Despite the economic downturn, Kent County’s scenic downtowns are bustling with creative business activity. Milford, Smyrna, Dover and Harrington all share this and another thing in common—an enthusiastic group of people dedicated to the continued life and success of their traditional downtown.
“The economy has impacted the businesses negatively,” says Bill Neaton, executive director of the Downtown Dover Partnership. But he is quick to say, “They are an innovative group of merchants. They are more than surviving. They are thriving.”
Diane Laird is program coordinator for Downtown Delaware, a resource center based in the Delaware Economic and Development Office. “Kent County downtowns are actively pursuing downtown revitalization,” Laird says. “They’re not waiting for the market to decide what the future looks like.”
Laird works with all four downtowns either through a sanctioned Main Street program or through the Downtown Delaware program. In her opinion, success is critical. “Small towns represent the opportunity for entrepreneurs to open a business,” she says. “Small business is the backbone of a strong economy.”
The LadyBug shop in Milford is a good example of the kind of innovation Laird likes to see. Moving to its third location in Milford since opening in 2003, the LadyBug shop carries specialty items related to the state bug, as well as other nature and child-oriented gift items.
What has helped LadyBug meet the challenges of the bad economy is that it is what owner Dan Bond calls a “click and mortar” business. LadyBug has a “real retail shop,” and it sells over the Internet. Bond and his wife, who also own Towers Bed and Breakfast in Milford, committed to businesses in Milford because, “We wanted to see our downtown thrive.”
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Situated on the Mispillion River, which divides Kent and Sussex counties, Milford is full of potential. Milford leaders have plans for a unique town center with an artistic flair and specialty shops. After fits and starts over the past 14 years, Milford’s Main Street program has renewed energy with a paid executive director, Beth Durham, and a core group of volunteers. The program itself received official recognition in April 2008. “People are really excited about the things that are happening,” says Durham, but she points out there is no immediate gratification. “Good change is planned progress.”
Building on the success of established niche businesses like the LadyBug Shop, Lou’s Bootery, Dolcé coffee and pastry shop, The Georgia House restaurant, Second Street Players Theater, the Delaware Music School and Angelucci’s Fine Woodworking and Stained Glass Studio, downtown Milford is attracting new businesses. Eco Chic Boutique and Abbott’s Grill are two new upscale businesses, and Good News Natural Foods recently opened its second Delaware store in downtown Milford. The Riverwalk Center for the Arts is another exciting addition. The freshly renovated space on Walnut Street is home to the Mispillion Art League and also features classroom space. One of downtown Milford’s anchors, the Milford Public Library, is undergoing a multimillion dollar expansion.
Many are drawn to the offerings of Harrington Raceway and Casino or the annual state fair, but Harrington also has a welcoming old-fashioned downtown.
Along with mainstays such as City Hall, Harrington Railroad Museum and Harrington Senior Center, Harrington’s businesses include the Clutter Box, an antique shop, 2 Cousins restaurant, the Harrington Florist II, Ames Music Studio, Cake Magic Bakery and Callaway Furniture. New merchants also are moving downtown. They include a new ice cream and soda shop, and Kent County’s famed Byler’s Country Store will open a second location on U.S. 13, according to owner Lyndon J. Byler.
Overall, Harrington Mayor Gene Price feels his town is weathering the difficult economy quite well. “We’ve been fortunate that we don’t have a lot of empty storefronts.”
Town leaders continue to look for opportunities to build on Harrington’s firm foundation. The town’s streetscape project is under way to improve the overall appearance, according to Price, and the city is streamlining government processes to help new business owners. “We’re trying to become a more business-friendly community,” Price says.
Even with continued good fortune, Price has bigger dreams for Harrington. “We have such a high potential downtown. It’s a main corridor to the beach,” he says. “We need to entice somebody who goes through this weekend to maybe leave a little early and stop next weekend.”
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Delaware’s capital city has a long record of support for the vitality of its downtown. Just steps from Legislative Hall, the capital office complex and Wesley College, the heart of downtown Dover is Loockerman Street.
Though Dover has had a Main Street program since 1996, downtown Dover’s interests were being promoted by several organizations until just a few years ago. Through the leadership of the Greater Dover Committee, Dover consolidated all these organizations into the Downtown Dover Partnership. Achieving a unified approach was not easy, but according to Gregg Moore, president of the Greater Dover Committee, “We chewed through the politics and said, ‘You all are going to be one group.’”
Many new initiatives have been accomplished through the partnership. Other projects are in the works. Over the past year or so niche businesses such as Bel Boutique, the Fly 365 clothing store, the Golden Fleece Tavern and the Dover Newsstand have successfully opened on—or near—Loockerman street.
Erin Tinsley opened Bel Boutique in July 2008. “I really wanted a small business, and this is where my family, friends and community are,” she says. Business has been growing steadily. “We have a great customer base, and we see a new face every day.”
Dover’s new merchants complement existing niche businesses such as Forney’s Jewelers and Forney’s Too, 33 West Café, the Army Navy Store and Delaware Made. Other properties that once sat vacant or were left with environmental issues also are being revitalized by the city.
The grand opening of the Greater Dover Foundation Community Building in December marked the emergence of a new anchor for downtown. The Greater Dover Committee purchased and renovated the old Wachovia Bank Building. Several nonprofit organizations now keep officers there. They pay a reduced rent, and due to their proximity, they can easily share resources.
Another exciting development for downtown Dover is the planned construction of a new $22 million Dover Public Library on Loockerman Street.
“Most communities agree that the public library is really the heart of the community,” says library director Margie Cyr. “We’re really now serving as community centers.” Though there was some discussion and controversy during planning of the library, Loockerman Street was deemed the best location. “The library will be a draw to bring people into downtown,” she says. “It will be a beautiful entrance to downtown Dover.”
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Kent’s northernmost town, Smyrna, has been moving quietly ahead with plans for the four corner hub of its main streets. “The downtown seems to be healthy despite a bad economy,” says town manager Dave Hugg. “There is a good strong local organization, a core group of people concerned about the downtown.” The group includes the Smyrna Downtown Renaissance Association led by business owner Larry Koehler.
Like other Kent County towns, Smyrna’s downtown is blessed with several strong cornerstones such as the Smyrna Opera House, the Smyrna Museum, the Smyrna Public Library and Sayers Jewelers, which just celebrated its 60th anniversary. The relative newcomer but big player is Christiana Care’s Wellness Center. Featuring walk-in medical care on the first floor. “It’s an enormous building, and it serves as a real significant anchor,” Hugg says.
Downtown Smyrna is home to a mix of other specialty shops and businesses, such as Koehler’s Timeless Treasures, Heart of Smyrna, Smyrna Sporting Goods, the new Bailee21 Consignment Boutique, Candy Time and Sheridan’s Irish Pub.
Bailee21 owner Lisa Ashe decided to open her business in downtown Smyrna last October. As a resident, “Driving through town, I believed that the town could prosper. It just needs the right mix, and I wanted to be a part of it,” she says.
Milford, Harrington, Dover and Smyrna each represent a unique small-town experience, according to Laird.
“Strong downtowns are an amenity and an asset to the state because they attract people and they provide goods and services for both residents and visitors,” she says. “They create an opportunity for an experience. It’s authentic. It’s real.” Tinsley agrees. “I just really love the feel,” she says. “You can get something from a downtown main street that you can’t find elsewhere.”