Several New Castle County communities are taking an organized approach to making their downtowns vibrant and economically successful
If you grew up a generation ago in a small town, or if you’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life a dozen times, you have a good idea of what Main Street is supposed to look like: a broad street with wide sidewalks, a red brick colonial town hall on one corner, an imposing bank with a clock tower on another, a clothing store, a grocery, a bakery, a drug store, an ice cream parlor, a movie theater, the post office, a church or two, and perhaps the offices of the local doctor, lawyer and insurance agent.
Back when strip malls and megamalls were still developers’ dreams, Main Street was the focal point of town, the place you went to shop, to work, or maybe just relax—to see and be seen.
Thankfully, the Main Street ideal—the belief that historic downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts represent the core of our communities—still endures, even if those cores don’t look quite like we (or our parents) remember them.
Following the blueprint of the National Main Street Center, a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, communities as large as Wilmington and as small as Delaware City and New Castle are revitalizing their downtown business districts, strengthening these commercial cores while preserving their heritage.
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all,” says Diane Laird, state coordinator for Downtown Delaware, a resource center housed in the Delaware Economic Development Office to provide oversight and technical assistance for Main Street programs.
“[The] Main Street [program] provides a proven model that can be tweaked to the individual town’s needs. We’re following it in Newark’s own way,” says Ricky Nietubicz, administrator of the Downtown Newark Partnership, the city’s Main Street affiliate.
Newark is one of four New Castle County communities with active Main Street programs. The others are Wilmington, Middletown and Delaware City. In addition, New Castle and Wilmington’s Southbridge community and the Lincoln/Union Business District on the city’s West Side have established units known as “commercial district affiliates,” something Laird likes to call “Main Street Lite.”
“I do my work in black and white and they bring it to life in color” is how Laird likes to describe her work.
The activities in participating communities are adding varied splashes of color, most of them bright.
In Wilmington, for example, Downtown Visions has created a Façade Improvement Program that, through October, had given facelifts and new signage to 38 buildings in the city’s business improvement district, with seven more projects in progress or about to begin. Those projects have resulted in removal of ominous security gates that had been installed in the wake of the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“The security gate removals and renovated facades have made a remarkable difference on Market Street,” Laird says. “The gates were not only looking bad but they were telling us we have a reason to be afraid. Removing them not only makes the street more beautiful, it also conveys a stronger sense of safety.”
In Delaware City, the Main Street effort is emphasizing a commitment to promoting ecotourism. Newark takes pride in infill development projects whose design complements existing architecture. Middletown, meanwhile, is promoting its arts scene, especially the Everett Theatre and the Gilbert W. Perry Jr. Center for the Arts. The rapidly growing community is striving to establish a mix of retail and dining options to enhance its downtown’s stature as a destination for residents.
“Retail and dining are what you want to get the pedestrian traffic going,” says Tracy Skrobot, program manager for Middletown Main Street.
A Four-Pronged Approach
Main Street programs take a four-pronged approach to community revitalization: organization and partnerships; promotions that create a positive image; design that creates a pleasing, positive atmosphere and economic restructuring.
Organizations typically take the form of a public-private partnership with a board of directors made up of business and government representatives and residents. Although the groups rely significantly on volunteers, they should have a paid executive director. In the most stable organizations, most or all of the director’s salary is underwritten by the local government, Laird says.
For example, in Newark, Nietubicz is a city employee, and in Middletown, the town government provides office space for the Main Street program while funding Skrobot’s salary.
Main Street programs employ a variety of financing mechanisms. Businesses in the area served by the Downtown Newark Partnership pay a higher annual fee for their business licenses, while Wilmington’s Downtown Visions levies a special assessment on all businesses in its service area. Delaware City’s organization relies on donations, memberships and fundraisers, with technical support but no financial assistance from the town, according to Mark Chura, the program’s part-time manager.
Promotions are a key to making downtown business districts attractive. Recurring events, including Winterfest, Community Day and Restaurant Week, are popular in Newark. Downtown Visions sponsors Wilmington’s Farmers’ Market on Rodney Square and promotes a host of other events.
The Traditional and the New
Design and economic restructuring often go hand in hand, so preserving a community’s traditional architectural features helps attract new businesses that are essential to making a downtown strong.
In Newark, Nietubicz says, “there’s a design culture, and developers take the process seriously.” The result, Laird says, has been a series of projects resulting in “buildings that are not historic but fit with the historic context even though the design might be more contemporary.”
The bottom line, of course, for all Main Street communities is economic restructuring.
Since its launch in 2007, Wilmington’s Downtown Visions program has become a vital force in street-level economic development, recruiting new businesses for the Market Street corridor, helping them cut through red tape at city hall, and providing training in marketing and social media, among other things.
