Laurel Mayor John Shwed says the development, which would include 1,400 new homes, hotels, shops and a sports arena and stadium, offers his town a chance to enter a new era.
Photograph by Keith Mosher http://www.kamproductions.comÃŠ
Eleven general stores, seven grocery stores, clothing stores, drug stores, furniture stores, hotels, factories, metal shops, professional offices and three churches.
Does it sound like a description of Dover, New Castle or Seaford? Try Laurel—in 1883.
Back then Laurel was one of the wealthiest towns in the state, rivaling anything above the canal. It’s a vision Laurel Town Council would like to rekindle.
A new development proposal called Discovery Place offers Laurel the potential to reclaim its past economic prominence. But is it too much, too fast? Area residents calling themselves Sussex County Organization to Limit Development Mistakes (SCOLDM) think it is. Led by the families of adjacent property owners Richard Culver and W.D. Whaley, they’ve filed a lawsuit in an attempt to preserve the quiet, rural heritage Laurel seems to have. Yet residents who experienced the old Laurel know its heritage wasn’t exactly slow and quiet.
Its current state is actually the product of past neglect.
“This is a chance for Laurel to enter a new era,” says Mayor John Shwed. “This is a town that grew up with an agricultural base, with big companies like Marvel Packaging Company sending out millions of crates a year. There were thriving businesses. Then, like all towns, everything changed with the advent of the automobiles. Downtown slowly changed because there weren’t people walking the streets and shopping. The downtown kind of melted away. More and more people started going elsewhere for jobs, and Laurel became kind of a bedroom community.”
Builders David G. Horsey & Sons and Ocean Atlantic are joining to restore some of Laurel’s historic economic vitality. As a lifetime resident in his 60s, David Horsey’s perspective matches Shwed’s.
“The tax base of Laurel has got to grow—and it has to grow to some magnitude,” says Horsey, the company president. “When I was 12 years old, you’d go to town on Saturday nights to get your groceries. The stores were packed. But there aren’t any stores in Laurel anymore.”
His son Robert agrees. “Laurel is one of the few towns that has not experienced its share of growth yet. It has to have growth in order to survive.”
Chris Calio is a Laurel councilman, chairman of the town’s annexation committee and a member of the Sussex County Engineering Department. Having grown up in Laurel, Calio can see how the town rejected needed economic improvement.
“I think it came down to people on the council wanting to keep Laurel the way it was,” Calio says. “Industries changed and moved out, and there was no big push to bring anything new in. The DuPont plant that went to Seaford was originally offered to Laurel. And they turned it down. Now we have an expansionist council.”
Established in 1985, Laurel-area’s David G. Horsey & Sons has grown to a multimillion-dollar business that includes community construction, and the Horsey family prides itself on its commitment to the community. Part of that commitment is coordinating regional youth sports tournaments through its nonprofit Sussex County Sports Foundation. The foundation uses area sports facilities to host soccer and Little League baseball tournaments, which draw children from across Delmarva.
Over the past few years the company assembled 480 acres abutting U.S. 13 north of Discount Land Road. The question it took to the new Laurel council was what to do with it. The Horseys believe so strongly in the benefits of youth sports that they wanted to expand the concept, and to do it within Laurel’s jurisdiction. The town annexed the property.
The Discovery Place concept includes 1,400 new homes built over 10 years, 1 million square feet of new retail space, a 12,000-seat sports arena and a 6,000-seat stadium, tournament-class playing fields, an equestrian center, a town hall-convention center, 600 hotel rooms, shops and restaurants, police and fire substations, and a 15-acre amusement center.
“Our best model is Disney, on a smaller scale,” Robert Horsey says. “Our passion is the youth of the state, to give youth something to do. This property is pretty close to being in the center of Delmarva. Our vision was creating a draw for people.”
Disneyland’s popular Anaheim, California, tournament programs combine the facilities of Anaheim Convention Center for sports with direct access to the Disney amusements. The pairing is great for kids who aren’t playing in tournaments but travel with siblings who are. It’s a centralized, all-inclusive combination the Horseys found attractive.
Once visitors arrive, they would have everything they need right in Discovery Place. The added businesses would contribute more than 2,500 new jobs to Laurel’s economy.
