Gene Merritt has watched downtown Wilmington change and evolve all his life.
Growing up in Wilmington, downtown was the city’s central shopping district — home to department stores like Belk, JCPenney and Sears.
Merritt remembers taking the bus downtown on Saturdays to go to the movies and his mother donning a dress, gloves and high heels to go downtown shopping.
Over the next few decades, businesses left the area as they followed a migration to the suburbs. Sears left downtown for Hanover Center around 1976. Belk and JCPenney followed in 1978. The stores left a vacuum filled by bars and adult bookstores.
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Merritt knew things needed to change. He backed efforts aimed at advocating for and revitalizing the downtown area.
Over time, many of Merritt’s efforts worked to reinvent the once decaying downtown into the vibrant business district it is today. Throughout his life Merritt has been a staunch advocate for investment in the town he calls home.
Those efforts are why Merritt is one of three people to receive the StarNews Media Lifetime Achievement Award in 2021. The other recipients are Wilmington businesswoman Wilma Daniels and community leader Lucy Vasquez.
Merritt came to Wilmington at the age of five and has lived here off and on ever since.
He was born less than 50 miles to the north in Duplin County’s Rose Hill. That’s where his father, Eugene Worth Merritt, and uncle started Merritt Holland Company, a business selling gas and welding supplies.
The family relocated temporarily to Fayetteville before settling in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Wilmington when Merritt was five.
Merritt attended grade school at Forest Hills Elementary before going to Chestnut Street School for junior high. He graduated from New Hanover High School nearly 60 years ago in 1962.
Merritt earned an associate’s degree at Wilmington College, later known as the University of North Carolina Wilmington, before completing a bachelor’s degree in English at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
From there he went to work for companies in New Orleans and Birmingham before returning to Wilmington where he intended to work for his father’s company. But that didn’t happen, Merritt said.
“We were not simpatico, if you will, on a lot of things,” he said, “so I left and went to Greensboro.”
In Greensboro, while serving as the director of the city’s arts council, Merritt began to see the impact downtown revitalization could have on a city.
After two years, he returned to Wilmington in 1975 where he worked on the mayoral campaign of Ben Halterman.
When Halterman was elected, Merritt pushed him to look at ways to revitalize Wilmington’s downtown area, which had been overrun with adult entertainment venues, adult bookstores and topless bars, Merritt said.
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A research firm studied the issue and recommended establishing a public/private partnership to address the impact suburban sprawl had had on Wilmington’s downtown area.
In 1977, Merritt served as the registered agent who incorporated the Downtown Area Revitalization Effort, Inc. or DARE. The name of the organization was later changed to Wilmington Downtown Inc. At the time, the group was one of the first public/private partnerships focused on downtown improvement in North Carolina, Merritt said.
The group’s first director lasted about a month before Merritt was asked to take the reins at the organization in 1978.
Mary Gornto was hired as DARE’s community relations director and worked with Merritt during his time as director. DARE’s impact on Wilmington was “huge,” she said.
“It was very much needed because businesses had started moving out of downtown. The city had for many years turned its back on the river,” Gornto said. “Gene … recognized things that needed to change in how the community viewed downtown.”
One of the group’s first efforts was weed out downtown Wilmington’s adult entertainment venues. They worked to regulate adult entertainment businesses by limiting how closely they locate to similar businesses and other establishments like churches.
“Those were bloody times,” Merritt said about his early years at DARE.
DARE, in coordination with the city of Wilmington, strategically bought up downtown buildings to prevent adult entertainment businesses from re-entering the downtown.
Merritt also started Riverfest, an event that aimed to draw Wilmington residents downtown and re-introduce them to the area.
In the late1970s, Merritt served as the chairman of the liquor by the drink committee. The committee was trying to make it legal for bars and restaurants to sell liquor. Up until then, bars and restaurants were allowed to sell only beer and wine under North Carolina state law.
If customers wanted liquor, they had to bring a bottle to the restaurant and mix the drinks themselves. An open carry law prohibited them from leaving the bar or restaurant with liquor still in the bottle, which often lead to excessive drinking, Merritt said.
As chairman, Merritt helped organize a vote to allow liquor in local bars and restaurants. The measure passed in 1979 by a wide margin and helped downtown eating establishments flourish.
“Liquor by the drink made the restaurant business in Wilmington,” Merritt said. “It absolutely busted it wide open.”
The organization also put an emphasis on shifting downtown away from an industrialized riverfront. In 1980, with Merritt still at the helm of DARE, he learned of plans for coal to be brought by boat from Kentucky and unloaded in downtown Wilmington before being shipped overseas.
The coal was set to be dumped on land owned by the Almont Shipping Company, which sat on the northern end of downtown near the present-day marina, PPD and Riverfront Park.
Merritt knew the coal piles would be a “disaster” for any future downtown improvement, so he set about finding a way to stop the company’s plans.
