Downtowns are Vibrant in Kent County, Delaware

Old and new come together in Kent’s charming towns.

Robin Williams-Bruner hasn’t moved far from the house she grew up in. She now lives a few blocks away on South Main Street in downtown Smyrna. But over the years, she and other “old-timers” have been joined by neighbors from New Jersey, New York and Maryland.

“Many of them went through several historic towns, looking for a place to live, and said, ‘This looks like a neat little town,’” says Williams-Bruner, past president of the Smyrna Downtown Renaissance Association, which forms partnerships to preserve and enhance the town.

Smyrna, she says, is making real progress. Consider the new brick sidewalks, benches and lampposts on South Main Street. Milford and Dover are also undergoing improvements. Yet even with progress, these towns have maintained their Kent County charm.

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“Where the Past Meets the Present”

Smyrna’s slogan is personified in the old Wayside Inn, which opened in 1925 and became a town favorite. Residents like Williams-Bruner mourned its closing in 2010. La Quetzalteca, a Mexican restaurant, last summer opened in the space. “It’s the old Smyrna and the new Smyrna,” says Williams-Bruner. (laquetzalteca.com)

Another newcomer, The French Hen, opened in November in an 18th-century building. “We offer an eclectic mix of old and new accessories with kind of a French Country flair,” says owner Gail Young, who hunts for treasures all over the country. Daughter Brianna Shetzler, who has a studio in the building, offers artwork for sale.

Bailee 21, a high-end consignment shop for women, recently celebrated its second anniversary downtown. “Things have been going really well,” says owner Lisa Ashe. (bailee21.com) She credits the quality of the consignments, which are handpicked by the staff.

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A Smyrna resident, Ashe says she believes in her hometown. So does Williams-Bruner, who’s thrilled at the attendance at community events. She notes the holiday caroling event at Town Hall, after which families went to the Smyrna Museum to visit Santa. (downtownsmyrna.org) “Seeing groups working together to promote events is real evidence of progress,” she says.

 

Gateway to Southern Delaware

Milford, which sits on the Mispillion River, once boasted seven shipyards. All but one, the now privately owned Vinyard Shipyard, are gone. Yet the river remains the town’s focal piece, serving as a backdrop for movies, musical acts and family entertainment in the Milford Public Library Amphitheater. (milfordpubliclibrary.org)

The events are co-hosted by Downtown Milford Inc., which also organizes the Bug & Bud Festival, a tribute to trees and the state bug, the ladybug. It’s scheduled this year for April 28. (downtownmilford.org)

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DMI, part of the National Main Street initiative, recently completed streetscaping along Walnut Street that includes new trees, grates, benches, bicycle racks and trash receptacles. “It makes the shopping area even more attractive,” says Lee Nelson, DMI’s director. Likewise, the “Milford in Bloom” project put planters on light poles to hold seasonal flowers and foliage.

The eye candy appealed to Chris Menge, co-owner of Chris and Jenna Computers. “We like the look of downtown,” says the Wisconsin native, who repairs and sells computers. (chrisandjenna.com)

Other new businesses include Anne Jenkins Art Gallery, Delaware Fitness and Milford Florist. (annejenkinsart.com)

Business owners can have a power lunch at Abbott’s Grill, which also caters lunch to locations in the Milford area. Or, they can mingle over coffee, pastries and ice cream at Dolce Bakery, where owner George Carroll makes the goods from scratch. Carroll, who opened the shop in 2005, is pleased with downtown Milford’s growth.

“Retailers and restaurants have moved into empty spaces, the streetscaping is done—it’s turned around a lot,” he says. (abbottsgrillde.com, dolcebakery.com)

Capital Construction

The economy may have sputtered, but that hasn’t stopped progress in Dover. In October, construction began on Bayard Plaza, a five-story, mixed-use building that’s replacing the dilapidated Bayard Hotel. The new building, which will feature retail shops and apartments, is scheduled for completion by the end of 2012, says Bill Neaton, director of the Downtown Dover Partnership.

Although DDP uses National Main Street’s guiding principles, the organization is distinct. Not only does it promote the downtown’s economic, cultural and historic resources, but it also owns property and develops it. Take 680-684 Forest St., a portion of which is leased to the Dover Interfaith Mission.

DDP plans to turn the old Acme site on Governors Avenue into a four-story, multiuse building with retail and residences. DDP is also redoing the facades of the 20,000-square-foot building it purchased on Loockerman Street.

A $3 million bond bill will go toward parking consolidation, new sidewalks and crosswalks and the creation of Loockerman Way, a plaza on previously vacant space.

“It will be a visually pleasing walk-through space with brick pavers and additional parking,” says Neaton of the plaza, which should be done by summer. “There’s enough space to hold a small festival.” (downtowndoverpartnership.com)

This summer should also see the completion of Dover’s new library. “It’s an absolutely gorgeous building,” Neaton says. “It fits into the architecture of the state capital.”

All the activity helped prompt Steven R. Pate to move Emmanuel’s Religious Gifts to Loockerman Street. “It seems like a fast-growing area now,” says Pate, whose wares are Catholic-oriented.

He followed Partners by Design, which also moved from Governors Avenue to Loockerman Street. The space gives designers Valla Rogers and Lucy Findlay room for wallpaper and fabric swatches as well as room for a home accessories shop. “The location is conducive for business,” Rogers says. “It’s been really good for us.” (partnersindesign.net)

They’ve been joined by Suds Bar Soap & Essentials and Beehive Beauty Shop. (sudsbarsoap.com, vagaro.com/beehive)

Kent County’s downtowns often share ideas, Neaton says. “Our feeling always has been and always will be that what is good for them is good for Dover and vice versa.”

 

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