Governor Ruth Ann Minner’s Livable Delaware initiatives recommend clustering growth around existing municipalities that have the infrastructure to serve it. Laurel is one of the few Sussex County towns that provides its own wastewater services and police, among other services. Livable Delaware also encourages putting commercial and professional centers where people live to reduce traffic congestion and create more walkable communities. Discovery Place appears to satisfy these initiatives. And the community’s design puts all of the large commercial uses along the highway to reduce impact on adjoining rural roads. The interior layout is peppered with small shops and restaurants.
But some residents who border the property are worried the plan is too ambitious for Laurel—or anywhere else, for that matter. “I can’t think of any place in Sussex County where this would be appropriate,” SCOLDM’s W.D. Whaley says. “If they were building a nice housing development with a golf course, we wouldn’t even be involved. But this will destroy our property values. Who wants to live next door to all of this mass confusion?”
Mixed-use communities are in line with trends in local development. “In Sussex County, you only have to look at how many projects are approved with just housing to see the market is glutted with housing. You have to offer a separate niche,” says Robert Horsey. “Our niche is the sports. But we realize sports alone will not make money. You need a supplement to help keep it alive. That’s where the commercial and residential came in as part of the plan.”
SCOLDM doesn’t buy the developer’s version of the project. The group is convinced that part of the sports facilities will eventually be replaced by gambling features, like racing and-or a casino. “I can’t see someone in Pittsburgh saying, â€˜Let’s go down to Laurel and watch the kids play soccer all weekend,’” says Whaley. “But I can see them wanting to come to Laurel and play the slots all weekend.”
Parents actually do travel to tournament destinations in other cities. They travel hundreds of miles to see their kids compete in regional tournaments, and they spend upwards of $3,000 in the process. A recent report in the Roanoke Times touted the huge economic boost that Amateur Athletic Union baseball and basketball tournaments provided Virginia’s Roanoke Valley. The local chamber of commerce estimates that the tournaments pump more than $3 million into the region’s economy each year. Hundreds of hotel rooms are booked for kids and their families traveling from as far as Boston. Area restaurants and shops also benefit.
“A lot of us really like the sports component. It gives kids a place to go,” says Calio. “I mean, when was the last time a soccer team did a drive-by shooting?”
Says Shwed, “My answer to the casinos is this: The last time I checked, casino licenses are regulated by the state, and they’re all by racetracks. I believe at this point in time that this talk is all speculation. In terms of amusements, there may be some types of amusements. The developers are not quite sure about that. Again, that’s a lot of speculation.”
Laurel’s council had to take a hard look at the town’s future. There were many indications that if it didn’t take advantage of opportunities, the town would face serious consequences.
“It doesn’t take much to see how Laurel has done compared to our sister communities,” says Shwed. “Seaford and Delmar have experienced growth and have been able to do things because of it. We saw Discovery as an economic development opportunity for people.”
Though household incomes average $48,000 in Delaware, Laurel has a median income of only $28,000. Yet the town’s tax rate is one of the highest in the county, at $1.91 per thousand dollars of assessed value. The cost of services like police and public utilities is spread over too small a citizen base, and while those costs rise, Laurel’s population does not. For council, accepting an investors’ plans for increasing the tax base and creating jobs is a no-brainer.
“We’re hoping to keep more people here in town. Many of our young people leave for college and don’t come back here,” says Calio. “We definitely want to create an incentive to keep them in Laurel.”
“We could stabilize our tax rates and bring in additional revenues for much-needed improvements,” says Shwed. “And even if the jobs are not at the highest end of the pay scale, our young people won’t have to go to other towns to earn money.”
Part of those improvements include upgrading Laurel’s 40-year-old wastewater system. Shwed and the council insist that Discovery Place pay for upgrades to increase capacity, as well as other needs that would result from the development.
“It’s the consensus of the council that we do not want current taxpayers to pay for infrastructure expansion due to development,” Calio says. “Developers need to foot that bill on their own.”
Laurel is working to create a special tax district for Discovery Place, ensuring that funds needed for expanded police protection and public works come directly from the growth areas that cause it. “This plan will not affect any of the infrastructure currently inside the town of Laurel,” Calio says.