One night, Merritt had stayed up until the early hours of the morning reading North Carolina state statutes when he came across a rule they could use. If Merritt could get the signatures of at least 10% of the voters in the last election, they could bring forward a vote to amend city code, making the land unusable for coal storage.
Only about 6,000 Wilmington residents had voted in the last election, so Merritt needed to get 600 voter signatures. Instead, he got 3,000.
“We overwhelmingly won and forced the city to amend the code to not allow the coal pile down there,” he said.
Ten years later, Merritt and his father learned that another company was trying to bring a coal shipment into the downtown area.
“We said we’ve got to do something about this, so we started raising hell,” Merritt said.
They got an order forcing the boat to anchor at the mouth of the Cape Fear River and went to court with the coal company. They ultimately won the case by showing that a city code amended by a public vote could only be change by another vote of the public, Merritt said.
In the 1980s, Merritt worked with his father, who had become his “partner in crime” to advocate for the North Carolina Department of Transportation to extend Interstate 40 into Wilmington. Local officials didn’t seem to be taking charge, so the Merritts decided to step up.
They formed North Carolina I-40, Inc., a lobbying group that aimed to advocate for bringing I-40 to Wilmington. Merritt served as the group’s president.
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“All roads are political. There’s always some political angle to every road that is built from anywhere,” he said. “They’re not always built on the basis of need. They’re built on the basis of political connections.”
Merritt tapped his political connections, using his brother John, who then was serving as chief of staff for Charlie Rose, a U.S. Congressman from North Carolina. The group helped secure funding for the project, and the road was completed in 1990.
Merritt said he considers extending I-40 to Wilmington the “biggest thing he ever did.” Over the years, Southeastern North Carolina has struggled to get its share of infrastructure funding from the North Carolina Department of Transportation, Merritt said.
“We’ve never gotten our fair share, in my opinion. That was why getting I-40 to Wilmington was such a big deal,” he said. “We broke that barrier.”
During the fight to secure funding for I-40, a member of the public called the Merritt’s “citizen warriors,” Merritt said because, “we were fighting on behalf of the public, not for our back pocket.”
John Merritt said advocating for the public good runs in his family’s blood.
“I don’t know what this strain is in my family, in our blood, that makes us public servants. I don’t know what it is, but we’ve got it,” he said, “and we want to do what’s right for the public.”
After leaving his role at DARE, Merritt became a developer and historic preservationist in downtown Wilmington.
Merritt estimates he’s had a hand in at least 125 buildings downtown. Susi Hamilton was working as a planner with the city of Wilmington and reviewed plans for several of Merritt’s developments.
One of Merritt’s most groundbreaking projects was his development of the Water Street Center — a nine story commercial and residential building along the riverfront. Hamilton remembers Merritt getting “kicked around a little bit” over the project’s design while others questioned whether he could fill the building with tenants.
Regardless, Merritt persisted with his plans, she said. The construction of the building knocked down a section of an aging parking garage and paved the way for future riverfront developments.
“From that point forward, it was just a matter of time before we knew the other two-thirds of that old deck were going to be torn down and redeveloped,” Hamilton said.
The development helped “put Wilmington on the map,” according to Lee Hill, a realtor who now works as the broker in charge of GMC Real Estate, the business Merritt has operated since 1982.
The great recession hit Merritt and his real estate investments hard. He’s still recovering from the financial losses, he said, but the losses didn’t bankrupt him.
Over the years, Merritt has helped advocate for the installation of Wilmington’s Riverwalk and helped establish an organization that’s advocated for investment in Wilmington’s Brooklyn Arts District.
He’s watched as more businesses and apartment buildings have moved into downtown and the area has welcomed new residents from across the country.
“I am just overwhelmed with pride at where downtown is now compared to where it was in 1977,” Merritt said. “It just blows my mind.”
Merritt remains actively involved in downtown Wilmington. He’s currently working on some downtown development proposals — which are still confidential — and remains a public advocate.
“I don’t feel like I’m finished yet,” he said, “but I feel like I’m going to continue sticking my nose into something.”
A supporter of “smart growth,” Merritt said he wants to see more investment in regional infrastructure as the area’s population continues to grow. The first project he wants to see funded is a replacement for the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge.
“The fact we don’t have a plan for a new bridge over the Cape Fear River is ridiculous, in my opinion,” he said. “They’ve been messing around with this thing forever.”
All part of Merritt’s continuing efforts to advocate for investment and historic preservation in Wilmington’s downtown area.
“He’s always been a Wilmington guy,” his brother John Merritt said. “There may be others who love Wilmington as much, but no one loves Wilmington more than him.”
Reporter Emma Dill can be reached at 910-343-2096 or [email protected]
'Citizen warrior': Gene Merritt paved the way for today's downtown Wilmington – StarNewsOnline.com
Gene Merritt has watched downtown Wilmington change and evolve all his life.