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Developers Chris Buccini and Paul McConnell bullish about Wilmington

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Wilmington developers Paul McConnell and Chris Buccini today reaffirmed their commitment to Wilmington at a panel event on the Riverfront organized by BisNow, a media company for commercial real estate news.

“Paul and I are committed to make Wilmington the most dynamic small city in the country,” Buccini said.

The speakers also didn’t hesitate to point out the challenges ahead. They noted that the corporate trend towards downsizing is hurting the office leasing market within the city.

“’18 is going to be a brutal year,” McConnell said. “It’s just heavy lifting now. You’re still seeing tenants leave, and this downsizing is a constant thing. Every major corporation wants to put more people in less space…”

Outside the city, the speakers said, multi-family residential housing is booming in Middletown, on Concord Pike, in Claymont, and near Christiana Mall.

“We’re in the middle of a building boom in New Castle County and a lot of people don’t realize it,” Buccini said. “The interesting thing about the 10 or 15 massive projects that are on their way is that they are infill – Concord Plaza, the Stuart Kingston building, downtown Wilmington.”

The developers said there’s a market for high-quality housing with amenities around New Castle County. “I think our multifamily market is really growing up,” Buccini said.

Several in the audience of building industry professionals nodded in agreement when members of the panel criticized the process for building permits and fire permits.

Buccini said one of his projects had a $600,000 change order due to a traffic issue. “I know the county executive and the governor get it. They’re truly trying to change things,” he said.

In the meantime, Buccini added, the delays cause potential companies to look elsewhere.

“When we lose out on a Whole Foods or the big groceries, that’s an economic development issue,” Buccini said. “If our community doesn’t have the things other cities have, corporations are going elsewhere. Blackrock’s going to put more people in Princeton than they have here.”

Robert Wittig, president of Diamond State Management, a commercial real estate firm, said it takes two and a half years to put a Wawa in northern New Castle County, but you can put one in Florida in six months. “We’re not going to attract business to this community,” he said. “We’re fighting an uphill battle every day.”

While other markets are booming, panel members forecast no immediate improvement for the lagging office market.

“These buildings are whittled down so low now that you’re basically going to buy them for the land value,” McConnell said. “We’re in a tough place. I think the tough place lasts at least until ’18 when we get these buildings cleared out,”

He said out-of-state companies might be wooed into Wilmington because of the fintech staff available here as a result of HSBC’s move. In addition, the expanding university presence downtown could lift the area as it has in Philadelphia and other cities.

Witting said Wilmington is transitioning from a city with a few large industrial employers to many industries. “We’re now putting this table on 20 or 30 different legs. We’ve got to grow these 30 or 40 industries,” he said.

McConnell circled back on our elected officials’ role in future development.

“Hopefully a bunch of young people will run and get elected,” he said.

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