Wilmington is telling a new story these days. Its story is about a city that is painfully—yet quite successfully—rebuilding its business and employment model. It is also a story about hundreds of new residences being built or repurposed downtown and new construction in other neighborhoods. It is a tale of new restaurants and retail shops, as well as a surge in entertainment options. And, many hope, it will become the tale of revitalized neighborhoods that have not fully shared in the city’s growth and prosperity.
Lifelong city resident Mike Hare of The Buccini/Pollin Group champions development of hundreds of new
If ever there was doubt that developers see a bright future for Wilmington, consider this:
These developments are in contrast to the strategy pursued during the last half of the previous century, which was to lure the people who worked downtown by day to return in the evening to eat and shop. At best, it was a holding action, with glimmers of other initiatives—such as the Market Street Mall era from the mid-1970s to late 1980s—that eventually flamed out.
Today builders have bet millions of dollars on a different plan: to provide hundreds of apartments and condos downtown and on the Riverfront to attract new people who want to live in a vibrant city. Walk along Market Street today south from Rodney Square. You will see block after block of residential units that were once offices.
“Citywide, we are at about 95 percent occupancy,” says Hare. BPG started its run in 2003 by transforming the Delaware Trust building into 279 apartments. Though some prospective new city dwellers have been scared off by news of crime, “When we polled residents in our apartments about what concerned them most, less than a percent cited crime,” Hare says.
Developers are profiting from the national trend of younger adults settling in urban areas—or, Hare speculates, “perhaps all of us forced the market.” Either way, when employment opportunities follow a skilled workforce, he says, “growth will become organic.”
The next big project is renovation of the DuPont Building, another BPG investment, though plans are not complete. Half of what were once DuPont offices are being renovated, while the company’s spinoff, Chemours, occupies the other half. When Chemours—committed to a 15-year lease—moves back into its new quarters, BPG will convert the remaining units into about 175 apartments. Plans for populating the retail space remain incomplete, Hare says, but there will be a food court open to the public.
During a ribbon-cutting ceremony in December for “residences over retail” spaces renovated at 618 Market St., Hare spoke passionately about his native city. “We are making an ongoing, relentless effort to reclaim our urban areas,” he said.
Robert Herrera opened The Mill, a booming shared workspace in the former Nemours Building on Orange Street,
Rebecca Parsons opens the door to a room not much larger than a phone booth, where the only furniture is a treadmill desk that will allow the occupant to surf the web and work off a power lunch at the same time.
“It used to be in Robert’s office,” says Parsons, community manager for The Mill, a booming, shared workspace on the fourth floor of the former Nemours Building at 1007 N. Orange St. Robert is Robert Herrera, the 30-something Delaware native who opened the business in April 2016 with 28 offices. The Mill, which manages to look both comfy and industrial, has expanded twice since then, forcing Herrera’s office moves. At about 20o tenants, is more than 90 percent occupied.
Though there are larger firms in The Mill, such as new credit card company Fair Square Financial, most tenants are freelancers, some with a partner or two. Many have found working at home has too many distractions or is too solitary. The Mill also provides a place to meet clients and get mail.
As in other parts of the country, downtown Wilmington is experiencing a boom in workers who own their own businesses and either share desks and office equipment or rent space full time. “Millennials are looking for a working atmosphere that allows them to socialize as much or as little as they like,” Herrera says. Part of this new arrangement—the so-called gig economy—is partly a result of the conscious decisions of individuals to work for themselves, partly because few lifetime corporate jobs, with benefits attached, are available.
Many consumers would prefer to hire an independent contractor—whether a limo driver or an electrician—than an established firm. An article on the gig economy in the The New Yorker last year reported 72 percent of American adults had used one of 11 sharing or on-demand services, and that a third of people under 45 had used four or more, according to a study by Pew Research Center.
The Mill is not the only shared workspace in the city. Other rental firms include 1313 Innovation on North Market Street, Regus at 1000 N. West St. (the former Brandywine Building), Opus Virtual Offices at 913 N. Market St., STAT International at 1201 N. Orange St., Start It Up Delaware at 605 N. Market St. and Brandywine Executive Center at 300 N. Delaware Ave.
