business. How? By getting that one niche, or providing that extra level of service. Jon went around and met all of these folks and asked them the question, “How do you do this?” Frankly I’m shocked he got answers, but like the old saying goes, “It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true.” Jon has developed a 14 point pyramid system to help you grow your business. You can learn more about the program at and login with the promo code FREE9. He’s quite inspirational, but his point was … “if you’re good enough, people will climb over a bulldozer to get to you.”

I had a brief meeting this morning with a high level business executive in our community. She said “my problem with your downtown merchants is that they run their businesses like a hobby, they don’t work it.” And she’s right with regards to several owners. Our conversation carried on to complain that there is nowhere to get breakfast before 8:00 am in downtown. That is a real shame in my opinion. Do some of these people feed their kids, drop them off at school and then come to work? I know I do, but I don’t sell breakfast for a living.

Anyway, sorry to get off on a tangent, but I know the project will hurt. But the project is too important to rush, or take the path of least resistance. We must do this right. It must have charm, and uniqueness, and character. Otherwise, we will continue to dwell on other problems.

You may know the work of Richard Florida and Rebecca Ryan. Florida’s Earth shaking book, The Rise of the Creative Class has been a best seller and reference guide for elected officials worldwide for a number of years. Our on Chamber of Commerce is delving into the Cape Fear Futures program, based on the work of Florida’s Consulting Firm Catalytix, Inc. I saw Rebecca Ryan with NextGen Consulting speak at the International Downtown Association. I consequently read her book, Live First, Work Second on the plane ride home. What both authors tell us, to paraphrase; you must make your place so special, that all the really cool and super smart people want to be there. When that happens, companies will choose to call your city home. Why, because that is where the talent pool has chosen to call home. You see, the next generation of worker will find his/her new home based on a number of factors and guess what, the job is not as important as the cool place they choose to live in. [That’s a really bad paraphrase, but succinct enough I hope to make the point.] We have an important first step with the Front Street Project. If we choose to make this really special, we can position ourselves to improving our competitive edge and attract the future work force, and consequently, our economy. Always keep your eyes on the big picture and make our Place special. It is Place Making 101!!!

Friday, September 25, 2009

This Weekend is BUSY in downtown Wilmington

So this weekend is really busy. The NC Azalea Festival is kicking off their year with a "Fall" garden party. The purpose of the party is to unveil this year’s artwork. I know its clear on the other side of the county, but the Festival is in gear and the committees are already hard at work. And you all know how big an impact the festival has on downtown.

That leads to downtown, here is a snapshot of what's happening, and I'll probably miss something ... so come downtown and snoop around.

Tonight, my very good friend Lee Hill is having an art opening. Lee is a commercial realtor, fellow pirate, a board member with Wilmington Downtown, and an all around awesome lady. She has been quite an accomplished photographer for some time, but now she is going commercial and having a big show. Come down to Montage Gallery on North Front Street tonight as part of the monthly 4th Friday Gallery Walk.

On the Fourth Friday of every month, there is a great Gallery Walk with the art galleries in downtown Wilmington. There is always a great crowd, the chance to meet with artists, and the gallery owners dole out a little wine and cheese sometimes.

Tomorrow morning, come down early, park in the parking deck, and just leave your car there. You have a whole day already planned for you. Start early at the Farmers’ Market. Only a couple of months left to get your fresh produce, jams and jellies.

Tomorrow is the bi-annual Downtown Wilmington Wine and Beer Walk. Couples tickets are $25, and you get regular portion drinks at many of the venues. At last count, almost 20 venues are serving up the vino and ale, stroll downtown and enjoy the many shops, bars and restaurants. You can get your tickets at the Front Street Brewery, Bottega Art Bar, and the City Club.

Also Saturday is Museum Day, so the Cape Fear Museum is FREE. Check out the Wilmington native Michael Jordan Room. Many of the exhibits have been updated, and the experience is great for families and others.

Saturday night offers a really cool experience for you military buffs. Battleship Alive is an interactive experience with re-enactors doing the daily duties and chores that kept the Showboat running in tip top shape. This is really cool, and your kids and grandparents will love it. Plus the Battleship has a really cool green screen that you can have your family’s photo taken with the Battleship in the background.

Sunday, after you shake off the cobwebs and wine walk you can drag out your grandmother’s armoire and head down to Bellamy Mansion. There is an antique appraisal fair going on Sunday called “What is it Worth.” The Bellamy is very well kept, and this is a good opportunity to see a marvelous home in great condition.

