Things are looking up in downtown Wilmington

WILMINGTON — While a few buildings remain vacant in Wilmington’s historic downtown, city officials and local business owners say it’s come a long way over the last 10 years.

Among the empty buildings are the former Austin’s Casual Eatery & Bar — which closed in January 2016 but was purchased by Rigoberto Perez in September that year — on South Street.

Then there’s the Sugartree Machine building next to the Escape on Sugartree Street. Regional Planning Director Taylor Stuckert said there are no official plans yet for the building, but it will be coming down eventually.

According to him, the Regional Planning Commission and the Port Authority have been working on an EPA Brownfield grant which is used to analyze properties throughout the county. Some of the funds from the grant were used to do phase 1 and 2 ground studies.

To tear down the building — which has problems ranging from asbestos to collapsed infrastructure — would cost around $100,000, according to Stuckert.

“It’s in a position that the Land Bank could acquire it and we would have $25,000 that we could apply towards the demolition, but our biggest hurdle is the rest of the $75,000,” said Stuckert. “Without a specific plan in place, it’s hard to justify being that aggressive with it because it could just sit empty as a lot for a while. We don’t want more empty lots in the downtown area.”

But while those buildings aren’t inhabited by businesses, Mayor John Stanforth said the area has come a long way.

“I traveled down to watch the eclipse and avoided the interstate — I went on the back roads throughout Kentucky and Tennessee. When I drove the small towns there, it was absolutely sad,” said Stanforth.

He recalled seeing a block of buildings not just empty but boarded up, and he feels Wilmington is blessed to have its downtown area. Many local business owners agree with that.

Lorin Victor of Salon Mane, one of Main Street’s newest additions, says it’s wonderful to be a part of it.

“I love it, I love being downtown, I love the atmosphere, I love that more people are downtown,” said Victor. “You see more people shopping, eating at Jen’s, you can tell there’s more traffic downtown and it’s good to see.”

She remembers how it was around 10 years ago, when she was fresh out of high school, seeing a lot of closed stores. She credited a lot of it to renovations and to Main Street Wilmington and the Wilmington-Clinton County Chamber of Commerce.

“Main Street (Wilmington) has been doing wonderful things. Julie (Bolton) and Darcy (Reynolds) are doing amazing things and so is the Chamber,” she said. “They’re getting downtown businesses involved, trying to clean up Wilmington, and make it something great.”

Around the corner at South Street Wine Cellar, Shari Rolston has similar sentiments. She remembers the downtown area in the ’80s and how there wasn’t “too much there” but now she sees the area is pulling people in.

“What I see now that’s really cool is, regardless of your age, there’s something of interest. You see teenagers, millennials, college-age people hitting the boutiques. The downtown restaurant offerings are perfect, we’ve got live entertainment. The Escape has really cleaned up,” she said.

Rolston has even had people come in from out of town and out of state — she says it’s exciting and she feels a bit like the Welcome Wagon letting them know about certain parts of the area.

“I may have been their first stop. I always ask them where they’re going next or if they plan to eat downtown,” said Rolston.

She said that a lot of people know about Wilmington before they come here, but unfortunately a lot of it is old news such as when DHL pulled out of Wilmington in 2008.

“I enjoy people coming in here and letting them know it’s not just poor, pitiful Wilmington,” she said. “We’re doing great things, we’re thriving, and we great events and unique businesses.”

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The empty Austin’s Casual Eatery & Bar building, which closed in January 2016 and was purchased last Septemberby Rigoberto Perez. empty Austin’s Casual Eatery & Bar building, which closed in January 2016 and was purchased last Septemberby Rigoberto Perez. John Hamilton | News Journal

By John Hamilton

Reach John Hamilton at 937-382-2574