When Mayor Vance Funk surveys the changes that have taken place in downtown Newark over the past few years, he can’t believe what he sees. Once in decline, the town center is now a vibrant mix of diverse dining and specialty shopping—one of the most desirable destinations in the Mid-Atlantic region.
“It’s kind of scary,” says Funk, who was first elected in April 2004. “I have to pinch myself when I get up in the morning to make sure this is all real.”
But times have not always been so good for Newark. Starting in the 1950s, Newark, like so many other cities, experienced growth far beyond its center, so its downtown declined. The situation worsened through the 1970s.
But Newark has made a stunning comeback. During the past five years, more than $40 million in private investment has been pumped into new building and renovation projects, and more than $12 million into public investment projects downtown. There has been a net gain of over 30 businesses during that time period, creating scores of new full- and part-time jobs.
“Newark is really hot these days,” says Maureen Feeney Roser, director of planning and development for the city. “Part of that is because of our efforts downtown and the fact that we won the Great American Main Street Award and we’re suddenly on the map. People are coming to look at us and see how we’re doing things.”
What they’ve done is achieve success through the cooperative efforts of a committed group of stakeholders—the University of Delaware, the city, and the residential and business communities—under the leadership of the Downtown Newark Partnership.
Formed in 1998, the DNP brought together key stakeholders around the common goal of improving Newark’s quality of life. Mayor Vance Funk has been a champion for partnerships, and for downtown, since he was elected in 2004.
“I think it’s all about partnerships,” says Funk, whose can-do attitude and 30 years of experience as UD’s real estate lawyer helped to improve the relationship between the university and city.
“Together, we can accomplish a lot of good things,” Funk says.
That relationship has become very attractive to entrepreneurs. “At the very center is the university,” says Carl Georigi, owner of Taverna Restaurant which opened on Main Street in November. “The reason I decided to locate one of my restaurants there is that I feel the university provides an infrastructure that is lasting. They’re not going anywhere.”
The partnership also resulted in the redevelopment and renaming of a portion of Elkton Road as South Main Street, a move that coincided with the completion of a multi-year, $10.5 million DelDOT road project.
“It’s just unbelievable all the money that’s been invested in that area over the past five years,” says Funk.
Officials believe the name change extends the downtown feel, encouraging more shoppers and diners to venture into the area. That, in turn, will result in more businesses locating there.
“Renaming Elkton Road an extension of Main Street encompasses many businesses that may not perceptually have been part of the downtown district, so this is a significant switch in the positioning for the downtown businesses,” says Diane Laird, state coordinator of the Downtown Delaware Economic Office.
That’s how Terry Logue sees it. “Everyone agrees that renaming the road gave new life to this end of Newark,” says Logue, manager of The Greene Turtle Sports Bar & Grille, which opened in Rittenhouse Station in December. “I think renaming it just gave it a whole new life.”