In 1975, when GrassRoots Handcrafts opened its doors in downtown Newark, its location at the intersection of Academy and East Main streets was on the fringes of the commercial district.
“Today, we are in the heart of town,” says Kristin Short, daughter of founder Marilyn Dickey. “Main Street has grown up around us.”
A hip and historic blend of boutique shops, restaurants, fitness centers and other services, Main Street attracts a diverse mix of people. Leading the parade are staff and students from the University of Delaware. Downtown Newark also is a destination for young professionals, families and people who work in greater Newark, including the Delaware Technology Park and UD’s Science Technology and Advanced Research (STAR) campus.
“You have a young, college-oriented town that is very vibrant, very lively,” says Hal Prettyman, a longtime landlord who plans to develop a residential and retail center on South Main Street. “Every year, you get a new crowd of students reaching the main streets and looking for places to spend their money.”
Newark’s population has grown steadily over the years, from 25,693 in 1990 to 31,454, according to the U.S. Census. It isn’t surprising that young people dominate the demographic profile. In 2010, 55 percent of Newark’s population was in the 18-34 age group; only 9 percent were 65 and older. The median age: 24.9 years.
The education level in this college town is high. Overall, 76 percent have at least one to three years of college under their belts and 52 percent have at least four years of higher education. Only 6.3 percent did not complete high school.
A strong market in student rental housing is driving new development, especially units with two or three bedrooms that classmates can share, says Angela Tsionas-Matulas, who manages a number of downtown properties she owns with her family.
“And if the demand for student housing ever declines, those kinds of rentals also are suitable for families,” Tsionas-Matulas says.
Recent projects also include Astra Plaza, home to Santa Fe, a dining venue with apartments above, Iron Hill Brewery and Cheeburger Cheeburger in the old diner building.
On Jan. 1, 2013, the Main Street district grew significantly when the portion of Elkton Road that runs between Main Street and West Park Place was renamed South Main Street.
Prettyman currently is developing a rental townhouse community on South Main, the first phase in a two-part project that also will include retail.
Offering more places to shop will help to establish critical mass in the evolving district, he says. The key is to get the right mix.
“We are hoping to bring in a great grocery store, which we believe would do very well on South Main Street,” Prettyman says.
When GrassRoots opened 39 years ago, the store filled a void in the retail market.
“There was no funky gift shop,” Short says.
Today, GrassRoots continues to thrive, offering unique handmade gifts, as well as garden accessories, pottery, jewelry, clothes and accessories. And Main Street is still home.
“We fit much better in a Main Street setting than we would in a mall,” Short says.
When the owners of Catherine Rooney’s were looking for a second location, downtown Newark was a natural choice, says owner Joe McCoy.
“Our Wilmington location in Trolley Square appeals to locals and that’s what we are seeing on Main Street,” he says. “Over the past 10 years, downtown Newark has become very family friendly, in addition to students and out-of-towners.”
District-wide promotions such as Wine and Dine and the Food and Brew Festival keep the customers coming when UD is not in session.
“People like to go where they have options,” McCoy says. “People enjoy coming to downtown Newark because there are lots of things to do, lots of great choices.”