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How Middletown Grew From Farm Country To Mini-Metropolis

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Photo by David Carter

Middletown attracts new residents with big ideas and a small-town vibe.


There are only two reasons you won’t get Middletown Mayor Kenneth Branner Jr.’s nod of approval: You’re up to something shady, or you’re not up to code.

“I’m not a B.S. guy, and I don’t say no,” says Branner, whose been at Middletown’s helm since 1989, during which time he’s seen the town’s population explode from 3,800 to somewhere around 23,000. “We don’t circle around projects,” he says. “Time is money to developers. We get things done fast, and right.”

An M-town native, Branner has a little Ray Kinsella baked into his mayoral ethos, likely a result of growing up in what used to be cornfield country. “If you build it, they will come,’” Branner says.

Now, they won’t stop coming.

“For the most part, I think everyone is happy,” says Kristin Krenzer, a former reporter for the Middletown Transcript who’s now the town’s public relations official. “When I started in the town office, all day long I’d take complaint calls about this or that coming,” she says. “Now it’s the opposite. I spend the majority of my time fielding questions like, ‘Well, how soon is this coming?’”

Krenzer is as thrilled about the growth as she is nostalgic about the old days.

“Middletown was the Friday Night Lights town: football and cornfields,” she says. “And that was nice, of course. But so is having everything you need right here. I’ll never forget when we started growing—I fielded 25 letters to the editor just about Walmart.”

Iconic historic landmarks in Middletown, including the Everett Theatre, retain the kind of charm you find only in a small town./Photo by David Carter

Walmart came to town in 2006 and opened the doors to the town’s modern makeover from farm country to mini-metropolis.

Before that, the only thing wafting through these amber fields besides manure was the aroma of McDonald’s french fries traveling over from the west side. “Everyone said, ‘No way in hell we’re getting a McDonald’s. They won’t come to old Middletown,’” Branner recalls of the chain’s 1999 incorporation. “There wasn’t anything down here.”

When Branner took office, he and his council put into play a comprehensive 20-year plan that is still paying dividends. “We made the decision then that we needed to control our own destiny because of the growth that was forecasted in New Castle County,” he says

Locals who like to wage endless wars on the town’s resident Facebook page over “future growth” like the new traffic circle on Marl Pit road often wonder, now what’s this gonna cost me?

“We haven’t raised taxes in over 30 years,” says Branner, who when navigating plans for the wastewater treatment facility—the linchpin to the town’s future growth—told residents that if they passed the referendum, they’d never have to pay for growth through tax or utility rate increases.

Rather, it’s paid from a capital development account—sitting at $24M—a mil short of the price tag on Middletown’s 27,000-square-foot library that broke ground in August.

Walmart led the class of shopping giants who’ve now settled in, among them Aldi, Kohl’s, Home Depot, Lowe’s and Wawa (two, for good measure). McDonald’s inspired a fast-food trend, and Chipotle, Starbucks and Bruster’s were a few to follow.

A flurry of new businesses and restaurants (like La Blanca, above) bring a big-city feel to Middletown./Courtesy of La Blanca/Moonloop Photography

More of a fine diner? No problem. Find elevated Indian cuisine at Curry & Cocktails, sushi at Kiku, a twist on Italian at La Banca and romance at 1861, just a few on a long menu of options. For something in the middle, there’s Metro Pub (great burgers), a fleet of food trucks at Volunteer Brewing Co. and more.

But most exciting to Branner is the global industries that make Middletown a home away from home.

“The biggest reason why our town’s growth continues to be possible is that we are very friendly toward businesses across the board: residential, commercial and industrial,” Branner says. “These companies bring jobs with high wages.”

He points to corporations like Johnson Controls, an Ireland-based manufacturer of fire, HVAC and security equipment, and to Amazon’s massive fulfillment center, which Middletown won in a bidding war of sorts. Then Swiss-based Datwyler called. They wanted to build a first-of-its-kind U.S. facility.

The $102 million facility, which manufactures sealing solutions for the healthcare industry, opened in 2018. The most recently approved big-industry project is for the MRP Industrial/Breakthru Beverage distribution company.

Not bad for a little town that started as just a cart stop from one river to the next.

Tribe to Trade

Former Middletown Transcript writer Shauna McVey’s book Middletown notes that while the town was officially incorporated in 1861, the Lenni-Lenape tribe settled there in the 1600s; they were ultimately driven off their land by the devastation and disease brought by European settlers. Access was easy, given that the aptly named Middletown was a midway trading spot on the cart trail between the Appoquinimink River in present-day Odessa and Maryland’s Bohemia River.

With the 1761 introduction of Irish immigrant David Witherspoon’s Witherspoon Tavern—which served Thomas Jefferson in 1775 and George Washington (twice) in 1784—Middletown added “Tavern Pit Stop” to its Yelp blurb. Still operational, albeit with a few centuries of drastic makeovers, the tavern is now local favorite Sully’s Irish Pub.

