Bigger and Better

Smyrna turns a population boom into a dynamic town.

New construction, such as this facility being
built by Bayhealth Medical Center, is a familiar
sight to Smyrna town manager David Hugg.

Photograph by Tom Nutter

The town of Smyrna, like many small towns once built around vibrant centers supported by dollars from locals and surrounding industry, had seen some hard times.

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Through the late 1980s and into the 1990s, a diminished retail base resulted in a downtown that looked something like a ghost town, with only a few stalwart merchants holding on in hopes of better times.

It was the turn of the 21st century and the election of Mayor Mark Schaeffer in 2001 that brought a significant shift in fortunes, halting a downslide and putting Smyrna right in the middle of a massive residential explosion. That boom presented both new challenges and new opportunities for the community.

As farmland outside town was bought by developers and converted to housing developments, new residents from as far as New Jersey began settling there to take advantage of Delaware’s tax benefits, the small-town atmosphere and relatively inexpensive housing.

Schaeffer actively pursued annexation of many of the new developments, but many residents complained that the addition of so many new residents—from 5,700 in 2000 to close to 10,000 in 2008—unduly burdened both the infrastructure and the school system.

With her election in 2007, Mayor Patricia Stombaugh took on the job of making that huge surge in population work to Smyrna’s advantage by balancing it with infrastructure upgrades and a bolstered downtown business environment.

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A major challenge that turned into a significant opportunity for Smyrna was the overcrowding of its schools. The Smyrna School District took a major step in 2000 when it issued a letter stating that even with a new 2,000-student middle school approved through a referendum that year, the district didn’t have room for any more kids.

“Basically what they said is, we’ve doubled the size of the schools for [the residential development] that’s in the pipeline, and if [the city] annexes any more, the schools can’t take them,” Stombaugh says.

Though the message and measure seemed drastic at the time, the mayor says it was necessary to drive home to residents the state of the school district. Today, Stombaugh says, “They’re doing very well. The school district is doing a fantastic job.”

In the middle of it all is the Smyrna Opera House (really the town hall). The building was the center of civic activities when it opened in 1869, until it was damaged by fire in 1948. The brick structure was restored in 2003. The project included a new mansard roof and cupola. The building adds new luster to historic Old Town.

Of the developments that were in the works before Stombaugh was elected, several have since been stalled by the lackluster national housing market and the sub-prime loan crisis. That slowdown, however, has actually worked in Smyrna’s favor. “It’s been great for us because it’s given us a chance to get caught up,” Stombaugh says.

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That catching up has involved a number of factors. Foremost among them was allowing the town to accommodate the growth with improvements to its water and sewer system. “The biggest problem that we’re dealing with right now is our tax base,” she says, which is thrown off balance by the addition of residents without the accompanying commercial and industrial growth.

But with the boom in residents comes an ever-expanding demand for more jobs and places to shop, which is why the town is now focusing increased energy on recruiting “clean” industries—things like tourism and filmmaking—business recruitment and bolstering the commercial environment in the town center.

Tourism in the area recently got a boost with the town’s mention in National Geographic Adventure magazine as one of its 50 Best Places to Live and Play for 2007. Cited as major attractions were the affordable housing, its proximity to the 40 miles of hiking, biking and cross-country skiing trails in nearby Blackbird State Forest, and the status of Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge as a prime spot for birders.

To bring that outdoor appeal to the town itself, plans are for a network of walking and biking trails to connect the town from north to south. “We’re hoping to encourage people to get out and bike or walk and help with the congestion downtown,” Stombaugh says.

Film, meanwhile, also offers an appealing option because, though each project is temporary, it pumps a large amount of money into a community in a short period of time, creating ancillary work for a host of businesses that are not normally thought of as being “in the movies.”

The real focus, however, is jump-starting the business community in Smyrna’s downtown by refocusing an area that once was a hub for hardware, drug and five-and-dime stores into one that will appeal to both residents and visitors in new and exciting ways, she says.

“At this point we’re hoping that we can maintain our small-town atmosphere,” Stombaugh says. “We still have what we call Old Town, and that’s the part that really needs concentrating on. If you have a strong downtown, you have a strong community.”

A significant part of strengthening downtown was the addition of the Christiana Care Health and Wellness Center at 100 S. Main St.

The center, which features a medical imaging center, fitness center, occupational health services, non-critical emergency care, a women’s health center and vascular care, among other services, creates a whole new commercial element right in the center of town. And with nearly 100 employees, it also provides a ready-made pool of customers for downtown merchants.

Dr. Paula Stillman, president of health initiatives and senior vice president for special projects at Christiana Care Health and Wellness Center, says the health system’s decision to locate in Smyrna was a direct result of lobbying from the town.

Because a large segment of Smyrna’s growth is driven by retirees and adults who are close to retirement age, both Schaeffer and Stombaugh envisioned Smyrna as a center for caring and healing residents as they aged.

“It was irresistible to us that Smyrna said, ‘Please come down and we’ll be partners in the revitalization project,’” Stillman says. “This was really our first foray over the border between Kent and New Castle counties. I don’t think we were looking, but they came to us.”

An ambulatory surgery center is the next planned project. Town officials also have a list of other services that might be needed at the wellness center.

Along with improving the health of residents, Stillman says one of the biggest rewards has been the way the center has helped improve the health of the town itself.

“It looked really shabby before. The buildings were in a state of disrepair,” she says. “It’s beautiful now. New shops have opened up. New restaurants have opened up. To me, to see the change from time to time is so rewarding.”

Joe Ramsey, owner of Brandywine Smyrna Chrysler Dodge Jeep, says Smyrna is just now realizing its potential, with more opportunities for businesses still out there. He, for one, recently rebuilt his car dealership, added 35,000 square feet of new buildings and renovated a restaurant there. He can speak personally about the influx of new residents, because many of them are stopping in to his dealership to arrange service on their cars.

“A lot of them have good, spendable incomes because a lot of them are early retirees and they’re coming into the area with two pensions,” he says. “I think there’s a lot of potential here for someone who wants to make the investment, compared to a lot of other places where you might pay a lot more and get less return.”

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