Release Date: May 1,2019

DOWNTOWN REFLECTIONS: Changing archaic liquor laws a shot in the arm for restaurants

OPINION: Gene Merritt, co-founder of DARE
Published by the Star News, April 12th.

In the late 1970s, DARE (Downtown Area Revitalization Effort) led efforts to save a dying downtown Wilmington. The unprecedented public-private partnership transformed blocks of empty, rundown buildings into the vibrant downtown we enjoy today.

Editor’s note: This is the third part of an occasional series about downtown revitalization. See Part One and Part Two by Gene Merritt, a DARE founder,

With revitalization efforts along the riverfront and central business district solidly in place, DARE stepped out beyond Wilmington’s traditional downtown. At the same time, the upstart organization challenged two laws that had little practical benefit but were hindering downtown -- especially the riverfront -- from meeting its full potential. 

Bye-bye, brown bagging

If you’ve enjoyed a cocktail downtown, you probably took it for granted. You shouldn’t. It wasn’t that long ago that it would not have been allowed. An impractical law was handcuffing downtown’s comeback.

Under its archaic system of regulating liquor sales, restaurants and bars in North Carolina could not serve mixed drinks with hard alcohol; only beer and wine were allowed. A customer who wanted a mixed drink in a restaurant would have to supply his own liquor, and the establishment would provide the glass, ice, and a mixer. In 1978 the law changed, but the mixed-beverage option was left up to local governments.

Promoters of our local tourism and hospitality industries knew that such an option was needed here if downtown, the beaches and other areas were to reach their full potential as popular destinations. Fledgling restaurants in downtown especially needed the enticement that serving mixed beverages created, as well as the extra revenue.

A local committee was formed to support the passage of a liquor by-the-drink referendum in Wilmington and New Hanover County. After a colorful campaign, it passed by at 2-1 margin in January 1979. The issue was never about whether people could or could not consume hard liquor -- it simply was about how they imbibed. A popular slogan for the pro-mixed-drink group showed a caricature of an inebriated man saying, “I only wanted one drink, but I had to buy a bottle.”

Waterfront dining? Forget about it

In 1994, the South Water Street Development Team was formed by Thomas Wright III, Harper Peterson, Mike Hargett (City of Wilmington), Dave Weaver (New Hanover County) and myself. The group’s mission was to lobby for changes that would support downtown’s waterfront redevelopment, notably the ongoing extension of the Riverwalk.

Among our chief concerns were the restrictive state regulations that affected riverfront development in downtown Wilmington. At that time, there could be no construction in an Area of Environmental Concern. The AEC in downtown Wilmington extended 70 feet from Water Street’s western easement to the mean high-water mark in the river.

The city had made progress in building some parts of the Riverwalk. However, we were unable to access restaurants from the riverfront, including the Pilot House, Elijah’s, and later, The George. The consumption of food and beverage over “public trust waters” was not permitted. We knew dining near the water would be a key part of drawing people downtown. The regulations hurt the economic viability for the restaurants, and hurt downtown tourism in general.

We began lobbying for changes in the CAMA (Coastal Area Management Act) rules, and the issue eventually came to a head during the preservation and re-development of the J.W. Brooks Building on South Water Street.

Rehabbing the Brooks Building was a project Gene Strader and I had undertaken. We agreed to pay for the extension of the Riverwalk on the water side of the building (as it is today), a project the city was eager to support. We soon found out, however, that CAMA rules would not allow us to build anything in the AEC. The rule effectively blocked the Riverwalk from being contiguous in that area of the waterfront.

With the help of city officials Mike Hargett and Tom Pollard, Rep. Thomas Wright introduced legislation in the General Assembly to allow some flexibility in the rules. In its 1997 session, the legislature passed House Bill 1059, which amended the Coastal Area Management Act “to allow certain types of redevelopment within urban waterfronts that historically have a pattern of urban-level development.”

This important change let downtown restaurants and other businesses connect more seamlessly with the riverfront, allowing for the unique and vibrant riverfront dining experience we enjoy today. The change also allowed the Riverwalk’s path to extend uninterrupted around the historic J.W. Brooks building.