The area hummed along on the trappings of its rich soil, and the introduction of a railroad in 1855 bolstered trade. Peaches were a promising export—at one point in the late 1860s, the town boasted some 30,000 peach trees. According to the Middletown Historical Society, the 1875 peach harvest yielded 1.5 million baskets, but an 1890 infestation of the “peach yellows” disease destroyed the trees and farmers had to turn to other crops.

The Lenni-Lenape tribe settled here in the 1600s and were ultimately driven off their land by the devastation and disease brought by European settlers.

At the start of the 20th century, the population grew to about 1,500. The historic Everett Theatre entertained residents in 1922 and made its Hollywood debut nearly 70 years later in the Middletown-set Dead Poets Society. The lights of the Everett’s marquee still shine on Main Street today, and within a six-block radius, you’ll find contemporary nods to the town’s history: Order the famous Peach Burger at Metro Pub & Grill, a peach protein shake from the legendary Sweet Melissa’s and a “Sweet as a Peach” trinket tray from the Draper James collection at First & Little Boutique, and top it all off with a boozy Peach Sangria handcrafted popsicle at Pop In Artisan Pops.

“That’s really the beauty of Middletown,” Krenzer says. “We have such a rich history and such prosperous growth, but we still really have that small-town feel and appreciation for our old charm.”

Business opportunities aren’t the only reason folks have been flocking to Middletown—there’s a reason why virtually every new neighborhood being built (and there are many) boasts Appoquinimink School District on its billboard.

“I always say great communities breed great schools,” says superintendent Matt Burrows, Ph.D. “What’s keeping the momentum going is people choosing to move here because of the vested interest in our district.” Burrows is buoyed by the 2019 passed referendum to raise $36.9 million for operating expenses, construction and building repairs. “That says, ‘We support you and we believe in you.’ It allows us to pay our educators a nationally competitive wage, to support our 1:1 initiative and to continue our growth. None of that is possible without the community.”

Founded in 1929 by A. Felix du Pont, St. Andrew’s was a boys-only school until 1973 and the setting of the 1989 film Dead Poets Society. Located on 2,220 acres in Middletown—partially nature preserve and land leased to sustainable farmers—the boarding school now enrolls about 300 students in grades 9–12.

The Fairview Campus is Appoquinimink’s first K-12 campus, with the recent completion of Cantwell’s Bridge Middle School and Odessa High School, which opened in September 2020 with ninth-graders. Cantwell will house Everett Meredith Middle School (EMMS) students until renovation of that building is complete in 2022. EMMS and Silver Lake Elementary School are both undergoing renovations to create new 21st-century learning environments. The district has also broken ground on a new Early Childhood Center on the Brick Mill Elementary campus and is planning an elementary school on the new Summit Bridge campus.

“We were also in the process of phasing in 1:1 devices districtwide when COVID-19 changed the face of education,” Burrows says of the program that matches every student in the district with a device.

With the motto “The World Is Our Campus,” the district is preparing students for jobs in Delaware, in the nation and across the world, Burrows explains, noting a two-language immersion program (Spanish and Mandarin Chinese). “We’re also very focused on the arts. We’re always pushing innovation.”

Boomtown

Living below the canal used to be a misfortune. Now it just feels smart.

“We’re set next to be a boomtown for affordable housing for 55-plus,” says Krenzer, pointing to three new communities either planned or in motion, in addition to the already established 55-plus Springmill and Spring Arbor. “Not to mention what’s already happening—this is a great place to buy real estate. You get so much more for your money down here as opposed to places in northern New Castle County.”

The neighborhood of Bayberry perfectly encapsulates the town’s growth, offering estate-sized homes, manicured lawns, paved bike paths, parks and racial diversity. Upon completion, it will comprise 2,000 homes—including a 569-unit 55-plus community. And it just keeps growing: An offshoot of Bayberry will be the 513-home subdivision Winchelsea; in June 2021 the Bayberry Town Center, which will connect with the main neighborhood, will bring 250,000 square feet of retail space and 145 adjacent town homes, all within a few miles of Boyd’s Corner Road.

Courtesy of La Blanca/Moonloop Photography

It’s a competitive market, in which homes are often the subject of a bidding war. But that’s not surprising when you can get more than 3,000 square feet for under $400,000—something you won’t find in Delaware’s northern region.

“There is a reason we have a large influx of people from historically high tax areas, like New Jersey and New York,” Krenzer says. “They are taking that money they’d be spending on taxes and spending it here instead. Plus, it’s creating just a great modern melting pot.”

If there’s a “pause” button, Middletown isn’t looking for it. And If you need the mayor, he’ll be in line at Panera (soon to open), waiting for his next big “Yes.”

“The most gratifying thing about this job is that we are doing exactly what we set out to do,” Branner says. “If you don’t come to Middletown, why the hell not?”


Published as “Mini Metropolis” in the November 2020 issue of Delaware Today.