The future of two public institutions is on the table in Project Grace

A replica of a giant sloth overlooks the Cape Fear Museum on Market Street. (Port City Daily / Preston Lennon)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY – The Grace project is taking shape. Finding a future for two of the county’s most prominent resources, the Downtown Library and the Cape Fear Museum, has been a topic of discussion for years among a wide range of stakeholders.

County officials and elected leaders, who scrambled to find ways to upgrade or restart facilities, led the way. Library and museum staff were also a voice. The next generation of their institutions have been on the table.

The county-owned land redevelopment plan in downtown Wilmington has also been influenced by private developers, who will build residences and other amenities alongside the county’s new facilities.

The existing Cape Fear Museum building will remain on Market Street, available for storage space and other administrative needs of staff. The museum itself is moving to the north side of the Project Grace block, between Chestnut and Grace and Second and Third streets, where it will share a new three-level facility with the downtown library.

During construction, the library will remain open at its current location on the south side of the Grace project site. When the new building on the north side is ready, the library and museum will occupy it and Zimmer Development Company will start on the south side of the block, the private sector part.

The square footage of the new library-museum has been set and a general layout of the building is available; to get to this point took years. Future steps involve the approval of the Local Government Commission, the approval of the demolition of the City of Wilmington and the county overview of the final development plan.

For Wayne LaBar, the new director of the museum still in its infancy, and longtime library director Paige Owens, Project Grace is a chance to influence the creation of a new era.

The county released documents earlier this month showing the layout of the future shared building. The lobby, overlooking Grace Street, will lead to the library’s loan office and the museum’s Cape Fear Stories & Ecology Gallery, as well as a jointly used auditorium.

READ MORE: Project Grace: Documents reveal analysis of new library and museum in redevelopment plan

LaBar and Owens – along with the staff and board members who advise the institutions – have vouched for their respective priorities throughout the process. Design firm LS3P, spearheading the aesthetics of new library-museum components and private development, met with many different stakeholder groups as the plans took shape.

LaBar and Owens both told the Port City Daily that they are excited for the days to come.

For LaBar, hired after the Grace Project Roadmap was established, this is an opportunity to deepen the Cape Fear Museum’s community presence and find new ways of engagement. Before coming to New Hanover County, he ran a consulting firm that provided creative direction to museums and other institutes. His entry into the world of museums comes after a few years of early career at NASA’s Langley Research Center.

“We’re trying to articulate that right now as a staff,” LaBar said of the museum’s future. “It’s about engaging people and providing relevant engaging experiences that start conversations, inspire pride, expand understanding, so people can actively participate in improving our future. ”

Owens has been a part of the New Hanover County public library system for more than 20 years, going from reference librarian to branch manager, then from assistant manager to manager.

Local facilities veteran Owens said she looked forward to a new building for the downtown library. The existing flagship on the Chestnut Street side of the Project Grace block was a Belk Beery department store before it was renovated 40 years ago.

“This building is so compartmentalized that it’s just not a very good experience,” Owens said. “As time went by and the idea was presented – the idea of ​​being side by side with the museum – it was exciting.”

LaBar has been involved in major revisions like Project Grace before. In 2005, he oversaw a transformative $ 109 million “renewal” of the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, NJ. His studio ALCHEMY planned the first science center in Puerto Rico and many others around the world.

Former director Sheryl Mays ran the Cape Fear Museum for seven years and announced her retirement in March. Project Grace was brought up during her job interview, LaBar said.

Similar to the library situation, some museum documents are stored in the basement where they are vulnerable to water damage. Putting the Market Street building on standby will increase storage capacity and space for crafting exhibits, LaBar said, rendering basements useless for housing exhibits.

“We’ve mitigated that where possible,” LaBar said. “But moving to Grace Street will allow us, first of all, to redo our collection storage so that we can actually, in a smaller space, house more things with a more modern collection capacity. And extend too.

LaBar emailed a deputy county manager after about three weeks on the job, according to public emails, writing that he was concerned he had not yet had a chance to meet with the architects and that some of his thoughts on the building could differ from those of the former director of the museum.

In response, Deputy County Director Sheryl Kelly suggested to Labar that he could have high-level discussions with an LS3P architect at an introductory meeting that had already been scheduled. Kelly emailed LaBar a few weeks later, after learning about the museum layout changes he had proposed during a meeting.

“We have to make sure that the county leadership is involved when it comes to these kinds of requests,” the deputy county manager wrote to LaBar, “so I would ask you to consult with me first in the future. . “

Analysis of the Grace project site shows that the library and museum facilities are concentrated on the north side of the plot. (Port City Daily / Courtesy of New Hanover County)

LaBar and Owens are excited to collaborate, as their two institutions will be nested into a single structure for years to come.

“I think there are some really exciting possibilities,” LaBar said. “It’s going to allow us to do special things that we couldn’t do if we were in separate buildings.”

Owens considers the downtown library to be a centerpiece of the community. There are the “transactional activities,” she said, like the flow of books in and out of the building, but also other missions.

The New Hanover County Public Library eliminated late fees on children’s materials this summer. This move saved residents from being cut off from library resources at a young age. And picking up on a West Coast trend that started over the past 10 years, New Hanover County recently created a library social worker position.

“It makes me proud that libraries are at the forefront of the evolution towards meeting social needs,” said Owens. “People joke that library workers are social workers, in a sense, because people come in with needs and we combine those needs with resources. “

Jan Brewington is a member of the Library Advisory Board, a 12-member group appointed by the Board of Trustees, which makes recommendations in the best interests of the library. When negotiations between the county and Zimmer were at their peak this spring – as the memorandum of understanding between the two sides was evolving in anticipation of the March public hearing – Brewington was chair of the board.

Brewington and his counterpart on the Cape Fear Museum Advisory Board, former chairwoman Donna Pope, wrote letters to the board of commissioners outlining the main priorities of the library and museum with respect to the Grace project.

READ MORE: Project Grace: County property redevelopment planned for high cost deal

Since then, the design team has been brainstorming with library and museum stakeholders to research the final drawings.

“At these meetings, they were very willing to answer our questions and accept our suggestions,” Brewington said.

Susan Barbee, the current chair of the museum’s Advisory Board, said it was a collaborative process. “As a tip, the things that we have seen so far, we are excited about them.”

Now, nearly seven weeks into his tenure as museum director, LaBar is looking to build on old and new agendas to move the Cape Fear Museum forward. A museum business that started before LaBar’s arrival, for example, is teaching Wilmington Police Department officers about the city’s racial geography. He examines the influence of 1898 on the development of neighborhoods today.

“For me, it’s like a quintessential role that a museum has never really played,” said LaBar.

Over the next few months, the Local Government Commission will be looking into the Grace project. The New Hanover County pitch is to let Zimmer borrow the money for the construction. Then the company would collect 20 years of rent –– totaling at most about $ 90 million –– from the county.

READ MORE: Project Grace gets the thumbs up; developer to renovate the historic district block

“There are architectural relationships between the exhibits and the architecture of the building, and we have to understand them,” LaBar said. “And these need to be understood a little earlier than the programmatic stuff.”

There is still a lot to burn. Details on the components of private development, which could include multi-family residences and spaces for commercial and retail institutions, are yet to come.

But the fate of at least one prominent exhibit in the museum, a replica of a locally discovered giant land sloth skeleton, has been determined.

“He’s what we call in the business, ‘an iconic exhibit’,” said LaBar. “He’s coming to Grace Street. He’ll be Grace Street’s mascot, and you’ll definitely see him. Our goal is to make it quite important.


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Margie D. Carlisle

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