More than 450 business and political leaders assembled Thursday for Wilmington Downtown Inc.’s Downtown Economic Series luncheon, but not all of them were from downtown or even Wilmington. A fair number were from New Hanover and surrounding counties, and of course the speaker, Kurt Weigle, was there to share success stories from New Orleans and explain how those might be paralleled in Wilmington.
First, WDI executive director John Hinnant spoke of some local efforts within the last decade, including the new convention center where the event was held, and citizens approving a $164 million referendum for Cape Fear Community College. He said the downtown was on the verge of a major comeback, as demonstrated by the number of people living within a mile of the Cape Fear River and making more than $50,000 per year having increased by 52 percent in the last decade. Retail sales have also increased 33 percent over the last six years.
Hinnant said the WDI board of directors had set several goals in its strategic process, including strategic branding and marketing, adding 500 hotel rooms in the next five years, and implementing a Municipal Service District. He added that WDI would submit its MSD plan to city council in 30 days to lay the foundation for a cleaner, safer downtown through additional property taxes in the district.
WDI president Dave Spetrino told his own story of moving to Wilmington for the sake of the beach but living downtown, making friends and finding himself part of the community.
“I promised myself if the downtown took care of me, I’d take care of it,” he said.
Weigle, president and CEO of the Downtown Development District in New Orleans, said that clearly Wilmington had been doing some great work. He explained that despite the difference in sizes, he had been struck by similarities including the film industry, the port, the sense of history, and the walkable, compact downtown, and most importantly the individuals who love their downtown.
Weigle said the DDD was funded through special downtown property taxes, 10 percent higher than the surrounding area, and there had never been any attempts to roll that back because of the successes it brought. It had created the first Business Improvement District in the United States, and now there were 1,200 across the country.
Since Hurricane Katrina, Weigle said, the DDD had used the trauma to come up with a new strategic plan focused on industries of the mind, including biosciences, digital media and arts-based businesses, to drive downtown development.
He said that expanding Louisiana’s historic tax credit had made 40 percent of all downtown investment since Katrina possible, and the DDD had also focused on enhancing cleanliness and community policing. It had also focused on code enforcement and cleaning up derelict properties, while giving plenty of warnings so that problems could be solved. Following a survey of 1,300 properties, 500 were out of compliance, and in just two years, 200 have been brought into compliance.
He listed numerous businesses and projects since Katrina, totaling $2.3 billion in new investment, and said the number of residents had doubled and were expected to double again next decade. He added that New Orleans had the largest “brain gain” of any city in America.
He said that what mattered most to creative workers were lifestyle, the whole package of diversity, convenience and environmental quality, and fun places where creative people could meet and get inspired. Those things were no longer just bonuses, he explained, but the core principles for attracting creative workers.
Weigle said New Orleans had long been known as a party town, but now it was gaining a reputation for serious work as well.
“Don’t leave for New Orleans; we need you here,” joked Spetrino after Weigle finished. He announced that $29,500 had been raised through the event.
He said afterward that instead of hearing a politician saying the same things as usual, it was great to have heard someone else’s story that was relatable to Wilmington. He was also very pleased by the turnout – all the chairs were filled, and several last-minute attendees li