Before the Main Street program began, downtown business owners were often at odds with each other, competing more often than collaborating. Now they see things differently.
“We need more people downtown, period,” says Julia Han, owner of the Sports Connection. “Whether you’re a restaurant, or selling sneakers, or fixing shoes, the number one issue for everybody is having more people. If I can bring five people to my business and you can bring five people to yours, and an office can bring five more, soon you’re talking about a great change,” she says. “The idea that you’re on your own is shattered. If people enjoy being on the street, there will be more traffic for your business.”
Middletown’s Skrobot describes her relationship to local businesses succinctly: “My job is to get feet on the street. Their job is to get them in the door and to keep them there.”
The need to strengthen their business districts is what has prompted New Castle and Wilmington’s Southbridge and Lincoln/Union areas to become Main Street “commercial district affiliates.”
The Historic New Castle Alliance received affiliate status in 2009, according to Valarie Windle, the group’s volunteer leader. The organization will soon rebrand itself as the New Castle Community Partnership, a name that she says better reflects collaboration among the city’s business, residential and cultural interests and removes the perception that it is officially tied to historic attractions in the downtown area.
Preserve and Promote
“We have to develop downtown as a more viable destination, with more shops and restaurants,” she says. “We have great history to offer, great cultural activities to offer, but a lot of people don’t know we’re here. We’ll fall by the wayside if we don’t preserve and promote our businesses.”
Like the larger Main Street groups, the New Castle organization has several special events and fundraisers, like the “Wine About What Ales You,” a festive beer and wine activity in January. It is taking a more active role in traditional New Castle events, including A Day in Old New Castle and Separation Day, and collaborates with Delaware City on the Route 9 Yard Crawl, a miles-long yard sale in late April, and the River Towns Ride, a bicycling activity on the first Saturday in October.
Southbridge’s program is in its infancy, says organizer Travis Smith. Key community needs, he says, are to promote businesses in the neighborhood, especially along New Castle Avenue, Heald Street and A Street, and to improve employment opportunities for residents. Once the volunteer group gets organized, its first project will be the creation of an online portal that will describe Southbridge’s history and provide a directory of the businesses located there. He hopes to involve adults in doing the research and teenagers in editing the portal’s video components.
“We’ve got a dry cleaner, a Christian bookstore, a market, and churches. We’re the connection to downtown Wilmington and to the riverfront,” Smith says.
“We want to show the sense of community that lives on here, that Southbridge is a place where we can live, share, grow and love,” he says.
The Lincoln/Union Business District became a Main Street affiliate last year, following completion of the West Side Grows redevelopment plan for the larger area that stretches from I-95 west to the B&O Railroad tracks and from Lancaster Avenue north to Pennsylvania Avenue.
“The plan recommended starting a ‘Main Street-type’ program, and our staff said, ‘Let’s not do “type,” let’s do the full program,’” says Aimee Lala-Milligan, program manager for West Side commercial district revitalization.
“People want a more walkable, more beautified, more green commercial district,” she says.
The first step in that direction was taken in August through a “better block” event, for which the 600 block of Union Street received a three-day makeover, featuring angled parking spaces and potted plants and outdoor seating on the sidewalks to show what the street would look like if made more pedestrian-friendly.
A larger event is being planned for the spring, followed by a “celebration of the flavors of the neighborhood” event next summer, Lala-Milligan says.
Main Street efforts are never complete, Laird says. They are a program, not a project, something that must endure and become sustainable.
It is essential that their managers remain optimistic. Delaware City’s Chura embodies that characteristic. “Delaware City is a work in progress. It has a lot of potential,” he says. “There are new businesses opening, but we’re not quite there yet.”
Delaware Programs Among 1,631 Nationwide
Since the National Trust for Historic Preservation created the Main Street program in 1977, the initiative has grown to include 1,631 local programs, according to the National Main Street Center. Seven are in Delaware: Wilmington, Newark, Middletown, Delaware City, Dover, Rehoboth Beach and Milford.
Rehoboth, in 2009, and Newark, in 2011, have been honored with the Great American Main Street Award for exceptional programming.
According to Diane Laird, state coordinator for Downtown Delaware, the state’s Main Street programs have been helpful in creating jobs in participating communities. A study of six communities (all those listed here except Delaware City) that had programs operating from 2005 to 2010 found that they averaged four new business starts and 14 new jobs per community per year, or 25 new businesses and 83 jobs statewide per year.
With Main Street programs typically having an annual budget of $120,000 to $150,000, Laird says “that’s a pretty low investment” for the number of jobs created and the overall increase in economic activity.