In many ways, the model of shared working spaces is similar to those employed last century by shopping malls: Land a large anchor client or two, like Four Square at The Mill, then fill other spaces with smaller businesses. Both the shared spaces and the mall have plenty of areas for socializing, plus, in the case of shared spaces, opportunities to network. The Mill also rents out Theatre N on the 14th floor of its building for special events.
“Networking here is informal, more organic,” Herrera says. “Two years ago, I never expected that it would take off this quickly.”
For decades, Wilmington employment was dominated by the headquarters of two chemical manufacturers, DuPont and Hercules. Then, in the 1980s, large banks and other financial institutions started moving in. They made their presence felt with large workforces and major charitable giving.
The impact of both sectors has decreased in recent years. Though major bank businesses still exist, and though the new Chemours inherited DuPont’s mantle when the latter merged with Dow and moved out, the changing of the guard has been painful. But it may be a positive development for downtown in the long run.
“The city has been changing its formula,” Mayor Mike Purzycki says. Instead of a downtown dominated by big businesses, he sees an integration of housing and commerce. “Wilmington has been an urban-adverse place for housing, but I think that will change,” he says. As for DuPont’s leaving the city, “We got over it. Chemours has been a cheerleader for the city and is outstanding in its support.”
Perhaps the future of Wilmington lies with a new generation of businesses that have started small but are growing large. One example is Incyte, a pharmaceutical research company that was founded by a former DuPont executive in Palo Alto in 1991, then put down roots on the edge of town not long after in the old Wanamaker Building on Augustine Cut Off. “The people at Incyte have been great,” the mayor says—“although I’m reminded every time I visit that they are on the wrong side of the city line.”
Last fall, Incyte dedicated a stunning new headquarters next door to its original Wanamaker’s space, where the company’s research still takes place. The unit has 154,000 square feet of space, capacity for 450 employees and an elevated view of downtown Wilmington. Significantly, Incyte hired 280 new employees last year. “We’re almost at capacity already,” says Paula Swain, executive vice president for human resources. “We’ve got enough space to get us through 2018,” but then a third building will be added on an old parking lot. “We want this to be our campus,” she says. “We made the decision that this would be our home in 2014.”
Swain says part of her company’s allegiance to the city and region is due to the welcome it received early on. “We got tremendous local support when we started,” she says. “In fact, they helped us discover this space. We’ve always had great support from the mayor and the governor.” Though technically not part of the city, many of its employees live and shop in Wilmington, and the company’s charitable giving helps support local institutions.
Former Chemours president Mark Vergnano also cites the city’s and the state’s pro-business environment. “When Chemours was deciding where to locate its global headquarters, Delaware’s elected officials made it clear that this state is a venue where 21st-century businesses will be able to succeed and grow,” Vergnano said last year. “This is critically important to Chemours, given that we are a young company, and we want to continue attracting a vibrant workforce to drive us forward in the years to come.”
Daniel Sheridan, owner of the new Stitch House Brewery on Market Street, hopes to lure foodies from the suburbs
Whether people are looking for casual food or fine cuisine, dining in downtown Wilmington is thriving. More than 20 fine-dining, casual and fast food places to eat line what could be called the downtown restaurant corridor that begins with Mike and Beth Ross’ Domaine Hudson near the Washington Street bridge, flows uphill past Mikimoto’s, doglegs east at the corner of 11th past Dan Butler’s repurposed Tonic Bar and Grille, then turns right on Market at the iconic Hotel du Pont Green Room, past Ernest and Scott Taproom and Chelsea Tavern a couple of blocks away, then ends up down the hill at Bryan Sikora’s La Fia Bistro and Merchant Bar at Fourth and Market.
The same is true of other thriving clusters of great places to eat, especially in and near Trolley Square, Little Italy and the Riverfront. “What’s happened here on Washington Street is an excellent example of how the city has changed,” Mike Ross says. “When I met with a lawyer to establish my LLC in 2011 [to take over Domaine Hudson], he said, ‘Oh, Washington Street, by the hospital? Parking is terrible down there.’ Not now—great parking, well-lit and safe.” And in the neighborhood of the recently renovated and expanded Wilmington Hospital, a major employer.
