City employees are in the midst of moving into new offices. Some are getting comfortable in offices on the first and third floors of the region’s tallest, 12-story building – the former headquarters of pharmaceutical giant PPD. But the highest-ranking staff will push buttons that read “10,” “11” or “12” when they enter the elevator to arrive in their new digs.

“You can see pretty far,” from the top floor, councilman Luke Waddell told The Assembly. “You can’t see any of the taxpayers.”

As one might expect, a hot debate has reemerged over whether Wilmington’s public employees should occupy the penthouse suite of the city’s new real estate.

Cape Fear Realtors – a group that rarely rebukes city matters publicly – has called upon its members to contact council members and tell them the city ought to occupy the first four floors instead. “As public servants, we ask that you consider and provide information regarding the best long-term financial outcomes for the City of Wilmington in making decisions about the use of this property,” the group’s president Steve Mitchell wrote in a letter to council Wednesday.

A majority of council was behind the plan to occupy the penthouse. While there wasn’t a formal vote last week on which floors staff should move into, council OK’d an architect’s contract with the recommendation, which was informed by staff criteria. Now staff are transitioning into the office tower the city purchased for $68 million last month. The property also includes a parking deck with 1,000-plus spaces and two adjacent undeveloped lots.

City officials say they saved tens of millions of dollars on the deal. If the rare opportunity to scoop up the sleek corporate space hadn’t arisen, the city would have eventually had to pay far more to erect a parking deck to complement its new entertainment venue and construct a building to consolidate its services, which are scattered miles apart.

To bankroll the purchase, the city took out limited obligation bonds, a portion of which were financed with a variable interest rate. Variable interest rates can be seen as undesirable in debt packages–given the risk the fees can hike quickly and restrict a borrower’s ability to pay–but if the debt is short-term, these arrangements can be mutually beneficial.

The variable interest rate (applicable to about $24 million of the debt) is motivating the city to act swiftly to divest its existing real estate so the sale proceeds can help pay down the new debt. The longer the office shuffle takes, the more the city pays in interest.

Tasked with identifying the most move-in ready floors, the city’s architectural consultant recommended government services occupy the first, third and 10th through 12th floors. The executive suites on the top floors are move-in ready, the architect told council last week. Transforming central floors that feature, for instance, a bullpen of cubicles into management offices would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Operating the entire corporate tower will cost the city about $3.4 million annually. Rental income from the unused floors is supposed to cover this expense.

Thermo Fisher Scientific, which sold the building to the city, signed a three-year lease to occupy the fifth and sixth floors, at $1.8 million a year. The company is paying almost $33 per square foot–“slightly above market” rate, according to an appraisal report prepared for the city earlier this year. That report predicts the city could have more than 80 percent of the building filled within three years and full occupancy in five.

A high-end commercial tenant would pay more for executive space on the top two floors than the other floors, so Waddell and councilmember Neil Anderson argued in the meeting last week that city staff are leaving potentially millions in future revenue on the table by occupying it themselves. Anderson, who observed the city has found itself in the odd position of a corporate landlord, added that chopping up the floors makes it less attractive to a corporate tenant.

Councilman Charlie Rivenbark was unbothered: “I’m not going to apologize to anybody for going first class. We deserve it. We’ve struck a deal for the taxpayers of this community that is beyond belief.”

Reached Tuesday, councilman Kevin Spears said he thinks Anderson and Waddell have created a “frenzy” about the issue. “I don’t really care what floors we occupy,” Spears said. “I think it makes sense to occupy the top floors of your own building.”

But to Waddell, it’s more than a math problem. He believes it could irreparably muddy residents’ relationships with the city.

“It’s really going to kneecap us on all of our decision-making in the future,” he said. “You want to pass a bond? ‘OK, you’re on the 12th floor, you’re telling me I need to pay more taxes?’ It’s just gonna – it’s gonna hurt.”

