Renaissance Men

With New Castle designated to become part of a new national park in Delaware, businessmen Alan Spiro and the Mattei brothers have invested heavily in renewal.

Renovation projects such as the one at Bowlerama in New Castle are right up the alley of (from left) Mark Mattei, Bob Mattei and Alan Spiro. Photograph by Thom ThompsonRev. Christopher Bullock was searching for a home for his Canaan Baptist Church when he noticed a property sale sign on New Castle Avenue. He immediately saw the location as supportive of his church’s young ministry.

“We have at Canaan both an in-reach and out-reach ministry, and this property was located in an area that had tremendous needs for both,” Bullock says.

The owners of the parcel were well aware of the neighborhood’s tremendous needs. Their Bowlerama complex, near the new Canaan sanctuary, had served the area since 1959. They knew Bowlerama’s survival depended on the stability of the surrounding community. It was not the safest or most attractive area, but renewal had to start somewhere. So in 2007, the owners renovated the facility into a stunning family fun center.

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“We were originally thinking of a retail center for that property,” says Mark Mattei, who with brother Robert and Alan Spiro, have formed a variety of business partnerships to develop and manage a diverse array of properties and enterprises throughout New Castle County. “But when Rev. Bullock told us his plans, we realized it was an even better solution for the community than we had envisioned.”

While a commitment to the surrounding community can be seen as an element in several of the partners’ projects, these second-generation developers are careful and prudent businessmen who learned from their fathers that the success of any community rests first and foremost with the success of the businesses that exist within it.

“I owe my parents a great debt of gratitude,” says Spiro. “Back in the ’50s and ’60s, my father, Irving, and Robert and Mark’s father, Arnold, were among the majors developers of that era here in New Castle and in other areas, as well. Our fathers taught Mark, Bob and me one very valuable lesson: The success of any organization depends on the people you choose to work within that organization. Your people can make or break you, so it’s vital to choose those people wisely and then take great care of what is your greatest asset.”

It is this commitment to employee value that longtime lender Wilmington Trust cites as a strong factor in evaluating the partnership as a “superior” credit risk, according to bank vice president Phil Hough.

The paterfamilias of both families, Irving Spiro and Arnold Mattei, both well into their 80s now, began their long partnership and friendship when they contracted to build a motel for the owner of the Kent Manor restaurant and banquet center on Del. 9, south of the Market Street Bridge in Wilmington. The elder Spiro had just completed the Brookside development outside Newark, which, at the time, was the largest planned community development in Delaware. Mattei was the state’s biggest concrete contractor.

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Irv was a college graduate, and I stopped at the 10th grade,” says Arnold Mattei. “But Irv and I had an affinity for the New York Giants and a love for Willie Mays that secured our friendship.”

The Kent Manor project led to construction of Bowlerama. When it opened in 1959, it featured the longest stretch of contiguous lanes—eventually numbering 74—in the country. A shopping center in Pennsville, New Jersey, followed, then industrial parks scattered throughout the area. Such projects led to redeveloping the Quality Inn motel adjoining a Dutch Pantry restaurant on a stretch of U.S. 13 near the New Castle County Airport, an area that was badly in need of a facelift and reinvestment. About that time, several of Irv and Arnold’s combined 12 children got into the act. Eventually, five of the Spiro and Mattei offspring would work for a time for the firm. 

“I originally saw myself getting involved with filmmaking,” says Alan Spiro, “but I realized I needed something more dependable. I started work for my father and Arnold in 1980, and in 1982 I was simply handed a couple of businesses and, with one accountant, told to manage them.”

The first business was the Quality Inn on U.S. 13, which dated to 1961. Business and government leaders were initially concerned about just what kind of renovated motel Spiro had in mind, given what existed along that sometimes seedy stretch of highway. They needn’t have been concerned.

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“My philosophy from the beginning has been to shoot for the stars and you will hit the moon,” says Spiro.

Spiro’s vision was to expand the inn to include suites. Demolition and construction resulted in a five-unit, 142-room motel and suite complex that is now ranked 65th out of the 1,000 properties under the Quality Inn brand worldwide.

Spiro then redeveloped the old Dutch Pantry into what is now Damon’s Grill sports bar and built the Polidoro Italian restaurant next door. That work developed into an affinity for the hospitality and restaurant industry, where Spiro now focuses much of his time and energy.

When Spiro and company took over the Quality Inn, Spiro estimated 85 percent of the clientele represented off-road business generated by the trucking and sales representative segments. The balance was corporate business related to the motel’s proximity to the airport and highway.
 

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“Today that’s all reversed, with 75 percent representing corporate business, and the balance is off-the-road customers,” says Spiro. He believes Polidoro “raised the bar” for restaurants in the vicinity, with its contemporary European interior, elevated bar and lounge, and live entertainment.

In 2008 the partnership undertook arguably its most ambitious project: a multi-million dollar renovation of the former Ramada Inn off the U.S. 13 North exit of I-295. The renovated Clarion Belle Hotel and Augusta Grille (led by a Culinary Institute of America-trained chef) reopened in November 2008 as a full-service hotel. It was a vast improvement over the old Ramada.

The Clarion Belle has 125 completely renovated rooms, a full-service dining room and a 600-seat capacity ballroom with access to an open court for weddings and other high-end events. Even the hotel’s lobby, with its granite surface, high ceilings and curved double stairway, was designed to convey an image of elegance at an affordable price.

“I tell all my employees that we aim to model our image and service after a gold standard, such as the Hotel du Pont,” says Spiro. “We work under a clientele-for-life philosophy of service.”

Karl Kalbacher, director of redevelopment for the New Castle County Office of Redevelopment, says the partners are a “very impressive and supportive agent for community development.” “Spiro and the Mattei brothers are setting the stage for others to build upon what they’ve been doing here for decades,” he says.

Kalbacher adds that the Bowlerama in particular had “a tired look in need of freshening up and now is a beacon of hope for that area.” (In 2008 Bowler’s Journal recognized Bowlerama with its Best Exterior Renovation award.)

Indeed, if Bowlerama—reinvented with 62 bowling lanes, a Kids Zone with six party rooms, two eateries and a corporate center for business team-building events—is the beacon, then Mark Mattei was the original lighthouse keeper. According to Deborah Deubert of the nearby Rose Hill Community Center, as renovations were under way to remake Bowlerama, Mattei was out and about on Del. 9 to persuade business owners and civic associations to become more proactive about improving the image of the thoroughfare.
 

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“He got businesses and civic groups together to work with police to lower the crime rate and increase reporting of repetitive criminal activity,” says Deubert.

Mark Mattei says his goals for the commercial strip along Del. 9 were simple. “We wanted to create an informal network to communicate needs among ourselves in order to keep the successes going and the community growing.”

Though the current state of the economy may justifiably have Spiro and the Matteis and their 200-plus employees cautious about plans for the future—“We’re working on projects within our existing properties rather than on any new developments right now,” says Spiro—the partners are still encouraged by New Castle as a center of northern Delaware’s economic development.

“Our hotels are strategically located close to New Castle’s interstate system and its airport,” says Spiro. “And we’re very excited about the plan to designate the historic city of New Castle as a national park.”

(U.S. Senator Tom Carper and Congressman Mike Castle have a plan to link a number of historic sites across the state. The New Castle Historic District would be a part of that designation.)

Says Spiro, “With a soon-to-be national park designation, we believe New Castle will experience a renaissance of both local and national awareness.”

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