Though it is true that new restaurants provide competition for restaurants that cater to the work crowd at midday and hotel-based travelers during the evening, having a choice of good restaurants downtown also helps lure those considering renting or buying housing in the city. A wide range of restaurant choices also creates a critical dining mass that will entice foodies from the suburbs to venture downtown.
One such new establishment is the Stitch House Brewery at 829 N. Market St. The Buccini/Pollin Group was looking for a tenant for its renovated space at that address after regional impresario Scott Morrison, who was scheduled to open a brewery there, died suddenly a couple years ago.
“I had worked with Bryan Sikora for two years at La Fia, and I saw how he had attracted customers downtown,” says Stitch House chef-owner Daniel Sheridan, who also operates Locale Barbecue Post on North Lincoln Street in Little Italy. Stitch House has 180 seats for dining and a full-scale brewery with 12 regional beers on tap. “It has a modern American menu with shared plates and sandwiches and dishes such as cassoulet, chili and hot plates,” Sheridan says.
He notes that other new restaurants are scheduled to open nearby. “I’ve always been a firm believer that if you make areas food destinations, as they have at the Riverfront and Trolley Square, then everyone has a chance at success,” Sheridan says.
But having operated Domaine Hudson for seven years, Ross remains cautious about prematurely declaring victory. “How’s it going? It’s hard to tell currently, but the more residents downtown, the more consumers are available to dine at the various restaurants,” he says.
Almost overnight, Trenton Banks became the queen bee of local live entertainment.
After The Queen’s six-year run under World Café Live, the old, but renovated, lady of lower Market Street ran out of steam last winter. The company that came to its rescue was a pleasant surprise: Live Nation Entertainment. Live Nation, with roots in Philadelphia, is the largest live music company in the United Sates, having gobbled up Ticketmaster and the House of Blues franchise, of which The Queen is now a part, though she will not change her name.
At the time of the announcement, Michael Grozier, Live Nation’s head of clubs and theaters, said, “We feel like The Queen is going to be somewhere between the Theatre of Living Arts and The Fillmore (both popular venues in Philadelphia).” Live Nation signed a 10-year lease on The Queen to show its fealty to the marriage bond.
Banks is the man in charge of making things happen. He managed both the Fillmore and the Theatre of Living Arts before being tasked with making The Queen healthy and profitable again. “It’s like buying a house,” Banks says. “You have to see what it needs to become operational, what you need to take out, and what you need to leave.” At minimum, he cites needed improvements in the lobby and with ticket booth arrangements.
Banks says that, even with a few empty storefronts near the theater, “I think lower Market Street is a great location with good places to eat”—which is important to have on show nights. He wants to hold onto the World Café Live fans, but adds, “We’re looking toward a more-diverse demographic. Some local musicians who have played here before and have attended our concerts noted that there were a lot of new faces in the audience.”
Meanwhile, BPG, which owns the building, is looking for someone to operate the upstairs restaurant. “We really don’t have much competition here,” Banks says, “except for The Grand up the street.” The two theaters are more likely to be partners than competitors, as the two groups have had discussions about The Grand Opera House—which has the larger auditorium needed for big-draw acts—scheduling some of the popular acts that Live Nation wants to book for Wilmington.
The Grand has also expanded its purview, taking over the The Playhouse at Rodney Square in the Hotel du Pont. “We’re thrilled with everything that’s happening here,” says Grand manager Mark Fields, who is booking shows for The Playhouse. The Grand has also expanded its Stage Door Pass partnership with local restaurants on show nights. “Last year, we had six participating restaurants,” Fields says. “This year we will have 15. When there are shows both at The Playhouse and The Grand, it’s hard to find a table at local restaurants. Now, add The Queen to that, and…”
Of course, not all live entertainment is music, theater and comedy. On the Riverfront, BPG announced last fall it will develop a sports complex on the south side of the river next to South Market Street, which will be accessible by a new bridge to be built just beyond the Chase Center. That complex will be the new home of the Delaware Blue Coats basketball team, G League affiliate of the Philadelphia 76ers. Sixers’ leadership sees a bright future here.