So I'm sure I've missed something, but come downtown and enjoy the weekend. I'll be here, I hope to see you too.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009


Sorry for the delay in updating my blog since returning from Milwuakee. I have a ton of things to tell you about. Look for something here before this weekend. Look for future blogs about:
BIDs (Business Improvement Districts)
Green Space
Cool Streetscape work in Vancouver
networking with peers

I really thought when I started this that I would be able to update almost twice a week but that has proven difficult. I promise I'll get better.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

"Do you know what downtown needs?"

One of our committees had a great session last month, and the result of the meeting was that each person was going to come up with 5 Things to make living and working in downtown Wilmington easier.

For a little background, when I tell people what I do, they often ask, “you know what downtown needs … (fill in the blank).” I always, and I mean always say, “please tell me.” Everyone has different experiences, and the diversity offers us the opportunity to improve … if we listen. You never know when that light bulb will go off, or someone says something that makes me slap my forehead and say, “Wow, what a great idea.” Not to be cynical, or a Mr. Smarty Pants, but I hear this almost daily … “Hey John, you know what downtown needs?” This will probably become the running joke now, but I will keep listening, hoping for an incredible idea.

Why do I ask this question, well I love working in downtown Wilmington. I’m close to my house, it takes me 15 minutes to get to the beach, in traffic. I have too many choices for lunch, within walking distance. I can walk on the Riverwalk to many destinations, or Front Street offers great people watching opportunities.

These 5 things were clarified, no one could come up with “just 5 things” to improve downtown, that’s why we asked for things to make it easier to live and work downtown.

You see, we deal with perceptions a lot, and often perceptions are reality. When the reality does not meet the perception, your challenges become really tough. So that is one of my challenges right now? How do I alter the perception that living and working in downtown is too difficult? You can substitute difficult here with expensive, dangerous, too regulatory, etc.

When you look at other great urban centers, you notice a couple of striking things:
1) They have awesome green/open space. Sometimes referred to a park (note the sarcasm font).
2) They have eye catching architecture, either historic or really modern and cool.

This weekend, I’ll be traveling to Milwaukee to attend the International Downtown Association Annual Conference. Milwaukee is one of the great modern urban centers in our country. Their mayor is so awesome, he went to the state fair and defended a lady who had her purse snatched. He got beaten up pretty good, but he showed great leadership and perseverance.

Milwaukee has one of the most eye catching architectural structures in the world. They also have incredible green space in the center of their urban core that I can’t wait to see. Greensboro, NC also has a great Center City Park. I visited that two years ago and was blown away by what a community can achieve when it is motivated with great leadership.

So, would green space be one of the 5 things for you? It is on my list. Studies have shown that a well designed park will drive up investment in the surrounding area, encourage others to live in downtown Wilmington. Year round residents will, on average, spend twice as much in their neighborhood, than those who work in the same area. It is an economic study that has been studied time and again, particularly in downtown areas. That is why there has been such a push for residential development in the past few years. One thing those residents, both new and old have said is, we need park space downtown. A new, should I say, Riverfront Park is definitely on my list of 5 things. We need a space where kids can run around in circles, fall and not scratch their knees.

A park will encourage additional residential development and those upwardly mobile, young diverse professionals to live downtown. Some call them the Creative Class, hipsters, cool kids, the new yuppie, etc etc.

This brings the chicken and egg argument. Developers will tell you, build the residential, and the retail will come. Well, we need some retail too.

Typical residential investors ask, “where do I buy my groceries?” A grocery store is on my list, although I’ll still listen when a fellow party attendee says, “Hey John, you know downtown could sure use a grocery store?” Of the retail shops we need, many could make the list; grocery, pharmacy, hardware, dry cleaner, and more apparel shops. That’s five, so a single commitment to more retail will work too.

When trying to improve residential development, one person or organization can do little to change the marketplace. But I am interested in doing a few things, like waiving impact fees. The fact that a condo developer has to pay nearly $10,000 to hook up each unit to the sewer system is outrageous. This is particularly troubling when you know that connection is about 10 feet from the new building. The sewer and water infrastructure is already in the ground throughout downtown Wilmington.

I’d also like to consider waiving or abating taxes for a number of years, perhaps 10. Other great urban cities have done things like this (Milwaukee, Pittsburg, [so I’ve been told, still working to confirm] etc). Something needs to happen that draws the attention of the developers, potential residents and possible commercial developers. We could even tie this proposal to affordable housing. Having working class families live in your downtown is important, especially when you consider the ease of access to public transportation and jobs in the area.

My next thing is an equation of sorts, balance stricter historic preservation guidelines with looser design regulations on new buildings. I think new construction should represent it’s time in place, not what buildings looked like 60 years ago. Let modern architecture and construction happen, it creates a nice and unique urban fabric.

