Delaware City seeks a brighter future by embracing a
historic past

Drive past the open gates of the intimidatingly tall chain-link fence of the former Fort DuPont. Take a turn at the state-run addiction treatment center, go past the abandoned officer’s barracks, search around a bit and that’s where you’ll find it:

The best picnic table in the state of Delaware.

It sits on a tiny peninsula jutting into the Delaware River from Fort Delaware State Park. Surrounded by water on three sides, it’s the kind of picnic table that shows up in travel brochures for faraway places where you can escape from it all.

And it’s probably the most underused picnic table in the state.

But maybe not much longer. The Fort DuPont Master Plan, developed over the past two years, and now the Fort DuPont Redevelopment and Preservation Corporation, envisions an ambitious $60 million private/public renovation of the state park, with new residences, a restored theater, office and commercial space, open spaces along the water, and a pedestrian bridge that will connect it all to downtown Delaware City.

And the Fort DuPont redevelopment is far from the only change happening inside Delaware City. New construction along the Mike Castle Trail that hugs the C&D Canal will soon connect Delaware City and Chesapeake City, Md. through a 16-mile pathway designed for hikes and bikes. Renovations on Clinton Street have attracted both new businesses and the American Birdwatching Association (ABA), which is relocating from its current headquarters in Colorado to “the premier mid-Atlantic birding area.”

Delaware City is a small town in a small state, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone and locals gather at happy hour behind the local blacksmith shop to pop open a can of beer while creating some pop art. It’s a place that embraces its history and its ghosts, unwilling to leave either behind. But in looking to the past for inspiration, Delaware City may have discovered its future.

A view of the harbor at Delaware City, adjacent to its Battery Park. The river town history of Delaware City remains an important part of its narrative today.

A view of the harbor at Delaware City, adjacent to its Battery Park. The river town history of Delaware City remains an important part of its narrative today. (Photo courtesy of the City of Delaware City)

A Master Plan

The fully developed master plan for the Fort DuPont project is available online. A three-foot-wide map of the plan sits in City Manager Richard Cathcart’s office. But to really get a sense of the changes to come, you need to drive around the property—all the better if you can do so from the passenger seat of Cathcart’s car.

“The first thing that’s going to come down is the chain-link fence,” Cathcart says.
The buildings that remain on the fort property are a mix of utilitarian warehouse spaces, beautifully designed historic homes, and other structures in various states of repair and disrepair, many left to decay after World War II, when the federal government decommissioned the fort and turned the property over to the state.

“We lost a lot of history over the years, because the state just didn’t put money into protecting those structures,” says Cathcart.

Some buildings are in use by the three state agencies that still operate on the site, and decisions will have to be made about who stays and what goes, which programs can be moved elsewhere and which buildings are too far gone to be restored. The Governor Bacon Health Center will stay, hopefully with room for additional private practice health care services, Cathcart says. The Delaware Division of Purchasing surplus warehouse? Probably not making the cut.

Among the buildings Cathcart hopes to save is the original post theater, a 400-seat movie theater built on the army base in the 1930s that could become the city’s first performing arts venue. (A similar effort to restore the Tybee Post Theater in Georgia has been underway for the past decade or so.) Waterfront property could become a marina with access to kayaking, fishing and other ecotourism businesses that Cathcart believes can lure visitors.

But ample land on the site will also give room for new construction, starting with a residential project that Cathcart estimates could increase the population of Delaware City by 20 to 30 percent. He says several developers have already expressed interest in the project, and construction may begin next summer.

Refurbishing a Historic Hotel

Megan Sterling cheerfully tends to customers at the bar at Crabby Dick’s at lunchtime on a Tuesday afternoon, serving as a one-woman welcome center for Delaware City, where she’s lived all her life.

“Have you been to the bakery?” she asks. “Have you been to the blacksmith?”
Her family roots run deep in the city, back to the days when Sterlings owned and operated a restaurant by the same name inside the Central Hotel, the nearly 200-year-old building on the south side of Clinton Street.

Delaware Ornithological Society officers Bill Stewart and Sally O'Bryne in front of The Central Hotel, the new headquarters for the American Birding Association.

