The Trent River waterfront had been a busy place throughout New Bern’s early history, but by the turn of the 20th century, the high level of business activity declined and then stopped.
Following is an account of the redevelopment of that waterfront property by Susan Moffat-Thomas, retired director, Swiss Bear Downtown Development Corporation:
Post World War II suburban development, malls and less use of railroads and water as a means of transportation, left many of the downtown commercial buildings vacate as businesses relocated to areas outside the city limits.
The blighted dilapidated buildings continued to deteriorate becoming health and safety issues, hastening the decline of the waterfront and core of the central business district.
A survey by the New Bern Planning Commission in mid-1960 determined this blighted three block commercial area with its proximity to the central business district was eligible for urban renewal grant funds. This opportunity appeared to have the greatest potential for revitalizing the downtown area. The federal program of land redevelopment, relocation of businesses and demolition of structures to revitalize decaying inner cities was the leading national policy at the time.
In July of 1967, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) approved a planning grant to the City of New Bern to “renew” the area. The 21 acre project area was bounded by East Front, Tryon Palace Drive (now South Front Street) Hancock Street and the Trent River.
The City created a Redevelopment Commission in 1968 appointing John G. Dunn, Jr., chairman, Sam Branch, vice chairman, Harry L. Vats, William M. Bryan, Clifton L. McCotter, C. Edward Hancock, Jr., Commission attorney and William (Bill) Edwards, executive director, who were responsible for overseeing the objectives of the Urban Renewal Plan, to include: identifying land to be acquired for clearance, obtaining fee simple titles through negotiation or eminent domain, the removal/clearance of all structurally unsound structures, improving and widening existing street systems with adequate utilities, storm drainage and underground electrical distribution systems, preparing land for lease or resale for commercial and public uses as specified in the Urban Renewal Plan, raising the elevation of parts of the project area, construction of a bulkhead along the waterfront to reduce the threat of flooding, constructing sidewalks along the waterfront for public use.
The estimated cost of the redevelopment project was $3.5 million. Locally, the City had to share in one-fourth of the cost (cash or improvements) estimated at $716,100. With the anticipated resale of the land the estimated net project cost was $2.9 million.
As the various stages of the project progressed, the Redevelopment Commission obtained temporary loans from the federal government. Federal capital grant progress payments and local grants-in-aid were made as needed over the life of the project.
All but three structures were demolished. The Harvey Mansion (ca. 1798) owned by the county, was rescued from the “wrecking ball” by local preservationists who in an emergency effort got it listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The other two buildings were owned by a water softening company and a finance company. All three buildings fronted the 200 block of Tryon Palace Drive. Demolition was completed by 1974.
Between the years of 1970 to 1973, the Redevelopment Commission was granted permission by the State of North Carolina, the Department of Army Corps of Engineers, N.C. Department of Conservation and Development Division of Commercial Sports Fisheries to hire an engineering and construction firm to dredge, design and construct a bulkhead and fill in the irregular shoreline area, originally the site of warehouses, wharves, docks, marine railways and slips. Construction of the bulkhead, dredging and fill work was completed by the end of 1974, representing an investment of $4.6 million including in-kind work by the City.
In 1974, Redevelopment Commission members made a concerted effort to market the entire area to one or more developers to no avail. A unified plan of development for the area had never been developed and the site was seen as dependent on the revitalization of the downtown. To add to the challenge, HUD was pressuring the City and the Redevelopment Commission to bring the project to closure. At that time New Bern was a small town of less than 16,000 and did not have the ambiance it has today.
In 1976, Wachovia Bank & Trust Company purchased a lot at the corner of Middle Street and South Front Street and built a building for their new bank. Branch Bank purchased a parcel at the corner of South Front Street.
In January 1977, the County purchased two parcels of property on the eastern side of Craven Street. The County’s plan to build a county office complex to include a new jail on the Trent waterfront generated widespread controversy. Articles in the Sun Journal, a political cartoon with prisoners fishing from their cell windows and letters to the editor led to the failure of a bond issue for construction.
Another problem surfaced in 1977 when a local law firm, interested in building a new office complex on the urban renewal property, withdrew their offer when a problem arose in getting a clear title to the property that related to the land title of reclaimed underwater lands.
Even though all dredge and fill permit regulations were complied with and the State of North Carolina had delivered a Quit-Claim Deed to the Redevelopment Commission for the land reclaimed by dredging and filling, it became evident that land titles would be subject to the rights of the United States by reason of federal control over navigable waters, i.e., that section had to be removed from “federal navigable waters” jurisdiction so a clear title could be obtained by property owners.
City Attorney, Al Ward, sought assistance from Congressman Walter B. Jones, R-Farmville, former senators Jesse Helms and Robert Morgan. Introduced as part of a bill, it did not pass. The issue was finally solved when it was tacked on to Public Law 96-520, and became a U. S. law in December of 1980.
In the meantime, the Redevelopment Commission closed the project out, conveying the unsold portions of the urban renewal land to the City in 1978.
In January 1981, Swiss Bear obtained an agreement with the Craven County Commissioners and New Bern Board of Aldermen allowing Swiss Bear 12 months to develop a comprehensive Plan for the Bicentennial Park/urban renewal land to include identifying and recruiting potential developers and tenants for the property. Development Task Force members included representatives from Swiss Bear, financial institutions, developers, city manager, planning department, the county, engineers, architects, real estate agents and appraisers.
Steps were to be taken to market and develop the 14 acres to include a waterfront hotel, conference/meeting facilities and marina.
Swiss Bear coordinating a feasibility/comprehensive plan on development of the remaining 14 acres of urban renewal land. In 1983, Marvin Davis was the Swiss Bear director and he aggressively worked to recruit a developer for a 100-room hotel that would have a meeting/conference center and 100 boat slip marina and pedestrian river walkway.
Of those that made the presentation to the Board of Aldermen, Maurice Elledge & Assoc. offer to include a nationally franchised hotel was approved. The project, to be located on 8.5 acres, and was contingent on getting a $2.5 million Urban Development Action Grant from the federal government. In 1984, the city wasn’t one of the cities selected, so in the next year, Davis and others did a lot of heavy lobbying behind the scenes in the second round and in November 1984 it was announced the city was awarded $1.9 million grant, which made the project possible.
Elledge was to pay the city 6 percent interest in the projects sixth and seventh years and 8 percent for the rest of the 25 year loan. The city was required to use the developer’s payback money for other economic community projects. The city used it to help redevelop Union Point in 1995. It required an archeological dig, design and site plan for the site, and so on. The hotel and marina opened in December 1986.
Ed’s note: Since 1986, the property has operated under a number of hotel flags, including Sheraton, Hilton, and now, DoubleTree by Hilton.