According to Shwed, Laurel citizens are interested in making Discovery Place a reality. “All seven of us on the council have received very strong support for this development within the community. The people in town limits can see the benefits.”
“I don’t have any problem with development in general, but this is a pretty radical plan,” Whaley says. In spring, SCOLDM campaigned to sign up candidates for council who would oppose “development mistakes.” The effort failed. The group could not entice any town resident to run, residency being required for candidacy.
Whaley’s situation is becoming a Sussex County epidemic as more municipalities annex land. Municipal annexation essentially takes farm property out of Sussex County’s agricultural-residential zoning areas, which controls development density and use in agricultural areas. Because many towns have comparatively lenient zoning requirements, municipal annexation attracts developers. Area residents who have been insulated from congested population often find themselves suddenly living right next door to massive communities and commercial centers.
People like Whaley and the Culvers lack recourse with either the municipal or county governments because of the annexation process. “We have no representation. They’re taking this 500 acres out of county jurisdiction without the county having anything to do about it,” Whaley says. “They’re taking the middle of a neighborhood, right in the middle of it, and planning this.”
SCOLDM is demanding, among other things, a referendum on the annexations. It has also filed a lawsuit against the developers, the town of Laurel and the owners of the Discovery Place property. The suit alleges that Laurel violated charter and ordinance procedures during the Discovery annexation approval process. Though it has no documented membership, SCOLDM boasts nearly 100 members, so it believes it has support for the suit.
The developers, however, aren’t about to go away.
“All the lawsuit can really do is hold up the project for a year,” says David Horsey. “I understand their feelings. The Culvers have lived there for years. The ironic part of it is, they talked about how there should have been a vote of the citizens. But if there was, because they’re outside of town limits, they wouldn’t be able to vote anyway. It’s a fight with these people. But it’s a fight we’re not going to drop.”
One important benefit SCOLDM’s key players gained in the process is an education in Sussex County planning.ÃŠ
“Before September of last year, we didn’t know anything about land use or planning or anything of that kind,” Whaley says. “We’ve been following the county comprehensive plan, and county council has listened to our ideas.
“One thing I’d like to see done by ordinance is that these towns would not be allowed to annex level-four farmland. If they wanted to annex land already developed, that’s one thing. But otherwise, there’s only one reason to do it, and that’s to raise tax revenues.”
While preserving farmland is a priority for the state, farming has become unattractive to many large land owners. The most recent National Agriculture Statistics Service report showed total farm expenditures for 2005 rose 5.3 percent from the previous year. The rise in crude oil price alone has driven up the costs of operating machinery and irrigation. When the cost to get crops to market can be up to $2,000 per acre, there’s not much room for error. Add to that reports of falling crop prices, and the agricultural incentive disappears. The only asset many farmers have is their land, which is in demand among developers. Barring the pending lawsuit, the owners of tracts intended for Discovery Place would have sold their property months ago.
In the end, Laurel’s council has to look at the big picture. “I think the SCOLDM organization represents a small minority of people who live around the boundaries of this development and not the people who live within town limits,” Shwed says. “I can see them being personally worried regarding where they live. But my role as mayor is that I have more than 4,000 people who are impacted by this decision. My opinion won’t be swayed by a relatively small group of families.”
If completed as planned, Discovery Place could become a model for Delaware’s new age of community planning. There’s nothing like it on Delmarva, though there are similarly ambitious plans elsewhere. Council members offer assurance for those worried the plan may morph into something other than what the developers have presented. “Ocean Atlantic has a powerful track record of going forward with what they plan,” Calio says.
Ocean Atlantic is committed to standing behind that reputation. Brothers Preston and Chris Schell left lucrative careers in California, but believed making money for money’s sake wasn’t creating value for communities. “We got into this for non-financial reasons,” says Chris Schell. “We wanted to do something we were proud of, so we’re not going to back track on that by building cheap homes.”
David Horsey is staking his legacy on Discovery Place. “We want to build something here that my boys will be proud to see their dad’s name on long after I’m gone,” he says.
With such a large focus being shifted from the original community, it would be easy for historic Laurel to lose its identity, so council and the Laurel Redevelopment Corporation are looking into plans to revitalize the downtown and surrounding districts.