– Johanna F. Still

(Benjamin Schachtman)

A Bloody Rorschach

The scariest part of last week’s crime spree in New Hanover County was its seeming randomness. Thanks to law enforcement, we know quite a good bit about what happened. But with the suspect dead and few clues left behind, we don’t know why – maybe we never will.

The suspect, 35-year-old William Brent Gilmore, fired more than a half-dozen 9mm rounds into an occupied house off Wrightsville Avenue. Shelley Lancaster, 54, was shot six times while she was walking her dog near Roland Grise Middle School, leaving her with life-altering injuries and, since she doesn’t have health insurance, serious medical bills.

He then showed up at a Wrightsville Beach house, where he attacked a cleaning lady, zip-tied her hands, and shoved her into a storage room. He then drove back to Wilmington and engaged in a gun battle with police that left him dead.

Gilmore had a history of criminal behavior, starting in his teenage years and eventually landing him in federal prison. He was also sentenced to intensive drug treatment.

But there are scores of people in our region with criminal records and substance use disorders. Very few go on violent sprees. Gilmore’s social media also offers little insight: just a few posts from late 2021 and early 2022, showing a small group of friends from Laney High School and his mother. With little to work from, haranguing speculation out of them seems cruel.

So what are we to take away from the 24 hours of violence?

In conversations over the last week, I heard many tie this to the current mental health crisis. I heard this should be a clarion call for better gun control. (It’s unclear where Gilmore got his weapon from, but as a felon he was barred from legally possessing one.) I heard people weave Gilmore’s violence into a broader narrative of unchecked crime in Wilmington. (Though it has seemingly little in common with the crimes of either domestic or street violence.) And I heard criticisms of the police’s use of force, which, as standard practice, the state is reviewing.

Many, many rounds of ammunition were fired near busy Market Street on Friday afternoon. Gilmore was reportedly hit four or five times in the chest and once in the head. But, amazingly, no one else was hurt.

I also heard people contrast the informative press conference held by top law enforcement officials to the more muted public-facing responses to violent crimes in Black neighborhoods, away from the region’s beach homes and major shopping districts.

Gilmore’s case is rare in recent history, since the suspect in multiple crimes across several jurisdictions is dead–meaning both that it required officials from various agencies to weave together the story for the public, and that law enforcement can say more since he’s not going to trial.

We may learn more in the coming weeks. But most of what I’ve heard this week has been a reflection of our existing fears and beliefs–not about anything we’ll ever be able to learn about Gilmore.

– Benjamin Schachtman

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Around the Region

Dale & Grace: N.C. State Treasurer Dale Folwell still isn’t vibing with local officials’ major capital plans. Now, New Hanover County is playing hardball: Worrying the treasurer could spike their plans for Project Grace a second time, the board sent a letter to a bevy of state officials, WHQR reports.

Foust’s House: School superintendent Charles Foust survived a renewal contract after board members publicly called to oust him during the last campaign season. Port City Daily digs into how. 

New Luxury Ceiling: In just five years, the price tag for the most expensive home sold in the area has more than doubled. A Figure Eight Island property sold for $13 million this week, Greater Wilmington Business Journal reports, and joins a cohort of recently built luxury structures changing hands for the first time.

A Race Case: Port City Daily reports that a local judge is deciding whether attorneys defamed a deputy and his friend while publicly describing a 2020 incident. While off-duty, the white deputy and others were searching for a missing family member; he was later acquitted on charges of trespassing at a Black family’s home.

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Around the State

Oppo Man

Charles Hellwig, a self-described “right-wing nut,” works behind the scenes to elect Republican candidates. Sometimes that means deploying the darker arts to reveal secrets.

Power to the People

Durham is undertaking a third round of participatory budgeting, giving residents a more direct say in how city money is spent.

The College That Refused to Die 

What happens when survival becomes a college’s No. 1 priority? St. Andrews University offers a cautionary tale.

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