Four years ago, Kevin O’Grady, a retired lawyer and then president of Residents of Old Wilmington, decided to bring some of his neighborhood association’s priorities into the limelight by running for City Council. Since then, the incumbent Democrat says he’s accomplished what he set out to do—enhance public safety, historic preservation, and forestation initiatives throughout downtown Wilmington. But O’Grady, who’s up for reelection, has a host of related civic projects he hopes to see through during a second term.
O’Grady has some strong feelings about the downtown riverfront, an area where he can frequently be seen walking his rambunctious Welsh terrier, Shaun. Back in his pre-City Council days, O’Grady chaired his neighborhood’s Nightlife Task Force. And shortly after being elected in 2009, he asked the state to take the density of downtown bars into consideration before granting new liquor licenses.
"And they let us, for the last four years, put a density restriction on opening new bars. And the result has been, we’re about fifteen percent lower in the number of seats at the bar right now in downtown, and we also have some dress shops in stores that would have become bars. "
O’Grady says that once the council took this action, the district attorney closed some night spots he says were prone to violence. He says it also prompted the police and DA to form a downtown police force three years ago.
"It’s a joint force of sheriffs, deputies and Wilmington Police. Ten of them that always work downtown so that they always know what’s going on down here. And that’s had a positive effect on crime. Crime is down 25% over the last four years in the Central District Business area."
O’Grady says he’s proud of his efforts to discourage the demolition of downtown Wilmington’s historic buildings--by restricting the size of new buildings that can be erected in their place. He adds that he recently found a way for the city to finance forty million dollars’ worth of infrastructure improvements over the next twenty years, through bonds. This is known as the Five-Year Improvement Plan.
"The section that they’re building—rebuilding—right now at the foot of Market? That’s over forty years old. And in addition to that, we’re gonna build a new Riverfront Park, which will be more appropriate for events, because that is an event area. It will also be greener, and more attractive."
O’Grady notes, however, that greening the city requires strategy. He recently helped reforest Fifth Street, which involved cutting down Darlington Oaks—which he says tend to collect water and rot from the inside--and replanting longer-lasting Live Oaks. He says a similar reforestation project is in the works for Market Street’s leafy canopy.
"We have to remember, tree don’t last forever. So if we want this city to be green in the future, we have to plant trees now. And we have a very strong tree-planting program here. Very often, if there’s a development and trees have to be taken town, the developers are required to contribute to a tree fund, which we then use to plant trees around the city."
O’Grady says he’s a big proponent of bringing a new full-service hotel to the downtown convention center, as well as tax incentives that he says will bring 400 new jobs to Castle Branch. He’s particularly excited about Live Oak Bank’s recent relocation here, because he says there’s a good chance the specialty loan bank will soon start its own computer programming company.
"That’s great just for the value it brings here, but the other thing it does is, it brings a mass of people in the computer industry here. And that’s how you start to build that center of activity that can lead entrepreneurs to spin off other companies in the same field."
Going forward, O’Grady sees the Council’s primary challenge as sequestration at the federal level, coupled with state cut-backs, which he says translates to greater burdens for local governments. He notes, for instance, that the Council recently allocated funds to help the DA prolong New Hanover County’s previously state-funded DUI program.
"And we’re gonna see more things like that that are gonna be coming down the hill to us, because the federal and state government, for whatever reason, they’re cutting back."
O’Grady notes that, as a retiree, he has the advantage of zero special interests to serve, as well as the ability to fully invest himself in his duties as a councilman.
"This is not a stepping stone for me. We’ve had a lot of politicians in town that have gotten elected and then immediately started running for something else and basically left their jobs in mid-course. I’m not gonna do that. I’m not going anywhere else. I’ve been asked to run for higher office. And I refuse. I think I’m right where I belong."
*You’ll hear more Candidate Profiles throughout October as WHQR’s Special Election Coverage continues.
And stay tuned for details on WHQR’s Candidate Forums, October 22nd and 23rd.