Main Street:Taking Downtown Uptown
An aggressive state revitalization program provides a boost to Kent County municipalities.
Four Kent County communities are hitting Main Street—the Delaware Economic Development Office’s Delaware Main Street Program, that is.
The program, part of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, combines historic preservation with economic development to revitalize downtown neighborhoods.
Following is a look at the four communities in Kent that are benefiting from the program.
For 10 years the nonprofit Downtown Milford Inc. has provided about $2.5 million in renovation and redevelopment grants to the city’s 150 businesses. Last year the Delaware Main Street program also provided a boost.
“Becoming part of this state and national program has helped us improve the services we can provide to Milford,” says DMI executive director Beth Durham. “We are now able to work with DEDO on restructuring Milford’s economic base in terms of addressing business vacancies, identifying at-risk merchants, and identifying and supporting more sustainable businesses for our community.”
The affiliation helps DMI win small business loans to assist with operational issues, including inventory purchases, systems upgrades and employee training.
“We’ve been able to disperse in the vicinity of $30,000 in loans available through the USDA,” Durham says.
DMI is sponsoring a Community Visionary Process to elicit feedback that will improve conditions for residents and businesses. “We’ve been able to help improve foot traffic in retail stores by exploring the Internet’s capacity to create click and mortar business growth,” Durham says.
Click and mortar combines the marketing outreach of a retail storefront with marketing capabilities of the Internet.
Durham, DMI’s first paid employee, has been executive director for three years. About $1.25 million has been spent on facade improvements in downtown Milford, she says, and a recent plaque sale program raised enough for a street beautification program in conjunction with the Garden Club of Milford.
“We’ve now added benches, trees and other plantings to give downtown a more natural, small-town look,” she says.
Page 2: Smyrna
Smyrna’s Downtown Renaissance Association has worked with the Town of Smyrna, Police Athletic League, Boys and Girls Club, and the Duck Creek Horticultural Society since the 1980s. Its current focus is building a visitor’s kiosk in the business district.
“We’re utilizing a $14,000 grant from the Delaware Division of the Arts to build the kiosk,” says program manager Larry Koehler. “It’ll provide visitors with a map of the town and a calendar of cultural and entertainment events.”
Another $10,000 grant from the Division of the Arts is helping to develop a program that will focus on the town’s historic structures and small-town atmosphere.
The SDRA expects to become a full member of the national program this year. Smyrna will then be listed on the National Trust’s website. “We’re also working with the town on two of its initiatives regarding streetscape improvements as well as facade improvements,” Koehler says.
The plan includes burying cable and telephone lines, planting trees, constructing sidewalks, and erecting vintage-type pole lighting. Another grant will help storefront businesses make facade improvements.
The SDRA will continue to act as a link between Smyrna’s residents, business owners and town officials. The goal is to develop long-term plans for improvements.
“One of our ongoing efforts, in partnership with town officials, is to develop an improved way-finding system,” says Koehler, acknowledging that Smyrna is a bit off the beaten track. “We’d like to develop a system of signage that directs visitors to what we believe are our points of interest, as well as demonstrate that we have ample downtown parking.”
Page 3: Dover
Dover Downtown Partnership executive director Bill Neaton suspects that many potential shoppers avoid the downtown areas of small towns such as Dover because they think there’s no place to park.
“Those of us who work and operate businesses in downtown Dover know that parking isn’t a problem,” says Neaton. A new 45-car parking lot opened in October, in fact.
“From design development to fundraising efforts, economic development and marketing and promotions, all our committees are driven by the common goal of revitalizing our downtown area while preserving its unique historical image,” Neaton says.
Recently, the DDP helped complete facade renovations to several downtown businesses, including the Dover Newsstand, Bel Boutique and Crumbs Restaurant.
A member of the national and state supported Main Street programs, the DDP reaches out to community partners like Wesley College. It also assists businesses by fixing vacant storefronts, then using them to attract new businesses.
In December the DDP made use of the holiday shopping period with a special Home for the Holidays parade on Loockerman Street. The event drew residents to downtown stores.
“We solicited merchants to provide discount coupons to be handed out to parade goers in an effort to create foot traffic into their stores after the parade,” Neaton says.
Page 4: Harrington
Horses, of the equine and iron varieties, could help revitalize downtown Harrington.
“The railroad runs through town, and the area is also home to numerous horse farms supporting the racing industry here,” says Cheryl Lahman, chair of the Harrington Downtown Revitalization Committee.
The committee, which formed five years ago, expects to begin streetscape improvements this spring.
“We’re looking at some sidewalk construction and benches, but mainly we’re looking at providing new lighting for the downtown area,” Lahman says.
A grant from the Rural Community Development Incentive has rendered consultation services as well.
“The grant does not provide direct funding,” Lahman says. “It supports the services of a consultant who will assist in improving economic development through reducing the current inventory of downtown vacant properties and driving retail growth.”
The goal is to increase pedestrian traffic in the downtown area. There are about 50 apartments, “that could be filled with residents looking to spend time in a revitalized downtown one day,” Lahman says.
The DRC committee will look into attracting businesses that offer products and services that differ from the typical strip malls that line U.S. 13.
“With appropriate signage and some event planning, we can begin getting some of the U.S. 13 traffic to come by and see us in the near future,” Lahman says.