WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — A task force launched to market Downtown Wilmington misused public money, throwing a party last week that included more than $1,000 worth of alcohol, according to a member of a board overseeing the group.
The Wilmington City Council formed Bring It! Downtown last year. It's overseen by board members from Wilmington Downtown Inc. and the Downtown Business Alliance. Joan Loch, owner of the downtown store Crescent Moon, chairs the group. According to a source close to the situation, Loch appointed herself to be chairperson. Loch refused to do an on-camera interview for this story; however, she did provide a statement.
The party was held to premier a new video Bring It! Downtown produced with a local production office, Blueberry Fusion. Documents show Bring It! Downtown paid more than $5,000 for the video. According to an employee of Blueberry Fusion, it also still holds the rights to the video. Loch didn't bid the project out to other local production offices or the four television stations in town to see if she could get a better price.
Originally, Loch paid the Hilton Wilmington Riverside $3,602 for food, 12 bottles of white wine, 18 bottles of red, and three cases of beer, according to a receipt we requested.
In exchange, Loch secured $2,700 of in-kind advertising from "Wilmington Magazine," which has been resurrected by a publishing firm in Mt. Pleasant, SC. After we began our investigation, we learned that Loch was instructed to get the money back from the Hilton.
"On paper it appears that the city is paying for the money," said city spokeswoman Malissa Talbert, who also said the city was unaware of the issue until WWAY began looking into it. "Then they were made aware later after the fact that that was not appropriate and they needed to change the bookkeeping to make it very clear that public moneys were not used for that purpose."
Records now show that "Wilmington Magazine" paid the $3,602. A call to the publisher has not been returned.
In all, receipts and purchase orders show Loch spent almost $10,000 to produce the video and host the party. That's almost a third of the public money the Wilmington City Council earmarked for Bring It! Downtown for two years.
In an email written a few hours after our original request and addressed to Bring It! Downtown members and city officials, Loch admits she made a small mistake, but contends the video and the party fulfilled the mission of marketing Downtown Wilmington.
"It was a mistake," Loch said in a statement to WWAY Friday. "Mistakes happen. We have made the city and their attorneys aware of the situation and have taken corrective measures to fix it. We felt that the in-kind advertising with Wilmington Magazine would fit the bill, however there was an accounting error. Wilmington Magazine has paid for the party at the Hilton, and we have reimbursed them for the advertising. The city's attorneys have approved this plan as have CPAs."
The three-and-a-half-minute video focuses mainly on a mother who lives downtown with her husband and kids, as well as a downtown business owner. It skims quickly over downtown parking but doesn't address the ongoing fear of many that downtown is not a safe place to visit.
We have reached out to Mayor Bill Saffo's office for comment but have yet to hear back.