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Wilson saw a flurry of changes in 2017, and officials are optimistic 2018 will continue the trend.
“2017 has been a year of momentum. A lot of people have worked hard for many years to spur the interest and energy we are now experiencing,” said City Manager Grant Goings. “The largest industrial expansion in years, a nationally recognized public art investment, extensive commercial growth, being named one of the top micropolitan economies in the country, continued investment in recreation amenities and substantial downtown investment, including the largest downtown residential project in the history of our city, all have contributed to our success.
“The thing about momentum is you need to take full advantage of it when you have it. Wilson will continue to lead, and I am confident our collective efforts will pay dividends for our city.”
Historic downtown Wilson
“How would you characterize 2017 for downtown redevelopment?” asked Kimberly Van Dyk, Wilson planning and community revitalization director. “Quite literally #DowntownTurnaround.”
Van Dyk said progress for redevelopment in the downtown area has “grown by leaps and bounds in the last 12 months.” The renovation of the Hi Dollar warehouse into Whirligig Station started in 2016 but really took shape this year as the basement was excavated, the roof was replaced and framing went up for 95 loft-style apartments, a restaurant and the Whirligig Park Welcome Center with a small museum and gift shop. The project is slated to be complete in mid-2018.
“In the area immediately around the Whirligig Park, we now have about $20 million in private-investment historic property redevelopment,” Van Dyk said. “When we get this level and type of investment by the private sector, it brings new economic opportunities for our community.”
The completion of the Whirligig Park also spurred record attendance at the N.C. Whirligig Festival in November. There have been a variety of new businesses to open in downtown during 2017, including the relocation of Thomas Drug after owners renovated the shuttered Piggly Wiggly on Nash Street.
A California-based developer, ABA Hospitality, also started work in 2017 on a plan that would renovate the Cherry Hotel. Van Dyk said the plan is in the early, due-diligence stage, but officials are optimistic the project to reopen the hotel with office and event space will come to fruition.
“Historic property redevelopment in downtown is critical to the overall success of the revitalization efforts,” she said. “The more positive investment that can be made in these buildings, not only do we save our history and valuable infrastructure, we also create opportunities for business development, job creation and residential living options.”
To the east
The progress extended beyond the borders of historic downtown Wilson, too.
Crews broke ground on an expansion of the Oliver Nestus Freeman Roundhouse Museum in July, and in October, officials approved a partnership with Wade Jurney Homes to build affordable homes in the nearby Freeman Place neighborhood.
Plans to revitalize U.S. 301 also made headway.
Wilson was awarded a $10 million grant from the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery program to improve a corridor of the historic highway in 2015. The federal funds got a $6.5 million boost from the N.C. Department of Transportation in 2016 with S.T. Wooten Corp. receiving a contract for the project in October.
“The project will add a raised median, sidewalks, pedestrian crosswalks and improve the stormwater infrastructure along a 1.2-mile section of U.S. 301, from Black Creek Road to Lipscomb Road. Pedestrian improvements will also extend down portions of Martin Luther King Boulevard, Lipscomb Road, Ward Boulevard to the community college and down Herring Avenue to the city of Wilson Operations Center,” said Rodger Lentz, Wilson’s chief planning and development officer. “These improvements will connect neighborhood residents with public schools, parks and Wilson Community College.”
Construction is slated to begin in April and be completed by early 2020.
Parks and Recreation
Gillette Athletic Complex got an upgrade in 2017 with $3.2 million in construction getting underway in March and completed by November. The work, funded through the occupancy tax, included converting two soccer fields to synthetic turf, adding a new pavilion area, new bleachers, improved drainage and accessibility.
“We hosted major soccer tournaments the two weekends before Thanksgiving, and two national tournaments the two weekends after Thanksgiving that brought in an estimated $1 million of economic impact each weekend,” said David Lee, the city’s parks and recreation director. “These tournaments bring thousands of visitors, hotel guests, restaurant customers and other tourism-based income possibilities to Wilson that would not ordinarily be visiting our community. So, the new renovations to Gillette benefit our youth and adult participants in our programs throughout the year, but they also benefit the businesses in our community in a big way many times of the year.”
While Gillette was highlighted during the master plan process during 2017, other Wilson recreation facilities were not.
“The plan did a great job of pointing out what we are doing well and the areas the community wants to see improvements in or even something brand new that has never been done in our community, like a dog park or pickle ball courts,” Lee said. “Something as new as the popular Train of Lights during Christmas time is a great example of this. We had 6,122 folks ride the train this holiday season with a night lost due to rain. Four years ago, the Train of Lights didn’t exist and now, it is arguably a Wilson Christmas tradition.
“Our goal every year is to continue to offer programs and facilities to the public we serve that will make our quality of life better here in Wilson.”
Greenlight Community Broadband had a turbulent year with regard to expansion into Pinetops.
2017 started with fears of disconnecting residential customers, but advocacy on the part of local representatives on the state level led to the June passing of a law that would allow the high-speed internet to continue in the rural Edgecombe County community until a comparable service is offered by the private sector.
The Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of Obama-era “net neutrality” rules in December had broadband customers again wondering about the future of their connection to Greenlight. Will Aycock, general manager for Greenlight, reassured customers that the public utility wouldn’t compromise access.
“The market continues to evolve and future efforts to ensure equitable access to a free and open internet will require collaboration,” Aycock said. “Communities seeking to address these issues should consider all options, in particular public-private partnerships with existing providers as well as new entrants that want to compete to deliver high-speed broadband service.”
The move toward sustainable electricity also made strides in 2017 with the completion of four solar farms within Wilson, accounting for 93 acres and a maximum power output at peak performance of 18.5 megawatts. Several other solar farms also were completed in the county in 2017.
“The city of Wilson is the only city in eastern North Carolina with installation with over 75 megawatts of solar production,” said Wilson Energy Operations Manager David Deschamps. “Most cities in the North Carolina Eastern Municipal Power Agency have no solar farms installed.”
A colorful mural on the side of Brewmasters on Forest Hills Road spurred a flurry of controversy and opinions in 2017.
While the mural was finished in late 2016, city staff took exception to it in January by issuing a violation removal order. Lentz said the mural violates the city’s sign ordinance by containing commercial text through the inclusion of the business name.
An online petition rallied support for the mural in February, attorneys for Brewmasters met with Lentz to appeal the violation in April, and in May, Lentz sided with his staff in upholding the violation.
“Enforcement of ordinances cannot be influenced by popular opinion. The ordinance currently in force in Wilson is clear that murals that contain commercial text, even when that mural might be artistic in nature, is not exempt from the sign regulations for the city of Wilson,” Lentz said. “The role of staff is to apply ordinances as they are written in order to be fair to all involved.”
Brewmasters appealed Lentz’s decision and filed a text amendment application. Both matters are expected to go before the Planning and Design Review Board this month. The planning members’ recommendation will then be forwarded to the City Council in February or March.