Our Town Series: This is the third in a series of profiles about communities throughout Delaware.
The state’s fifth largest town is walkable, friendly, inexpensive, accessible, filled with entertainment options and business-friendly
As a manager for Hercules Inc. for 41 years, Joanne Masten traveled the world, but she has lived in the same house since she was 18 months old—on West South Street in Smyrna.
In her childhood, the location was convenient. “I went to school for six years across the street and for six years up the street,” she recalls.
And it’s just as convenient now, since it’s only four blocks from Town Hall, where Masten, now Smyrna’s mayor, spends much of her time.
“She’s the best unpaid ambassador I could get my hands on,” says David Hugg, the town’s manager since 2002.
For proof, just ask Carol Forsythe.
Earlier this year, Forsythe and her husband, Eric Svalgard, decided to relocate and rename their Wilmington-based music education business. Forsythe and her daughter hopped in a car and headed south toward Dover. Only they decided to stop at Smyrna.
“There’s a very big net that we like to throw up on Route 1,” Forsythe jokes.
They dropped in at the Drunk’n Baker, the year-old downtown bakery and coffee shop, where co-owner Janet Straughn Forrest extolled the virtues of the rapidly growing town that straddles Duck Creek, the Kent-New Castle county boundary. She ended the chat with an offer to put Forsythe in touch with the mayor.
Masten called Forsythe, invited her back and gave her a guided tour of the town. Forsythe was sold. The new business, called That Performance Place, is opening in a temporary site downtown and, by the end of the year, expects to be offering music and theater lessons to preteens and teens in the former Thomas England House, a long-closed restaurant on Route 13.
“I spent a day taking them around town. We’re excited that they’re coming,” Masten says.
“I’m pleased to be working with people who put community and children first,” Forsythe says.
Forrest, whom Forsythe calls “my new best friend,” isn’t bashful about promoting the town either. She grew up in nearby Townsend, then spent the last 25 years or so in southern New Jersey, where her late husband was a police officer. Following her husband’s death, she wanted to move back home, and her daughter, Breanne Blair, was looking for work as a pastry chef.
Investing in the Town
They came upon a renovated building at the corner of Main and Commerce streets, decided it was an ideal location, and instantly received a warm reception for the alcohol-infused pastries that are the house specialty.
“I’m investing in the town, I’m investing in my daughter, and the shop gives me something to apply my time to,” Forrest says.
Owners of other businesses in Smyrna express similar sentiments—and that helps explain how the town is expected to triple its turn-of-the-century population of 5,679 by 2020 and how an area first settled in 1716 is becoming a popular dining and entertainment destination, drawing visitors from Wilmington and Bethany.
“You can find industrial space anywhere, but it was a really neat opportunity to locate downtown,” says Mike Rasmussen, co-owner of the Painted Stave Distillery, housed in the former Smyrna Theater on Commerce Street.
Hugg, Masten and other town officials persuaded Rasmussen and his partner, Ron Gomes, to consider locating in Smyrna and, Rasmussen says, “really rolled out the red carpet for us,” even throwing a party so they could meet other business owners and residents.
Painted Stave’s opening in late 2013 launched an alcoholic-beverage-making boomlet, with Ron Price opening Blue Earl Brewing last year in the Smyrna Business Park and the Brick Works Brewing and Eats brewpub, a partnership between Kevin Reading of Abbott’s Grill and Eric Williams of Mispillion River Brewing, both in Milford, almost ready to open on Route 13.
Smyrna’s resurgence started slowly, beginning in 2003 when Joe and Shirley Sheridan decided to sell their pub in Ogletown and head south. They came to Smyrna looking to buy a house, Shirley says, “and then I saw a big For Sale sign in the window of a building that had been a bar or a liquor store for about 100 years.” The location was good, the price was right, and Sheridan’s Irish Pub soon became a popular gathering place in town.
Focus on Dining, Entertainment
“When we first moved here, there wasn’t much of anything,” she says, but “people with vision, people who have the means to take a chance” are remaking the town.
The first stages of the revitalization have focused on dining and entertainment. Howard Johnson opened the Odd Fellows Café three years ago, then sold it after a year-and-half when Masten approached him about another project. He formed a partnership with Smyrna businesswoman Donna Ignasz and, with the help of some economic development incentives made available by the town from a $300,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, opened the Inn at Duck Creek last December in an 18th-century building at the corner of East Commerce and North Main streets.
“We say it’s the perfect spot,” says Johnson. The restaurant features upscale dining with a farm-to-table approach, beverages from Delaware brewers, distilleries and wineries, and live music on Friday and Saturday nights.
To give the entertainment vibe more momentum, the town has enlisted Strongpoint Marketing and Wilmington-based Gable Music Ventures to produce events like Smyrna at Night 2016, set for June 10. The program will feature 25 performers at 12 locations around town, with four indoor and outdoor stages at the Smyrna Opera House, two stages each at Painted Stave, Sheridan’s and the Inn at Duck Creek, and Blue Earl running a beer garden in the center of town. Children’s activities, vendors and food trucks will round out the program, says Gable Music’s Gayle Dillman.
With about a dozen bands, the event drew about 2,000 last year, Dillman says. This year, with good weather, a crowd of 3,000 to 4,000 is possible.
“It’ll be mostly American, rock, country, singer-songwriters; nothing too edgy,” Dillman says. “We’re helping Smyrna establish itself as an entertainment destination. From Wilmington, it’s an easier drive than to Center City Philadelphia.”
