It’s been a long time coming but Bijou Park and North Front Street are officially open to the community following a ribbon cutting ceremony Tuesday, Feb. 8.
Mayor Bill Saffo — who was joined by Mayor Pro-tem Margaret Haynes, council members Neil Anderson, Kevin Spears, and Clifford Barnett Sr., and New Hanover County commissioner Deb Hayes — spoke to a large crowd who gathered at Bijou Park for the celebration.
Saffo first reflected on the $3.5 million, voter-approved North Front Street streetscape project which included the installation of new water, sewer, stormwater, and underground electrical utilities, as well as new pavement, granite curbing, sidewalks, decorative bricks, lighting, landscaping and street furnishings all while maintaining access to local business in the two blocks.
“Why is this so important? Many of us remember when there was little motivation to walk north of the Cotton Exchange. With the development of the convention center, the Embassy Suites, the Aloft hotel, Riverfront Park, and the Live Oak Pavilion – that has all changed,” Saffo said. “Today, throngs of people now traverse these blocks on their way to points north. The center of gravity of downtown has and will continue to shift north. Infrastructure projects like this … are what make this possible.”
And historic Bijou Park, which was originally known as The Bijou when it opened as the city’s first movie theater in 1906 before closing in 1956 and finally torn down in 1963, received an $800,000 facelift that involved demolition, installation of new stormwater and underground utilities, signage, decorative concrete, pavers, landscaping, and furnishings. The remaining original tiles from the old theater were preserved.
“Do you remember what it used to be like to use Bijou Park to get to Water Street?” Saffo asked. “Down the old stairs and through the bottom of the old parking deck. Easy to get lost if you didn’t know where you were going. Not anymore. This park provides an interesting and useful gateway that connects the business corridor on Front Street to Riverplace, the Riverwalk and all of the activity on Water Street. It is a signature open space.”
Saffo offered his thanks to Wilmington Downtown Inc and the Downtown Business Alliance for their hard work during the midst of all the Front Street construction that the local businesses were not closed and remained open and accessible.
“The signage, banners, promotions, social media and word of mouth that WDI and the DBA committed to —was essential in getting us through this project,” Saffo said.
And lastly, Saffo thanked the local businesses themselves for bearing with the city during the project.
“From the Cotton Exchange down to the Pour Tap Room- the whole two blocks and even the folks up on Grace Street and at Cape Fear Community College, I know this was difficult for you. But we accomplish great things when we work together. Thanks for bearing with us. I’m glad that your customers now get to enjoy this fabulous stretch of Front Street and this signature park,” he said.