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A New Kind of Small Town

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Dick Cathcart couldn’t be more tickled.Upon giving up politics after several years in the state legislature, he and his wife were having dinner at Crabby Dick’s in Delaware City when John Buchheit III, then mayor and an owner of the restaurant, asked if Cathcart wanted to be the town manager. Cathcart finished his meal, went home and nearly forgot about the conversation—until Buchheit called a couple of weeks later. Cathcart said, “Why not?”

Cathcart, of Middletown, knew Delaware City well from his years as the town’s representative in Legislative Hall. He understood policymaking. He knew about government resources and grant applications. And he saw in Buchheit a savvy businessman with big plans for the town. “It seemed like a good thing to do,” Cathcart says. His timing was perfect. With some major development having been put into play shortly before Cathcart started his new job, Delaware City was poised for big things, but still with plenty left for Cathcart to accomplish.

Let’s get this part behind us: For years, many knew Delaware City mainly as the jump-off for ferry rides to Pea Patch Island and its famous Fort Delaware. Some segment of boaters had always enjoyed the marina and other amenities, but most people hadn’t given the rest of the town a second thought, if they’d ever visited at all. For all they knew, it was an unremarkable backwater surrounded by chemical plants and a petroleum refinery to the north, farms to the west and useless marsh to the south, all within sight of the cooling towers at the Salem nuclear plant in New Jersey. People might drive through while cruising scenic Del. 9, maybe stop for a bite at the old Kathy’s Crab House or, for the past several years, Crabby Dick’s, but that was the extent of many people’s experience.

A few visionaries, however, could see the bones of the place and its potential as a nice town to live, to set up a business and to visit. To call it Mayberry would be trite, but Delaware City has in abundance the small-town charm and physical character—broad lawns, houses from Colonial and Italianate to Victorian and Gothic Revival to Craftsman, ranch and rambler, all laid out on a tidy grid—that is so attractive to many.

It has, by percentage, the largest number of historic properties in the state. It has a central commercial street. It has long stretches of frontage on the Delaware River and on a branch of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal. And that marsh—the largest freshwater expanse in Northern Delaware—with neighboring tidal wetlands and uplands, has extraordinary environmental value. It was great enough to lure the American Birding Association from its former headquarters in Colorado to Delaware City’s Colonial Sterling Hotel, which had recently been rehabbed.


 

The town also has Fort DuPont. The 325-acre National Historic District dates to the Civil War, when it was built as an auxiliary to Fort Delaware. After World War II, the state acquired the property and later established the Governor Bacon Health Center and Fort DuPont State Park, but with little money available for upkeep, large parts of the property fell into disrepair.

When the heads of state parks and the Department of Health and Social Services showed the area to then-state treasurer Jack Markell several years ago, he saw the need for preservation and the potential for significant economic development. As governor, Markell drove the creation of the Fort DuPont Redevelopment and Preservation Corporation last year to rehab the property.

Plans include restoration of existing buildings, development of a 150-slip marina on Branch Canal, a bridge to downtown Delaware City, a mix of housing styles on the waterfront and beyond, some commercial space, ballfields, an extensive network of trails through the surrounding woods and wetlands, and some wildlife habitat restoration. That’s a fair amount of new revenue from a larger tax roll.

Now, most of the business spaces on Clinton Street are occupied. Locals and visitors can enjoy artsy places such as Forged Creations blacksmith shop and Studio 118 gallery, seek self-help through a tarot reader or Get Life Coaching, shop for gifts at Imaginary Place, grab a cone at the ice-cream parlor or pick up a sixer at the package store. There are a couple of guesthouses and B&Bs—with a rehab of the rooms underway at the historic Delaware City Hotel—and good places to eat, such as the gastropub Lewinsky’s on Clinton, which Cathcart owns with Buchheit and Buchheit’s partner at Crabby Dick’s.

With all that comes a near year-round slate of activities and celebrations that are drawing even more visitors to the town. The first of April’s annual Town Wide Yard Sales four years ago drew an unexpectedly large crowd of hundreds, thanks mainly to residents of new and established sub-divisions on River Road.

Two Octobers ago, Delaware City joined New Castle to launch the Rivertown Rides & Festival, a U.S. Cycling-sanctioned, 10-mile bicycle ride (with a race for the most serious cyclists) between the two towns via River Road, with big, family-friendly parties at either end that included craft brew fests. It was an immediate hit. Delaware City Day, with its parade, fireworks and myriad activities in between, gets bigger every year. And without any effort on the town’s part whatsoever, Pike Creek Valley Running Club, jazzed by the beauty of local roadways, moved its Delaware Distance Classic to Delaware City.

The next trick, Cathcart says, is to assemble enough activities and sights to market Delaware City as a weekend destination. With public docks scheduled to be built soon in New Castle, the town expects to add to its cadre of boating friends. With the final link to the Michael N. Castle Trail on the C&D Canal to be completed this summer, cyclists and other users will easily be able to travel in from Chesapeake City. And with acres of river and marsh, the possibilities for paddlers and wildlife lovers are endless. The city—considered the northern gateway to the Delaware Bayshore—is making a big push on ecotourism.

“It’s a good time to be here,” Cathcart says. “It’s been a lot of fun.”  

 

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