In downtown Wilmington, air has value. Some developers and property owners know it, and some city officials know it. It would be helpful if Cape Fear Community College became aware of this issue and began to embrace a smart development strategy for future projects.

Cape Fear Community College is an important asset to downtown and to all of Southeastern North Carolina. Its growth over the past 40 years has contributed to the social and economic advancement of the region.

The amount of land and buildings in the downtown area owned and operated by CFCC has increased substantially over that period. Whereas those buildings employ and educate a significant number of people, they add nothing directly to the ad valorem tax base. Many people resent that fact, including some current and past members of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.

Personally, I don’t have a problem with it, because I feel that CFCC, while not paying property tax, has helped make downtown more attractive to commercial developers and businesses, more than making up for lost property tax revenues.

For those who disagree with such reasoning, let me offer a solution.

CFCC could recognize the value of air in the downtown Central Business District and use that value to its advantage and to the advantage of the city.

Take, for example, the CFCC parking deck at Red Cross Street between Nutt and Front, across from Union Station. The land area for the deck is over 50,000 square feet. The allowable building height in that part of the CBD is 150 feet, yet the deck rises only 40 feet. That means 110 more feet of structure could have been built on this property.

It’s a great location with a wonderful view of the Cape Fear River. Using a smart-development approach, CFCC could have sold or leased those air rights to a private developer who, in turn, could have built apartments, office space or much-needed rental housing for students.

This would have provided CFCC with funds for future building development and/or maintenance of existing structures. The city and county would have benefited by expanding the tax base, bringing more construction and permanent jobs to the area, and by increasing the stock of downtown housing.

This becomes a win-win proposition for the public and private sectors. This approach could be used in future structured parking deck developments downtown developed by the city, county or any private development of vacant land. This process would build on our historic urban redevelopment efforts.

When it comes to downtown, smart development will provide a big payoff.

Gene Merritt is a longtime local developer and historic preservationist. He was co-founder and first executive director of DARE, Inc., now known as Wilmington Downtown Inc.