Delaware Ornithological Society officers Bill Stewart and Sally O’Bryne in front of The Central Hotel, the new headquarters for the American Birding Association. (Photo by Krista Connor)

The Central is on the National Register of Historic Places, but it sat empty for more than a decade before the husband-and-wife team of Dana and Susan Renoll took ownership.
“I never walked by those windows without pressing my nose against the glass and thinking, someone needs to bring some life back to that,” says Dana.

Just as the Renolls started the historical refurbishing of the property with cooperation from the city, a potential tenant came calling. The ABA, the only national organization devoted to recreational bird-watching, will take over three stories of the converted hotel for offices, a welcome center and living quarters.

ABA President (and Delaware native) Jeffrey Gordon considers the state the heart of the vibrant birding scene in the Mid-Atlantic region, an area that a large percentage of the organization’s membership calls home.

“Don’t get me wrong, Colorado is terrific,” says Gordon. “But the board, for some years, has been wanting to move the headquarters, and the big attraction of the Mid-Atlantic is that it’s a great area for birding, along the migratory pathways. And with all the rebranding and revitalization in Delaware City, it just seemed to us to be a good fit.”

Across the street from the Central Hotel, “Merchant’s Row” is mostly full with small art galleries, antique shops and one videogame lounge. Most are open from Wednesday through Sunday, to accommodate tourists, who come to town by car or boat. And at the end of Clinton Street, Crabby Dick’s has been drawing weekend crowds to its deck since owner John Buchheit moved to town and opened the restaurant with his partner almost nine years ago.

So Much Change

Come back on Saturday night, Sterling says. That’s when the crowds come by boat from Jersey, the parking lot at Crabby Dick’s is full and The Larry Tucker Band gets everyone dancing—perhaps like it was back when Sterling’s Tavern was open.

“There’s so much change,” she says. “Big change. But I think it’s for the better.”

Across the street, blacksmith Kerry Rhoades is working in his shop, Forged Creations, putting a perfectly round eye on the iron bird that will soon adorn a railing outside the birding association. Later in the day, he’ll have lunch at Crabby Dick’s, where Sterling will wait on him and try to coax him into making her a metal bracelet that she’s seen him and Dana Renoll wearing around town.

That’s how Delaware City works. The DNA of its people is woven into the fabric of the city. Its history as a river town, as Delaware’s lookout at the mouth of the C&D canal, as protector of Wilmington and all points north—all that is still alive today.

That’s the spirit that Cathcart hopes will draw people. He has worked to promote the historic import of his city by strengthening ties with the state’s other historic river city, Old New Castle, through events like the second annual River Towns Ride & Festival on Saturday, Oct. 4. It’s a one-day bicycle race/ride between the two cities along Route 9, bookended with family activities, pony rides and craft beer tastings from 16 local breweries.

Bicyclists, birders, kayakers—these are the people that Cathcart wants to attract on weekends, to stay and to play, to visit shops and restaurants—restaurants that now include Lewinsky’s on Clinton.

With an infamous name that has made the news on NBC in Philly and among the tittering masses of the blogosphere, Lewinsky’s is owned by a five-person partnership that includes Cathcart, Buckheit and Buckheit’s partner, Dale Slotter. The name gets the publicity, but inside, a couple of blue hoodies for sale are the only hint of the establishment’s provenance.

Steampunk Chic Decor

The décor is unexpectedly steampunk chic. Hundreds of nuts and washers were brought into Rhoades’ blacksmith shop, where he created a distinct railing that leads down a few stairs to a sleek stainless steel bar (once used at Champps in the Concord Mall), and a well-stocked backbar that came from an establishment named Fast Eddy’s in Pennsylvania. Tables fill the restaurant and back outdoor patio, while on the building’s original tin walls Cathcart has hung historical pictures of Delaware City. But the menu is modern and globally inspired, with schnitzel sandwiches topped with chimichurri and flash-fried sprouts.

Here, then, is the new Delaware City, coming to terms with its own past and repurposing it, reshaping it, striking while the iron is hot, finding opportunities in places that have long gone neglected, using its assets to their full advantage while keeping people guessing about what comes next.

“I’ve seen growth in Delaware City a lot faster than the economy’s been growing,” Buckheit says. “I see us being a little New Hope, or the next Lewes. You look at Lewes 25 years ago, and there wasn’t much to talk about. Today, it’s the place to be. And I see that happening in Delaware City.”