Todd Stonesifer remembers downtown Dover before its decline. He hopes to be part of its rejuvenation.
A lifelong resident of the city, he recalls walking down Loockerman Street holding his mother’s hand. They’d have breakfast, then shop for school supplies, then break for lunch. Downtown was “the center of the universe,” he says. But as he grew up, he watched many businesses close or move to the malls.
Now board president of the nonprofit Downtown Dover Partnership, Stonesifer has offered input on a new master plan for the area that aims to create a thriving community gathering place.
The city has faced its share of grim headlines about crime and complaints about issues like a lack of parking. But the Downtown Dover Partnership, which works with the city and state to promote the area, has a vision of a downtown ripe for prosperity.
“Downtown is the heart of the community,” says Diane Laird, executive director of the partnership.
The nonprofit intends to release the plan for that community core in early 2023, informed by the voices of city leadership, local businesses and residents.
What gives downtown Dover potential? Those involved in the plan enthuse about a variety of reasons to be optimistic.
“It’s the capital of the first state of the nation, which is important,” says John Childress, vice president of development and special projects with Mosaic Development Partners, a Philadelphia developer that has helped guide the master plan.
He ticks off a long list of attributes for the area: green spaces, a waterfront, beautiful architecture, state government headquarters, and large anchor organizations like Bayhealth hospital system and Delaware State University with its new downtown presence. “And just right outside of the city, you have Dover Air Force Base, one of the premier military bases in the nation,” Childress notes.
John Van Gorp, chief strategy officer for Bayhealth, sees a restored downtown as a boost for the hospital.
“Having a vibrant downtown helps attract professionals to the area because there’s a shortage nationwide of all kinds of health care professionals. …It takes a lot to recruit people to an area and the more attractive the area is, the easier,” Van Gorp says.
But downtown could use some work to realize that vision.
Here are key improvements the plan will focus on.
“We’re trying to bring lots of young physicians,” Van Gorp says. Those healthcare workers will need places to live, and he notes housing is in short supply right now in Dover.
Beyond Bayhealth, Laird says students at Delaware State and officers with the Air Force also need housing, and she’s excited by the potential demand. The plan will call for nearly 1,000 new residential units downtown. Adding homes doesn’t just help local residents. All those new people would need places to shop and relax after work. Building the after-5 crowd would allow businesses to be open later, Laird says.
Which leads to another focus of the plan:
Donny Legans has been trying to bring his vision for a beer garden called the Rail Haus to Dover for about two years. He wants to create a place for people to hang out here rather than going to Middletown, Milford or the beaches.
Dover does big events like Firefly or the air show really well, he says, but “Monday through Friday, it’s not a whole lot going on. So we hope to be like that thing where people can come and hang out after work with their kids, with their dog, and just walk to it and bike to it.”
The delay isn’t because the community doesn’t want him but rather from all the hurdles as he tries to convert his property just north of Division Street. It was a former gas station in an industrial zone, so he’s had to deal with land use changes, environmental studies and more.
One hope of the partnership—which Legans recently joined—is to address zoning and code issues downtown to make it easier for businesses to set up shop.
Investors may also be uneasy about the costs of upgrading older buildings to meet modern safety and access standards. “To come in here at the prices that are being asked and to try and put these buildings, bring them up to today’s code and to try and start a business that’s going to be profitable, it’s just much easier to go to a strip mall that has just been built,” Stonesifer says.
The result can be seen in the high level of building vacancies downtown, which Laird says is nearly 50 percent. But help is on the way, as the partnership has already secured $1.275 million to make available for grants to help businesses with upgrades.
The application process for grants began in Fall 2022. In addition to more housing and help for businesses, the plan will also call for:
Workers from local companies living downtown will help. But planners also hope restaurants and other entertainment venues like Legans’ beer garden will bring people in from the surrounding area, where they’ll mix with residents in a redesigned space that’s friendly to pedestrians and offers face-to-face interaction.
“You have to create an experience downtown that people can’t get on Amazon, that they’re not going to get out on the highway,” Childress says.
Laird envisions a river walk someday along the St. Jones River, a recreation area, an art walk or even an amphitheater for outdoor performances. Summer evenings could see activities like festivals or a farmers market. Put it all together and momentum starts to build: Businesses house their workers downtown, which then fuels new business, which draws people in, which helps business even more.
A master plan, while it takes considerable input and careful debate, is not a set of rules that governs what the city can do with the downtown area. Rather, it serves as a roadmap, Laird says. The hope is that map will be more effective because of all the people who have come together to create it, including people in positions to create change like city leadership and developers.
“We couldn’t do this without key leadership buy-in,” Laird says. “We have it at the city level. The council is very much on board.”
“This is a plan that’s going to get action and not going to sit on the shelves,” Stonesifer says. He’s excited about the way the Mosaic group has helped shape the plan as a consultant.
The process has also included hearing from local community groups and residents through outreach and a series of public meetings led by Mosaic.
Legans sees the plan as helping business owners who are perhaps on the fence about whether they want to invest downtown.
In five years, he hopes to see other breweries and beer gardens in the area. “Once you put that money behind that, that plan behind that, I think a lot more businesses and entrepreneurs will just kind of jump into the downtown area because of it.”
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