While dining and entertainment may be Smyrna’s meal ticket to prosperity, there’s near-unanimous agreement that there’s much more to be done, especially in re-establishing a retail core downtown.
“You can have a drink at Painted Stave and a dinner at Sheridan’s, but you can’t walk downtown to get a loaf of bread and a newspaper,” Hugg laments.
Need for More Retail
Yes, there is some retail—Sayers Jewelers and Gemologists has been around since 1950, and Smyrna Sporting Goods, known to the locals as “the gun shop,” for nearly as long. And there’s a hardware store too.
“We need fresh new businesses in town. Same old, same old doesn’t cut it for me,” Masten says.
She would like to see more boutiques, “like a miniature Berlin, Maryland,” she says, as well as a mid-sized department store that would cater to shoppers at a broad range of income levels.
While she’s a strong supporter of locally-owned businesses, Masten believes that “we will need some chains and, when one company comes, another will follow.”
The poster child for the hoped-for retail resurgence, Hugg says, is Karen Gill, owner of the adjoining Smyrna Cards and Gifts and Royal Treatments home décor shops.
After running a home-based window treatment business for years, Gill opened Royal Treatments on South Main Street in October 2013. The business took off rapidly, and Gill’s husband, Woody, joined the operation fulltime in June 2014. Four months later, they rented the space next door and opened the gift shop.
“Smyrna is really hopping right now. There’s a lot of excitement and enthusiasm for being downtown,” Gill says. “People who have lived here all their lives are surprised at what’s going on.”
Sheridan, whose pub weathered the economic downturn eight years ago and came back strong, can see the progress. “We’re a step further along than we were. You can see that there’s pride in downtown again,” she says.
Winning with Cross-Promotions
Forrest, of the Drunk’n Baker, would like to see Smyrna evolve into an “artsy, eclectic community like Asheville, North Carolina.” She sees much potential in the town’s “mix of the old and the new” and has been impressed with the way retailers and restaurateurs work together to cross-promote each other’s businesses.
“When you partner with others, everyone wins,” Sheridan adds.
“When I was elected mayor three years ago, I wanted to reinvigorate downtown, but I had no idea how to do it,” Masten says.
“I am not a shy person. I am going to push and push to get it done,” she says, explaining how she quickly built collaborative relationships with residents, business owners and members of the town council. “I have a wonderful team on the council. We work as a team, we play as a team, and we communicate,” she says.
By 2014 the town had approved a new strategic plan, and is working aggressively to implement it. It had also created a redevelopment authority, a semiprivate spinoff from the town, with five directors who have business and finance experience, and gave it the power to make loans and grants to small businesses.
“We recognize the importance and value of the downtown core,” Hugg says. “We’re not going to sit back and wait. We’re going to make things happen.”
Some of Smyrna’s initiatives resemble initiatives under way for nearly a decade on Wilmington’s Market Street.
The town has funneled $50,000 or so a year in penalties assessed against owners of vacant properties into grants to help store owners improve their facades, Hugg says. The $300,000 federal grant serves as a sort of revolving fund; initial loans jumpstart redevelopment projects and loan repayments are used to get new projects up and running.
Rick Ferrell, a Wilmington-based consultant, helps identify businesses that would be a good fit downtown and offers helpful advice.
“Our approach is to work with property owners to find a way to say ‘yes,’ not to say ‘no,’” Hugg says. “It’s more than saying ‘Smyrna is open for business.’ We’re committing the town to being ‘business-ready.’”
As a longtime Smyrna resident, Masten has made revitalizing the town her personal mission. “I’m having fun doing it. It’s not work yet,” she says. “It’s the lowest-paying job in the world and the best group of people to work with.”
Smyrna’s population has nearly doubled since the year 2000, reaching an estimated 11,170 in 2014. The state predicts that the number of residents will reach 18,000 to 20,000 by 2020.
“We will probably meet or exceed that. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing, but it will come whether we want it or not,” Masten says.
“We talk to a lot of young couples who come into the distillery,” Rasmussen says. “This is a more affordable place to buy a house and it certainly doesn’t hurt that there are neat things going on in town to attract them.”
Much of the actual and projected increase, Masten says, has been from the development of 55-plus communities that have attracted retirees (and soon-to-be retirees) from higher-tax states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey.
Hugg says approvals granted before the housing crash in 2008 authorized construction on about 2,000 lots. Permits will have to be reactivated before any work begins.
In addition, he says, many downtown buildings have second-floor apartments, and some of them are currently vacant.
Happy Being No. Five
While the town’s population is growing, Smyrna has no interest in catching up to Wilmington, Dover, Newark or even Middletown.
“We don’t have any desire to be Delaware’s second- or third-largest town. We’re comfortable being number five,” Hugg says.
While no one is chanting “We’re number five” (around Smyrna High School, it’s more appropriate to shout “We’re number one” in recognition of its state championship football team) many residents are quite happy with where they are.
The Sheridans enjoy walking to work, having bought a home across the street from the pub.
While Painted Stave was under construction, Rasmussen and his wife looked around and bought an old house downtown. “We’re two blocks from just about everything. In the morning, we walk to the Drunk’n Baker for bagels and cupcakes. On Sunday afternoon, we can walk to Sheridan’s porch for dinner. A couple nights ago we walked down the street and had a nice dinner at the Inn at Duck Creek,” he says.
Walkable, friendly, inexpensive, accessible, filled with entertainment options and the promise of more retail—it’s a combination that’s making Smyrna an increasingly popular place to call home.
“I just love it,” Masten says. “There’s no place I’d rather be.”