The bill also benefited Morehead City, New Bern, Beaufort and other North Carolina towns with urban waterfronts, boosting the state’s coastal economy. And despite the warnings at the time from the state’s Coastal Resources Commission, there has been no negative environmental effects. In fact, allowing people to enjoy the waterfronts in such an intimate way has likely increased awareness of the beauty and uniqueness of the areas and bolstered support for essential conservation efforts.

Northern exposure

Long before downtown Wilmington’s decline began in the early 1970s, the nearby Brooklyn neighborhood had fallen on hard times. The area, just to the northeast of downtown and across the railroad cut, thrived from the mid-19th century until after World War II.

With its large African-American population mixed with Germans, Russian Jews and Chinese, Brooklyn was Wilmington’s most ethnically and racially diverse neighborhood. With the lower end of North Fourth Street as its commercial center, Brooklyn was primarily a residential and shopping district for African-Americans.

In the post-World War II years, businesses gradually began to close and the neighborhood declined. The North Fourth district, however, still had “good bones” -- existing streets, water/sewer, sidewalks, streetlights and other infrastructure.

Although the city was on board with revitalization and a new vision for downtown’s central business district, the North Fourth Street corridor received little attention.

Hoping to revitalize the historic neighborhood, longtime Northside resident and community activist Harry Forden and I founded the North Fourth Street Partnership. We eventually asked DARE to help with our efforts. (Though the North Fourth Street Partnership struggled and eventually had to disband, the group’s efforts put the overlooked neighborhood back on the map and planted seeds that would ultimately prove fruitful.)

As DARE became involved with North Fourth, it immediately set its sights on a large junkyard that covered nearly an entire city block at Third and Hanover streets, across from the current Wilson Center. There was no way the North Fourth district would have a bright future with a junkyard as its gateway.

A major goal for the North Fourth Street Partnership was to bring a grocery store to the underserved neighborhood. DARE purchased the junkyard property and worked diligently to land a grocery store for the site, though that effort failed.

Eventually, developers Dave Nathans and Dave Spetrino got involved and transformed the old junkyard into a major mixed-use project called Promenade. The 150 residential condominiums and five-story office building kicked off the redevelopment of the North Fourth business district.

The second-biggest accomplishment for North Fourth also would involve Nathans.

Among the architectural and historic gems in the neighborhood was the old St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, at Fourth and Campbell streets. Since 1888, the building had “served as a spiritual, cultural, and community center for Brooklyn.”

In 1944, St. Andrew’s merged with Covenant Presbyterian and moved to the more central location of 15th and Market streets. Over the years, several other churches made their homes in the large, impressive structure, though its upkeep proved both challenging and costly. In 1997, with the building continuing to deteriorate, Holy Trinity Church -- the last religious congregation to occupy the building -- sold it to Charlotte businessman W. Douglas Foster, who pledged to stabilize the church’s walls and roof.

Nathans ultimately became the building’s owner, undertaking major renovation work and transforming it into the popular Brooklyn Arts Center. (Nathans recently sold BAC to a party that is continuing that vision for this spectacular space.)

Though not all of the early North Fourth projects were successful, the energy and passion behind them helped re-establish the historic area’s stature as a vital part of downtown, sparking the revitalization and entrepreneurial mentality that continues today in the evolving neighborhood, now called The Brooklyn Arts District.

Downtown’s class act

Although Cape Fear Community College was sometimes seen as an obstacle to revitalization, DARE’s support for keeping the school downtown has paid off, as CFCC has become an important player. The campus has steadily emerged in the blighted area that was left mostly empty after the 1960 departure of the Atlantic Coast Line railroad headquarters and demolition of most of its buildings.

One of the biggest impacts of CFCC is that it ended up serving as a sort of bridge to the rapidly growing northern end of downtown, home to PPD’s headquarters, Port City Marina, numerous apartment buildings, hotels and the convention center. The Riverwalk now runs all the way to the Isabel Holmes Bridge and the city’s North Waterfront Park is slated to open in 2020.

Although not contributing directly to the tax base, the quality of CFCC’s development has enhanced the area and benefited the private development occurring in the vicinity of the school. CFCC’s Wilson Center is now the region’s premier performing arts venue.