My list is never just 5 things, but I ask, “What 5 things do you think would make it easier to live and work in downtown Wilmington?” You can see that I want diverse architecture, a new Riverfront Park, infill development incentives and more retail. Tell me what you want, seriously, I’m listening.

Monday, August 10, 2009

customer comments

Recently I’ve been drawn to online conversations about businesses. Perhaps the United Breaks Guitars video really caught my attention. In my role as a downtown advocate and business recruiter, I am challenged by some of the things I “overhear” online.

My most recent experience was very positive; in fact I was being solicited for a reference on a downtown business that I support personally. I say that because I support all downtown businesses professionally. One of my Twitter friends was talking about his upcoming workout at The Urban Studios (a personal training facility on N 4th Street). I teased that the boxing class will wear you out. Another Studios patron tweeted that the workout equaled exhaustion and arm failure. Both the patron and I agree that The Studios have some of the best workouts either of us has ever had.

The mutual patron by the way is Chris Green, the GM at the Hilton Wilmington Riverside. Since working out at The Urban Studios, he has lost an amazing 26+ pounds. He even admits to not eating right and still being successful.

On the flip side of the coin is an unnamed ice cream place. A customer recently tweeted that the customer service there was the worst ever. In fact, he will probably not ever go back. Another Twitterer (always confused about that term) sounded somewhat surprised. Personally, I’m blinded by the awesome smells of the unnamed ice cream place.

Later in the week, I shared the experience with a few of my board members. One of the board members had some great inside knowledge and I’m proud to say, the ice cream shop will soon change. It turns out the owners are buying a condo within one block of the shop so that they can address the challenges they have. They recognize that they cannot provide the leadership and support necessary from halfway across the state.

More importantly, they recognize the value of good customer service, and they did so without me having to tell them about what I read online. Perhaps monitoring the conversations about your business online are just as important as watching the business from behind the cash register.

Remember, if you are an entrepreneur, or curious about moving or expanding your business, please let me know if I can assist. I work for the mutual benefit of all downtown Wilmington, so let our organization help you.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Front Street Design Session - Tonight

Just a quick note about the Front Street Streetscape Design public input session tonight and why its important to attend. This meeting is to get final input from the public regarding the look and feel of Front Street once the design is complete.

As some of you are aware, the City of Wilmington is replacing the 100 year old sewer and water lines along the intersection of Front and Market Streets, and the 0 & 100 blocks of North Front Street. This work is long overdue, but well planned. While under the street, the City of Wilmington, at the urging of Wilmington Downtown; decided that a coplete make-over of the streetscape is also necessary.

Several consultants (planning, retail, etc) have all said the same thing ... "You need to improve the appearence of your streets and sidewalks." This project is going to vastly improve our experience on Front Street ... as long as we work together on the design.

This project is going to be difficult. At an estimated 8 month project timeline, many businesses will not be able to survive. This is going to be very painful, and not fun. But the end product will improve the pedestrian and retail shopper expereince. The project was originally slated to begin in October, but I fought like crazy to push this past the Christmas shopping season. It took lots of arm twisting, but I finally got many retailers to agree, and eventually the city agreed too.

Several design elements that I am interested in seeing include, but are not limited to:
the design and type of brick pavers used,
are we going to have recycling bins on each block,
can we get one of those cool fire hydrants like the one at Halyburton Park that doubles as a dog watering station,
are we getting new trash cans (my big pet peave),
are we going to get water hook-ups so that merchants can hose down the sidewalks in front of the shops,
what type of lighting are getting, and
are we getting post banners and hanging baskets ... to name a few.

So be sure to come to City Hall tonight at 5:30, the design part should be fun, we know the project construction is going to be tough. Let's be sure we are happy with the design when it is complete.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Taking a dip, into the blogging stratosphere

I'm a rookie at Blogging, so here goes. Wilmington Downtown will soon be launching a new blog from our website. I writing this as a test to be sure I understand just enough to be dangerous. This site will eventually evolve into my personal blog, but for the next couple of weeks, I will use this as our blog posting site.

One thing I've noticed about social media, there are those who get it, and those who don't. The debates within our board have challenged me to think about what and how I use social media to carry the message of Wilmington Downtown. This blog will allow me to discuss issues, experiences and events downtown that don't always make the news. It will also allow me the opportunity to counter news articles where retractions, follow-ups and corrections don't always draw the same attention or headline (if they happen at all).

There are alot of great attributes to living, working and playing downtown. The key for me is to effectively communicate them is a an easy to read format, and deliver them to the masses. This blog will also be joined by a YouTube Channel, a new Facebook Page, and a new username on Twitter. All of that will be posted on the new blog ... coming soon.