OUR TOWN SERIES: This is the second in a series of profiles about communities throughout Delaware
Its population has already tripled in this century
Some folks think Middletown got its name because it’s roughly halfway between Wilmington and Dover. Wrong.
The real story behind the name is that Middletown is about halfway between Bohemia Landing on the Chesapeake Bay and Cantwell’s Bridge, east of Odessa. Nineteenth-century farmers from Maryland’s Eastern Shore would drive their carts, laden with fruits and vegetables, to the river port, from which their produce could be shipped north to Wilmington and Philadelphia or south to ports on the East Coast.
Ask a contemporary resident or shop owner about their community’s name, and they just might tell you it’s because Middletown is, figuratively and sometimes literally, right in the middle of everything.
After all, what better way is there to explain how a town could more than triple its population in 13 years—from 6,290 at the turn of the century to 19,910 in 2014. And there’s no sign of the population boom slowing down. With multiple new subdivisions approved by town officials but not yet built, it’s easy to anticipate a population of 25,000 or so within 10 years, Mayor Ken Branner says.
It’s a boomtown with a small town feel, a Main Street reminiscent of Mayberry flanked by strip mall shopping and big box stores, with McMansions, townhomes and apartments sprouting where peach orchards thrived more than a century ago.
“There’s a lot of opportunity here,” says Dawn Graney, a Middletown native who owns A Creative Edge, a graphics and design shop that’s been on Main Street for four years. “It’s a growing town. It’s exciting.”
Patrick D’Amico feels the same way. He moved to Middletown 16 years ago, after he and his wife decided they could get more house and more land for their money than they could in Hockessin. D’Amico, a veteran chef who has worked in the Wilmington area at Harry’s Savoy Grill, Eclipse and the Hotel du Pont, recently took advantage of an opportunity to end his commuting days and bring more fine dining to Middletown.
Over the winter he and his business partners, Rick Clark and Adam Cofield, opened the Metro Pub in a renovated lumber showroom in Peachtree Station, a block north of Main Street. While the gastropub has quickly become a go-to dining destination in town, D’Amico and partners have more on their plates. By the end of the summer they expect to open an Italian restaurant that he says will be “a step up from the gastropub” in the historic Middletown bank building on the square at Broad and Main. The tentative name: Cucina della Banca, which means “the kitchen of the bank.”
“Many people down here tend to travel north for work. Then they come home and they have to go north again to go out for dinner,” D’Amico says. “We want to give them a good reason to stay here when they go out.”
Although surrounded by growth, the venerable Main Street business district refuses to be squeezed by it.
Much of it has to do with having a variety of specialty retailers downtown.
“We’ve got a frame shop. You can’t get [custom framing] at Walmart,” Branner says. And, for many people, he adds, “it’s easier to get a couple of screws or a box of nails at Middletown Hardware than to drive out to Lowe’s or Home Depot.”
More than that, says Nick Manerchia, executive director of Middletown Main Street, the nonprofit responsible for downtown revitalization, it’s the “collective creativity” and passion of merchants who are committed to working together. Besides such regular events as trick or treating on Main Street at Halloween and a Christmas parade, merchants organize two fashion shows a year and, on May 14, they’re sponsoring a Grapes and Grains event in the Metro Pub parking lot—all the wine and beer you can drink for $45 a person.
“Our events are successful because they’re based on ideas that come from the merchants,” Manerchia says.
In April, to promote a Grease singalong at the Everett Theatre, downtown’s long-standing entertainment hub, a group of retailers assembled outside the theater at lunch hour and did the hand jive to promote the event. “It was fun, and we got a couple of beeps” from passing motorists, says Elizabeth Barbato, owner of the Purple Sage boutique, a Main Street fixture for 11 years.
Barbato has some unique ideas of her own, too. She has learned that special events draw extra traffic, so she offers a free tea tasting on the first Saturday of the month—eight varieties plus a special coffee, and she brings in a tea leaf reader as well.
The Everett has tried to develop a consistent menu of events to build its audience, says Chris Everett, the theater’s executive director. The first weekend of the month usually features a film as a joint fundraiser for the theater and a local nonprofit organization. For the second and third weekends, there’s a stage production—Disney’s Alice in Wonderland Junior in May and Shrek the Musical in June—and occasional special events on the fourth weekend. (A Billy Joel tribute band performed in April.)
“We’re trying to make this a destination place, but it takes a while,” says Everett, who calls it “just a happy coincidence” that his surname is a perfect match for the theater.
Adjacent to the Everett is its annex, where theater classes and rehearsals are held, and the “Gibby Center”—the Gilbert W. Perry Center for the Arts—which offers art exhibitions, classes and camps.
“I’m glad we’re here,” Everett says. “What we do helps bring people downtown to the businesses, and what the businesses do helps make their customers more aware of the theater.”
While it’s reasonable to assume that the Main Street shops would rely primarily on local residents for patronage, shop owners say their customers come from both near and far.
Barbato says her tea tastings at Purple Sage regularly attract visitors from Chestertown, Md. Tammy Nichols, general manager of Half-Baked Patisserie, says she has regulars who drive from the New York metropolitan area for their cannoli and Italian cream cakes and rum cakes.
Traffic Congestion a Plus?
Shop owners admit they can thank traffic congestion for bringing them some of those out-of-town customers. Main Street is notorious for half-hour traffic jams in the morning and mid-afternoon and often on weekends, and those jams worsen when travelers to and from Maryland’s Eastern Shore pass through Main Street on their way to or from Route 1 and points north and south – much as those Eastern Shore farmers passed through Middletown in the years before the C&D Canal.
“I could be anywhere,” says Graney, the graphic designer at A Creative Edge, “but people stuck in traffic see the name of the business on the front of the building.”
