Milford May Be the Next Great Boomtown

Most people’s experience of Milford is a blip on their drive to the beach. Next time, peel off the highway. You will be surprised.

If ever there were a household name in Milford, it’s Gwen Guerke. Except for her four years at the University of Delaware and a couple after, she has lived in the town all her life, like the five generations of family before her. From 1978—when she took over her grandparents’ house—until about 18 months ago, she was a fixture at The Milford Chronicle and other downstate papers, for awhile as author of the column “Tell Gwen.” So meeting her at Dolcé on Walnut Street is like going to coffee with the homecoming queen. Nary a person fails to say hi to her. Nor does the barista fail to address any of the many customers by name. “When I was growing up, I said I’d never come back,” Gwen says. “I ate my words. Sometimes small towns are too tightly knit. Everyone knows your name a little too much. But I like it. The town is going in a really positive direction.” Milford may still feel like a small town, but it’s not. Or perhaps more accurately, it is, but one that is growing quickly. Between 2000 and 2010, its population swelled by a staggering 42 percent. That’s the kind of growth booming Middletown experienced between 1990 and 2010, but without the many annexations that also expanded Middletown’s corporate boundaries.

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All of the 3,000 people who have moved to Milford live within the town proper. That kind of influx naturally changes things. In Milford, that change manifests itself as a renewed interest in the commercial heart of the town—Front and Walnut streets—by playing up its past as a shipbuilding center and agricultural hub while moving steadily into its future as a highly livable, highly walkable community. Exhibit A: Milford’s Riverwalk on the Mispillion. Thirty years in the making, it stretches from Library Square through Memorial Park, past Bicentennial Park to an old cannery and boat launch, all the way to a young arboretum. Within spitting distance of Front Street, it remains, in places, a world away, even as it serves as the site of fundraising walks, pleasure strolls and civic celebrations like this month’s annual Bug & Bud Festival. For those who would like to enjoy the riverwalk with an adult beverage, the deck of the new Arena’s Sports Bar backs up to the pathway. The river itself draws kayakers and others to the annual Freedom Festival in September. And the walk continues to grow. It even includes a small nature area, 8-acre Goat Island, in the downtown, and will eventually connect to some of the area’s many millponds. It’s the kind of unifying feature any town would love to have.

Exhibit B: Streets full of architecturally interesting buildings—rows of old Federal style homes and Victorian storefronts with a smattering of art-deco units—that make neat shops and restaurants. Mainstays such as Lou’s Bootery now share the street with the likes of the new-ish Fur-Baby pet boutique, the new Sugar Bee Boutique candy store and the aforementioned Dolcé, now 10 years old. Exhibit C: A burgeoning cultural scene. The Mispillion Art League has offered a robust schedule of exhibitions and classes for more than 10 years. The Second Street Players can easily boast that it is one of the most successful community theater groups in the state. Its home, Riverfront Theater, is, indeed, on the riverfront, and it upped the cultural offerings this spring by adding a low-cost film series. And the venerable Music School of Delaware draws students to Walnut Street from across Kent and Sussex counties. That kind of artiness was enough to lure artist Marcia Reed away from her longtime home in artsy Amherst, Mass. Now the owner of Gallery 37, Reed spent more than two years looking at Delaware in many seasons and many moods. Where others in her situation might have chosen a town like Lewes to open an art gallery, she saw charm and potential in Milford. “I wanted to really be a part of it,” Reed says. “I see Milford really riding the crest of something happening.” Since opening almost 2 1/2 years ago, she has drawn a high-end clientele of collectors from Washington, D.C., and Baltimore as easily as similar places at the beach, which makes her unintended surf allusion totally apropos.

Photograph by Kevin Fleming

Milford is booming, thanks to a renewed interest in the South Walnut Street shopping district.

Indeed, the beach is making its way to Milford. Josephine Keir Ltd. At Home of Lewes is opening a second location on Walnut Street. Arena’s originated in Rehoboth Beach, as did Good News Natural Foods, which has called Walnut home for some time now. Even chef Kevin Reading sold his highly successful Nage in Rehoboth to open Abbott’s Grill. “We looked in Lewes,” says Chuck Stanko, who, with his partner George Carroll, owns Dolcé. “But Milford was ready. It looked prepared for something more.” That potential was strong enough to lure them away from Cape Cod, where they had run a business for many years. So what does all that allure and potential mean? That’s what Mayor Bryan Shupe and others are trying to figure out. And perhaps no one is better qualified. Shupe is the face of old Milford and emerging Milford in one. He, like Gwen Guerke, can boast bona fides such as a Milford High diploma and lifelong residency. He, like Reed and Stanko, is a local business owner—he has started three over the past four years, including Sugar Bee and Fur-Baby—so he has a keen interest in the commercial success of the town. And at the ripe old age of 30, the youngest mayor in the state has a long time yet to help make big things happen, even while continuing to enjoy the quality of life he grew up with.

That future may soon include a new, larger Milford High (pending the outcome of an upcoming referendum), and it will certainly include a new Bayhealth campus at Del. 1 and Del. 30, leaving behind Bayhealth’s Milford Memorial Hospital. Shupe envisions that property as a nursing school or medical technology training center, which would unleash a younger population on Walnut and Front to bolster the economy. What remains, he says, are established employers such as Burris Logistics and Perdue, whose new line of organic chicken has opened up new markets and prospects for local farmers. As for the rest of Milford’s future, Shupe and other town leaders will embark within weeks on a strategic planning process with officials from the Delaware Economic Development Office to start making it happen in earnest. “How do we recognize what the future is?” Shupe says. “How do we prepare? How do we fund it? The Riverwalk was 30 years in the making. What will be here in the next 30 years?” One gets the sense that the mayor has some ideas. One also feels his enthusiasm. “It’s an exciting time to be here,” he says.

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