‘Very defeating:’ Businesses say N. Front St. construction impacting busy summer season

Construction in downtown Wilmington is causing more than just headaches for businesses along North Front Street.
Front Street Construction
Construction along North Front Street between Chestnut and Grace Streets (Photo: Sydney Bouchelle/WWAY)

WILMINGTON, NC (WWAY) — Construction in downtown Wilmington is causing more than just headaches for businesses along North Front Street.

The utility and streetscape improvements began in April, closing North Front Street between Grace and Chestnut Streets. While the road is closed, the sidewalks and shops remain open.

Although they are open, business owners like Louise Rose at Desert Rose Boutique says many people walking around town avoid the block altogether.

“Unfortunately, we have seen a great decline in sales,” Rose said. “A huge majority of the clientele we get is walking and driving by and unfortunately with the way the road looks and the way its structured it does look like the whole area’s closed.”

Fortunately, Rose says she has a support system of locals and they are keeping their heads above water. However, she says she knows that’s not the case for everyone and she wants to be a voice for other small businesses.

“I know first hand this is negatively impacting our sales, our business, but many others not only on this block but the whole street,” Rose said. “It’s not good and I think the city needs to know and hear about it more.”

Many of the businesses understand the need for the construction but take issue with the communication and timing.

“There’s never a great time, but there’s definitely a better time for this than it is now,” Rose said. “This was supposed to be our ‘normal’ summer. Last summer, we did see a little bit more normalcy, but it still wasn’t there. This summer was where we were prepared to have that and then this came out of the blue.”

“It’s the first full season of concerts from Live Oak, which means up to 7,000 people from out of town could be coming here,” Catherine Hawksworth said.

Up the street at Modern Legend, owner Catherine Hawksworth says they had next to no notice from the city about the construction.

It’s also the first summer after covid where we’re really back in it. There’s not a mask mandate, people are comfortable traveling, you can fly way easier,” Hawksworth said. “So we’re getting all this potential business that could be down here, but it’s just really difficult to be downtown.”

With limited parking and positioning of the “road closed” signs, Hawksworth says their numbers are essentially cut in half compared to last June and they’ve shortened their business hours.

“It’s very, very defeating in a time that’s so hard to be trying to bounce back from covid,” she said.

Since the construction has already begun, Hawksworth says the small businesses would like to see the city do more to get people downtown. She suggested a block party or implementing the social districts the city briefly discussed after Governor Cooper signed a bill into law in September that would allow people to carry alcoholic drinks outside of bars and restaurants. She believes the social districts would benefit the shops, restaurants, and bars.

“It just feels like a town that is so devoted to community is just getting hit really hard again. It feels like…it feels like the city doesn’t have our backs. It’s a bummer,” she said.

The small business owner says she is supportive of the growth the city is seeing and understands the changes that need to be made to accommodate it, but hopes the city does not lose sight of the reason people enjoy coming to Wilmington in the first place.

A spokesman for the City of Wilmington shared a statement that reads as follows.

The project is moving along and is slated to wrap in late September or early October. Working beneath a street this compact and with so much old infrastructure beneath the road is complex.

The Front St. project was initially slated to begin last fall but, at the request of the merchants, the city chose to delay the start so as not to coincide with the busy holiday shopping season. We were not aware that there would be supply chain issues when we made that decision.

In January when the project was slated to begin, the pipes could not be obtained, resulting in the project being delayed until April. While the work is taking place during the busy summer season, we are actively working with the contractor, the DBA, and WDI to make sure that the sidewalks remain open and visitors are aware that stores are open and accessible.

It also should be noted that delaying the project start to January of 2023 would have caused us to have to re-bid the project and likely would have increased costs significantly.

The spokesman added that the Downtown Business Alliance and Downtown Alive initiative are sponsoring a weekly cash drawing for anyone who supports the impacted businesses. For more information, visit here.

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