“The merchants sometimes complain about the traffic,” Branner says, “but people stop in traffic and they say, ‘There’s Purple Sage, there’s Charlie’s Barber Shop, there’s Immediato’s Bistro.’ You can look around and see what’s there, and sometimes they pull into the parking lot and stop.”
The mixed blessing the congestion brings may soon become a thing of the past. Construction began early this year on the Route 301 bypass, a toll road that will stretch from the Maryland state line to Route 1 north of Middletown. The bypass, while intended primarily to get heavy trucks off Route 896 on their way to and from Interstate 95, will also reduce the number of long-distance travelers through Middletown.
But the bypass will have little impact on local traffic, especially with about 3,000 more housing units approved for construction and at least 17 more retail and restaurant businesses coming to town.
Most of the new construction is on Middletown’s south and west sides, where the sprawling Westown Shopping Center includes stores like Kohl’s, Michaels, Marshalls, Dress Barn, Petco and Walmart.
“We’ve got Grotto pizza, Chipotle Grill, Panda Express, all kinds of commercial 5,000-to-10,000-square-foot buildings on the way,” Branner says.
The Westown Movies, with 12 screens, opened in December 2013 and in February 2015 became the first movie theater in the state to receive a license to serve alcoholic beverages. The theater attracts more than 300,000 moviegoers a year, says Rick Roman, owner of Roman Theatre Management.
Although it’s on the outskirts of town, the cinema respects the town’s heritage with a 65-by-17-foot mural in its lobby featuring images of Main Street, the Everett, the annual peach festival and the town logo. Its refreshment stand features “Middletown treats,” pizza and baked goods prepared by local merchants. The theater regularly opens one of its screens to local charities, showing classic films as fundraisers, with a $5 admission, Roman says.
While the massive Amazon.com distribution center dominates the west side of town, and contributes to traffic jams during its shift changes, it’s hardly Middletown’s only big—or new—employer. Johnson Controls, the auto battery maker, is working on a $55 million expansion, adding 200 jobs to its plant on North Broad Street. A Harley-Davidson showroom and restaurant is on its way and the town is negotiating with two manufacturers for new sites.
In addition, the town has approved, over protests by a group of residents, construction of the Middletown Technology Center, a 228,000-square-foot data center for companies to store massive amounts of electronic information, in an industrial area called MOT Park, near the Amazon warehouse. The data center would be powered by a 52.5 megawatt natural gas cogeneration plant. Construction of the $500 million facility would take about 10 months, Branner says, but cannot start until the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control issues required air quality permits.
The project would create 2,000 or more short-term construction jobs, and eventually 125 fulltime jobs, at salaries ranging from $75,000 to $125,000, Branner says.
Not all of Middletown’s growth is associated with big companies and national brands.
The Middletown Area Chamber of Commerce has grown from 165 members to more than 500 in five years, says Roxane Ferguson, its executive director. The chamber has created a Business Incubator and Collaborative Workspace within its new building on Cass Street, and it already houses 18 businesses, which pay anywhere from $150 a month for a cubicle to $500 for a private office. (Drop-in charges are lower.)
“It has helped tremendously,” says Kevin Flanagan, who runs his eight-employee Delaware Computer Mechanics business from an office at the incubator. “The mentoring, the workshops on putting your business together, meeting potential clients . . . you don’t get that running a business out of your home, and if you’re in a store, you’re often in there by yourself,” he says.
With all the growth, it can be a challenge to preserve the town’s heritage, says Don Matsen, president of the Middletown Historical Society.
“It seems kind of strange that people who move into new houses come down here because it’s agricultural and it has its rural aspects, and they’re the ones who are making it impossible to see that,” he says.
But he refuses to pin the blame on developers. “Middletown is extremely flat. It’s easy to build houses on flat land. Developers don’t put money in their expense accounts to preserve properties. It’s human nature,” he says.
Parts of the downtown area, especially on Broad and Cass streets, have large, colorful Victorian homes dating to the 1830s and 1840s, and a few even older, Matsen says.
But many others are long gone.
Attendees at a recent historical society meeting compared an 1868 map of the town, which had the locations of all the homes marked, with the current streetscape. Matsen says the group went through the map with a red pencil, crossing out homes that no longer existed. “When we were finished,” he says, “the paper looked like a school teacher’s correction of a poor student’s exam. There were Xs all over.”
Matsen, who lives just outside of town in a house built in the 1790s, admits that old homes aren’t for everyone. “They require continuing maintenance. It would be cheaper to live in a more modern house, but we love the history of it, and the architecture,” he says.
While the peach orchards are now part of the distant past, Middletown recalls its heritage on the third Saturday in August, when the Historical Society puts on the annual Peach Festival. With a parade, 350 vendors and entertainment inside the Everett and on three outdoor stages, the event usually attracts about 30,000 people. “It seems like it’s always the hottest day of the year and we pretty much shut everything [else in town] down,” says Brian Richards, who organizes the program for the society.
Then there is the Big Ball Marathon over Labor Day weekend, a 24-hour softball celebration that has been raising funds to support community organizations for nearly 20 years.
Next to the Peach Festival and the Big Ball Marathon, Middletown’s best-known special event may be the Hummers Parade, a loosely organized New Year’s Day celebration for which residents create floats and dress in costume to spoof political and cultural icons.
Also on this year’s amusement schedule will be a quirky chamber of commerce-sponsored competition: teams of beanbag pitchers will square off on Oct. 8 in the State Corn Hole Championship.
Events like these along with a thriving Main Street and expanding retail and employment options help explain why Middletown has become so popular.
“We’re a half-hour commute into Wilmington or down to Dover, and over the bridge into New Jersey isn’t a big deal,” Ferguson says. “And look what you get here: a beautiful home, a big yard and good schools for your children.”