Carrie Gray of Wilmington Renaissance Corporation leads
One of the toughest and most painful tasks any city faces is trying to revive traditional neighborhoods that suffer from abandoned dwellings and elevated crime rates without destroying the character of these neighborhoods and displacing the people who live there. Wilmington is no different in agonizing over this challenge.
Purzycki has said that improving West Center City is his top priority. “What happens in these neighborhoods that are challenged by isolation and alienation will be a measure of whether or not my administration succeeds.” West Center City is a tough challenge, with one in 10 dwellings abandoned, unpaid city property taxes amounting to almost $2 million and frequent crimes.
The mayor’s strategy for alleviating those problems, announced last year, met with mixed reactions from the community and its advocates. Some city council members and longtime residents worry that the city will be tempted to use minor code violations and the right of eminent domain to replace residents and their homes with new buildings. It is the ever-present gentrification conundrum: When a neighborhood is transformed into a thriving area, residents are often forced to move elsewhere, either by condemnation or by being priced out of the market, while affluent outsiders replace them. Yet, if nothing is done, the problems that cause the blight—poverty and crime—only accelerate the neighborhood’s decline.
Carrie Gray, managing director of the Wilmington Renaissance Corporation, says her organization’s “first area of focus is neighborhood stabilization.” She believes programs that help renters become owners of their homes, and secure the resources to renovate them, are key. Success would lead to mixed-use developments and the small businesses that service these residents—food markets, home repair shops, small employers. “We need to have a concentrated effort to encourage renters to be buyers by using outreach and education programs,” Gray says. “But outreach hasn’t been happening as much as it should.”
There have been efforts to use the arts to develop community spirit and cooperation by establishing a Creative District, the 7th Street Bridge project and the NextFab coworking maker space on Tatnall Street, but it is too early to evaluate their success. A workable West Center City story, Gray believes, would be to gradually make it like its more stable neighbors—Cool Spring/Tilton Park across I-95 to the west and Quaker Hill to the south.
Yet, without ignoring the problem of declining neighborhoods, the huge improvements that are taking place in West Center City, on the Riverfront and elsewhere promise to catalyze efforts in neighborhoods across the city, just as the Riverfront—with its office buildings, high-rise residences, and entertainment and shopping opportunities—proved successful in creating new life in the city and encouraged replication elsewhere.
Success in one part of the city, Wilmington’s business leadership believes, can be contagious.
Renaissance Fare: WRC Hatches Innovative Ideas
he Wilmington Renaissance Corporation was founded 25 years ago, and for 20 of those years, Carrie Gray has worked to fulfill its goals, the last 13 as managing director.
“Our mission hasn’t changed since we started,” Gray says, “but we certainly have been engaged in a lot of different projects.” That mission is to “breathe life into Wilmington,” a task that is reflected in the group’s URL: bigideaswilmington.com. “What we love doing is incubating big ideas, then pushing them out of the nest,” Gray says.
WRC was established in 1993 by the mayor’s office, in cooperation with the local corporate community, as a privately funded corporation with government ties.
In the early years, it helped establish the Delaware College of Art and Design on Market Street. A more recent big idea has been establishment of the Creative District to help revitalize West Center City.
“Six years ago, when we were getting ready to celebrate our 20th anniversary, our board of directors did a broad-based planning project, which involved input from more than 100 people,” Gray says. “We also studied what was going on with similar organizations in other cities. What we discovered was that those cities that were most successful had programs whose focus was based on arts and culture.”
Over the past four years the Creative District has been WRC’s biggest project in terms of partnerships, Gray says. The Creative District is focused on both encouraging innovative art production and its consumption, a place where “creative entrepreneurs—artists, musicians, designers, tech innovators, makers and manufacturers—and neighborhood residents thrive.”
Other current projects have the intriguing titles of Kitchen Incubator, New Market Wilm and Project Heal. The Kitchen is planned to result in an 8,000-square-foot facility whose main purpose is to help train food-based entrepreneurs to start up quicker and stay in business longer. New Market Wilm is a lifestyles campaign that urges locals and visitors to explore and enjoy the products and stories that take place within the Creative District. Project Heal explores the connection between population health and a robust cultural and arts environment.
The public can celebrate WRC’s 25th during its annual meeting May 16 at The Queen. Mayor Mike Purzycki is the featured speaker.