Through a new state program, three historic downtowns are kick-starting their comebacks.
From left: Milford City Manager Eric Norenberg, Mayor Bryan Shupe and Rob Pierce, the city’s planning and economic activities coordinator, stroll through the city’s downtown. // Photo by Joe del Tufo
Downtown Harrington, with its quaint train station, stately Victorian houses and old churches, is small-town America. Yet its downtown, like so many others, has withered in recent years as businesses moved toward the highway and people moved to new subdivisions.
“We have a downtown losing its character and in risk of losing some of its older buildings,” says Teresa Tieman, city manager of Harrington. She sees a revival on the horizon, though—last summer Harrington was named a Downtown Development District.
The state’s Downtown Development District program was created in 2014 to breathe life back into main streets and their surroundings. Investors and developers in designated districts become eligible for state grant money in the form of rebates of up to $1 million, once proposed work is completed. Developers flocked to the first districts chosen in 2015—Wilmington, Seaford and Dover—where projects included building new homes and parking garages and renovating buildings in need.
The program was so successful, the state expanded it last summer to add five new towns. In Kent County, they are Smyrna, Harrington and Milford.
Investors in the new districts could share in nearly $8 million for projects both large (those over $250,000) and small.
“That’s not chump change. It got us started in Seaford,” says David Perlmutter, developer of The Residences at River Place, an upscale apartment complex. Seaford was designated as a DDD large project in 2015. This year the grant possibility has him looking into a similar project in Milford.
For many of the city administrators, the grant money is like icing on a cake they baked. To qualify for a designation, cities have to submit a detailed plan for the rebirth. Most said that process was a jump start, whether they would ultimately be chosen as a DDD or not.
“This was a master plan we really needed,” says Tieman. Harrington decided to focus on its history as a railroad town, to keep its character and sense of community. Simply coming up with a vision of what Harrington could be started some people working even before the designation was made.
In Milford, more than 200 people answered the call for suggestions on what the city needed. Those ideas were incorporated into a master plan that includes development of the downtown riverfront, plans for office and retail space, and renovation of residential and commercial property.
Both cities also created incentive plans that include such things as tax and license fee waivers to further smooth the way for investors.
More incentives means more investors, which means more businesses, which means more people downtown, according to Tieman and Milford Mayor Bryan Shupe.
“We’re extremely excited,” Shupe says. “We’ve looked at what it could be like, what our assets and needs are, and we can really focus on specific needs we can target.