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Joe DiPinto, director of economic development for the city, surveys Market Street, which is part of a new effort to revitalize one of the last great main business streets on the East Coast.
Photograph by Tom Nutter

Suddenly, little ol’ Wilmington, Delaware, is the apple of Western Europe’s eye.

The commissioner of public works, for example, recently returned from France, where he spoke to an international audience on the subject of combined sewer overflows.

Two Italian provinces are setting up offices in Wilmington as part of a commercial, cultural and educational exchange.

Meanwhile, fDi Magazine, published by the Financial Times of London, named Wilmington one of the top 10 Cities of the Future, based on residential and business growth and the ease of conducting business.

On this side of the Atlantic, Delaware’s largest city has not gone unnoticed, either. Some, but certainly not all, of the recent accolades:

• At the 2006 Conference of Mayors, Mayor James M. Baker received an Outstanding Achievement Award for the city’s Vacant Property Registration Fee Program.

• Home Depot has given Wilmington its Greening Award, a $75,000 grant, for continuous initiatives to “green” the city.

• Through the U.S. Conference for Mayors, the DuPont Company has given its headquarters city an award for the effectiveness of its paint-removal program, especially in minority communities.

The upshot of all this is that Wilmington is recognized internationally for its programs. “Wilmington is a great city,” Baker says, “and it can be even greater.”

Vacancy-No Vacancy

The innovation that has perhaps had the most dramatic impact is the Vacant Property Registration Fee Program to enhance the city’s appearance.

Prior to 2003, the fee levied against owners of vacant properties was $25 a year. The manpower required to inspect the properties far outweighed the money collected.

New legislation established an escalating fee schedule based on the number of years the property remained vacant, and increased the penalty for the first year to $500. Failure to comply can lead to a lien on the property, sheriff’s sale and a criminal summons.

Suddenly, the city had gotten the attention of owners of vacant properties.

Over the past three years, the number of privately owned vacant properties has dropped by more than 400. “Our major emphasis is not on revenue,” says Jeff Starkey, commissioner of licenses and inspections, “but on eliminating vacant properties.”

The program has deposited nearly $900,000 into the city coffers since ’04, and the value of building permits has more than doubled. In 2004, 680 permits valued at $9.2 million were issued. In the first five months of this year, the city issued 501 permits worth $20.4 million. Since ’04, Starkey’s office has issued 2,515 permits valued at $51.6 million.

“We used to have to go looking for owners of these properties,” Starkey says. “Now they come to us. And they’re scrambling trying to get the properties occupied.”

Getting the Boot

Police Chief Michael Szczerba has a special appreciation for cameras—specifically, those mounted on traffic lights in 15 of the city’s busiest intersections.

The cameras are part of the Red Light Safety Program instituted in 2001. A driver who runs one of those lights is likely to find a letter in his mailbox—with a $75 fine. About 320 citations per location were being issued when the program began. The current number is about 80.

If violators fail to pay the fine on time, it jumps to $105 dollars, making violators eligible for a “boot.” That’s where things get really sophisticated.

A camera-equipped Auto-Vu police van patrols the streets, scanning license plates to identify delinquent vehicles, based on information in city and state databases. Those cars get an immobilizing PayLock boot until the owners pay up, which they can do by credit card using a toll-free phone number. Once the fine is paid, the owner receives a code that allows him to remove the boot.

In six years, the Red Light Safety Enforcement Program has generated more than $2.7 million in revenue, though Szczerba says that’s not the priority. “For us, a decent parking situation for everyone entering the city is our main concern. And the Red Light program has helped accomplish that.”

Greening Up

Like scores of industrialized urban areas, Wilmington’s sewer is a “combined” system designed in the early 20th century, meaning sewage and storm water flow through the same pipes to a treatment plant.

In 2000 the city created a control plan for combined sewer overflow occurrences in response to a federal mandate requiring the city to capture and treat 85 percent of the flow. In 2003 Baker unveiled a revised plan that uses a new technology, real-time control, to reduce and control CSO occurrences.

Under Kash Srinivasan, commissioner of the department of public works, the plan is well underway. The goal of capturing and treating 88.5 percent of sewage is, he says, within reach by 2010. What’s more, the new plan will cost $30 million, a savings of more than $80 million on the original projection.

“With the long-term control plan’s new technology, we have a regulating device that will automatically control the flow of wastewater. This ‘intelligent’ system reacts to rain distribution patterns, arresting flow in the system and releasing it in a controlled way to maximize inflow to our water treatment plant instead of into waterways.”

Along with public works operations director Al Ballard, Srinivasan also oversees a more high-profile environmental effort: the curbside recycling program. The pilot program produced a 35 percent diversion rate, meaning more than 2 million pounds of trash normally deposited in Wilmington’s landfill were recycled.

Boosting Business

While trying to improve overall quality of life, the Baker administration is also reaching out to improve the business picture. That reach now stretches across the Atlantic to Italy. It grew out of a state entity, the Delaware Commission on Italian Culture and Heritage, which is charged with creating educational, cultural and business ties with communities in Rome. In September 2007 the state opened a trade office in Pisa. Meanwhile, officials from several Italian communities visited Wilmington. They liked what they saw.

“We’ve had a very solid expression of interest from the County of Florence,” says Joseph DiPinto, director of Wilmington’s Office of Economic Development. “The Florence county executive said they’d like to come here because we’re a moderate-size entry point to the Eastern United States. He indicated that they won’t get lost here, as they might in New York, Philadelphia or Washington, D.C., and the cost of doing business is not as high as it is in those cities.

There will probably be four small Italian trade offices opened in the city by the end of the year, DiPinto says. “Their purpose would be to introduce their commercial, cultural and educational values to us, as we do in our office in Pisa. An exchange agreement involving professors and graduate students between the University of Rome and the University of Delaware is already in place. Ultimately, we’re looking to build a base for imports as well as exports.”

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