In its 22 years, Downtown Visions has grown from its original ‘clean and safe’ mandate to become an award-winning economic force that provides loans, grants and general support for businesses and events
Starting with a mission of keeping Wilmington’s business district “clean and safe,” Downtown Visions has become much more.
It’s aiding the redevelopment of the city’s core, recruiting new businesses, helping business owners beautify their storefronts, organizing a Farmers’ Market on Rodney Square, sponsoring or collaborating on concerts and special events, and promoting the growth of a critical residential mass along Market Street.
“We’re developing a great sense of community downtown,” says Marty Hageman, the retired Wilmington police officer who has served as Downtown Visions’ executive director since the organization’s founding in 1994.
Any remaining doubts about Downtown Visions’ role in creating that sense of community were erased last month, when the organization and its nominees received a series of “Excellence in Downtown Revitalization” awards from the Delaware Economic Development Office and its Delaware Main Street program.
Downtown Visions was honored for having the best business development program of any Main Street entity in the state. Three Buccini/Pollin Group projects were cited: 608 N. Market for best new building, 726 N. Market for best façade over $7,500, and 627 N. Market, formerly a Kennard’s department store and Delaware State University site, for best adaptive reuse.
In addition, the Ladybug Music Festival, promoted by Downtown Visions, was named best special event and Buccini/Pollin was recognized as best community partner. Social media guru Ken Grant was named outstanding volunteer and two Market Street icons, restaurateur Scott Morrison and deli owner Jimmy Hackett, received posthumous awards as outstanding businesspersons.
Whether more honors come its way remain to be seen, but Downtown Visions is clearly elevating its profile. “We’re taking a more expanded role in the different areas of our operations,” Hageman says.
Its founding 22 years ago was made possible when the General Assembly passed legislation enabling creation of a Wilmington Downtown Business Improvement District. The new organization started with its “clean and safe” mandate, which was expanded in 2007, when Downtown Visions took on the additional charge of serving as the city’s entity in the national Main Street economic development initiative.
Since then, Downtown Visions has provided grants and loans to help about 60 businesses install new facades on their storefronts and make related improvements.
“Major developers are transforming downtown, but we can help the small business people who own single buildings,” Hageman says. “They often have had their upstairs vacant for 50 years or more. If we can help to repurpose that into living spaces, we think that is very important.”
Downtown Visions recently expanded its business development efforts by partnering with the city’s Economic Development office and another nonprofit, the Wilmington Renaissance Corporation, to create the Wilmington Storefront Project. This initiative identifies available retail locations in the downtown business district and assists businesses desiring to locate there by providing grants of up to $25,000 to fit out their shops as well as support their marketing and social media efforts.
The program has helped about 30 businesses so far, Hageman says.
Even with 21 new businesses opening downtown last year, more retail is needed to complement the recent growth of residential properties along Market Street, he says. “We want the world to know that downtown Wilmington is open for business,” he says.
The storefront project maintains a listing of sites available for retail development, most of them on Market Street and West Ninth Street.
“Right now is the perfect time to locate downtown,” says David Sanchez, owner of Spaceboy Clothing, which has been on Market Street since 2011. “You can make it if you want. You can do whatever you want. I see it as my playground.”
Sanchez salutes Will Minster, director of business development and manager of the Main Street program. “He helped me get the facade grant. He was with me when I got my permits from the city. When I have a question or an idea for something, he’s my go-to guy,” Sanchez says.
As one example, he cites the support he received from Minster last spring when he and Maiza Hixson came up with the idea for a “Make-Out Mob,” a grassroots sharing of hugs and kisses to counter the negativity associated with the “Murder Town USA” publicity of the previous six months. Minster jumped on the proposal and organized publicity through Downtown Visions and social media channels.
The event at Henry B. du Pont Park on Delaware Avenue wasn’t huge—about 50 people turned out—but the buzz it generated was substantial.
Minster hopes to expand on those efforts this year.
“We’re tailoring our events to be stronger,” he says.
In 2015, its weekly Farmers Market drew about 50,000 city residents and downtown workers to Rodney Square.
In addition, Downtown Visions had a role in 109 concerts featuring local musicians, including 65 lunchtime concerts.
One of its most successful events was the Ladybug Music Festival, featuring female musicians, in July. Gayle Dillman, who partnered with Jeremy Hebbel to create Gable Music Ventures, the sponsor of Ladybug, says support from Minster and Downtown Visions was essential to building her business.
Not long after they got started in 2011, Dillman and Hebbel heard about Minster’s efforts to promote social and entertainment events in the Market Street corridor. She contacted Minster for advice on partnerships and collaborations. “Will, Jeremy and I just hit it off real well,” she says, and soon Downtown Visions was helping Gable promote evening music programs in the LOMA district.
The first Ladybug was held in 2012 and by last year the musical block party had grown to 50 performers who attracted an audience of about 3,000. This year, Minster says, he’d like to see a crowd closer to 6,000 as the July 21 event expands to take up both the 200 and 300 blocks of Market Street.
Last year, a series of summer concerts organized by Gable drew an average of 75 people, Minster says. Additionally, over Thanksgiving weekend, Downtown Visions contracted with Gable to bring in 21 musicians to perform at nine venues as part of Small Business Saturday activities.
“Will gets it,” Dillman says. “He understands that to have a vibrant downtown you have to make it safer.”
Mark Fields, executive director of the Grand Opera House, agrees.
Downtown Visions, he says, “has been a very helpful ally to the Grand in overcoming the misperception that downtown is inordinately unsafe.”
Downtown Visions “ambassadors,” who provide safety escorts to about 3,000 downtown workers and visitors a year, provide “a reassuring presence on the street,” Fields says.
“The ambassadors are easily spotted and they help people overcome an anxiety that does not have much to do with day-to-day realities” in the business district, he says.
“We strive to be your constant companion,” says Mike Maggitti, Downtown Visions’ director of operations. “We don’t work bankers’ hours. We’re there until 11:30 at night, every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas, and we’re out in all weather.”
Downtown Visions tries to keep track of all events in the city, not just those at the major venues like the Grand, the Playhouse and World Cafe Live at The Queen, Maggitti says.
“We want you to get there safely and to leave safely, so we have our team in the vicinity a half-hour before the show starts and until a half-hour after the show ends.”
“One of the things that make a city feel safe is having people in the streets,” Dillman says. With ambassadors out on the street, “there’s always somebody within sight. You don’t feel alone, you don’t feel unsafe. Now, you can be out until 11:30, and Market is still crowded.”
Besides improving safety downtown, Fields says, Downtown Visions, underwritten in part by assessments paid by businesses and nonprofits in the business district, keeps the area clean, “a job that the city doesn’t have the resources to do.”
Downtown Visions’ role in strengthening the business district helped convince Fields to make a move of his own last fall, from the suburbs to an apartment in the Lofts at Second and LOMA.
“They made me realize that there’s always somebody out there,” he says. “It’s nice to have that presence.”