Unlike many cities, Wilmington still has most of the historic commercial buildings that graced its streets a half-century ago. That irreplaceable infrastructure has been an essential ingredient in downtown's revitalization since the 1970s.
By the late 1960s, much of downtown's commerce had moved to the suburbs, and urban renewal projects destroyed many significant buildings. By the mid-1970s, the impending opening of a modern, indoor suburban shopping mall spelled the end of downtown's role as a mass merchandising center.
In 1976, Mayor Ben Halterman appointed a Mayor's Task Force on Downtown Revitalization. Its key conclusion was that what downtown needed was more than either government nor the private sector could achieve alone. The task force recommended forming a new agency, a public-private partnership, to take the lead in encouraging downtown's redevelopment.
After a public contest, the new agency was named Downtown Area Revitalization Effort, or "DARE, Inc." It opened for business in 1977 with a staff of three, a budget evenly divided between government money and private contributions, and a mandate. In its early years, DARE's focus was on helping to preserve and rehabilitate old buildings, and to recruit new businesses while encouraging existing business to stay.
A key tool in this effort was a revolving loan fund. Seed money came from a federal Community Development Block Grant. Small loans were made to help building owners restore the facades of historic structures and to help small entrepreneurs get started.
The City of Wilmington soon made a major investment in downtown's success. Using money from a federal Urban Development Action Grant -- earmarked for the most economically distressed cities -- the city built Riverfront Park and began the reconstruction of Market Street and Water Street. Today's Riverwalk, and the wharves, brick and cobblestone pavements, street trees and other amenities in nearby blocks, had their beginnings with this project in the late 1970s.
At the same time, New Hanover County cast several resounding votes of confidence in downtown. The County Commissioners bought the former Belk-Beery department store, left vacant with the opening of Independence Mall, and renovated it as the public library's new home. The county law enforcement center and a new judicial building, which replaced cramped and outmoded quarters in the old courthouse, were also completed during this time.
Before the '70s were over, pioneering entrepreneurs started a trend that hearkened back to an earlier age: the mom-and-pop business with an apartment over the store. Today's thriving residential real estate market, which takes advantage of upper-floor space that's obsolete for office use, began with two small second- floor apartments on Market Street.