The (Not So) Great Divide

The difference between upstate and downstate isn’t what it used to be. Here’s why.

Illustration by Byron Eggenschwiler When the first Punkin Chunkin’ was held in 1986, it wasn’t considered a regional event. It wasn’t even thought of as a local one. Basically, a few guys gathered in the woods to drink and launch pumpkins off of flatbed trucks with contraptions made from tree branches, for no other reason than to watch the fruit fly. But with every orange missile, and every passing year, a stereotype of Southern Delaware grew.

Fast forward 24 years. Now the stereotypes are flying farther than the pumpkins. For three days this November, Punkin Chunkin’ will be held in Bridgeville, in what is considered one of the most well-attended spectacles in all the state. It is expected to draw 50,000 visitors, who will marvel at the nearly mile-long regiment of advanced technology, thermodynamics and engineering, and who will arrive in pick-up trucks from Dagsboro and SUVs from Hockessin.

“Our event is a cross-section of America—and Delaware,” says John Huber, Punkin Chunkin’ president. “Chunkers are everyone from dentists, engineers, welders, housewives, lawyers, scout leaders, business owners and psychologists. The audiences are changing, too. They are blue collar and white collar, and they’re all finding that Punkin Chunkin’ is no longer what everyone used to think it was.”

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Neither is Delaware.

For more than a century, the stories of our three counties of Delaware have played out before us like a story of three siblings divided in two by their ways of life.

To the north of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal, Northern New Castle County is hip, aware and connected, driven by financial services and giants of science and technology. It is the sibling who spends a portion of his life commuting to a job at a national or multi-national corporation and answering IM invites to the hot new bistro downtown. For years, New Castle has had little in common with its siblings to the south, where agriculture and tourism still fuel the economy.

In recent years, however, New Castle County has seen Kent and Sussex counties redefine themselves. It has seen kids from Dover and beyond tricked out on the latest fashions purchased from the Tanger Outlets in Rehoboth. It sees a real estate boom of homes that are superb values. It hears about jazz festivals and swanky restaurants where they serve seared filet mignon garnished with foie gras. It has seen refreshing ideas move in with new people.

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In short, the lines that once separated north and south are being rubbed out. Yes, there are differences that can be roughly defined as the difference between Punkin Chunkin’ and Point-to-Point. No one is dressing in a Victorian top hat and tails to drive a horse-drawn carriage across a soybean field while some rattle-trap catapault launches an orange gourd, and no one is tapping a keg in the back of a dump truck at Winterthur. But even as Martha Stewart has staked a claim upstate (well, Chadds Ford, to be precise), a parade of celebs, from Kathy Lee to Al Gore, have made the beach resorts their own—at least for a time.

So as new residents change old attitudes, stereotypes are breaking down. The vibrancy of New Castle County is traveling south—even as it moves north, west and east to create a continuing thread of culture, tastes, ideas and enterprise. Just as New Castle County residents flock to the multi-day Clifford Brown Jazz Festival every June, people from all over attend the Rehoboth Beach Jazz Festival every November. The caliber of the headliners at both is near equal.

“Delaware is in the midst of a cultural osmosis, and the lines are starting to blur,” says Dennis Forney, publisher of the Cape Gazette in Lewes. “You will have some of the attitudes from Northern Delaware going south, and some of the attitudes from Southern Delaware drifting north.”

Populations and population projections for Southern Delaware tell part of the story. The current population of Kent County, 155,000, is a dramatic increase over the 127,000 who lived there in 2000, and the Delaware Population Consortium predicts the number will rise to about 175,000 by 2018. Sussex County, where 157,000 people lived in 2000, now boasts a population of 188,500. By 2018, it’ll be popping at 229,000. In contrast, New Castle County is anticipating a smaller population increase over the next 10 years.

Who’s driving the boom?

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In the late ’80s and early ’90s, large numbers of people began moving to Kent and Sussex, not for jobs, but to plan their retirement there or to commute to their job in parts north while planning their retirement.

As a result, these transplants are helping to create a new environment that makes Kent and Sussex 12-month communities and Delaware a year-round state.

Before Barbara Morales moved to Rehoboth Beach five years ago, she and her husband would flee their home and jobs inside the Washington, D.C., Beltway for their weekend place at the beach, which they had purchased in 1993. Though it was only a two-hour drive, the distance gave the illusion that they were escaping to a far away sanctuary, one that seemed to roll up its streets from October to April. Not anymore.

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“Southern Delaware is not just a three-month part of the state, but for those who look for it, it is a cosmopolitan atmosphere that’s a little bit slower than where they came from,” says Barbara Morales, a Realtor in Rehoboth Beach. “They want to step it back, but they’re still looking for social and intellectual stimulation. They’ve looked everywhere else for that perfect blend, and they come back to Southern Delaware. It is small-town sophisticated.”

In recent years, the influx of gays and lesbians to Lewes and Rehoboth has combined with a migration of active retirees to change the local culture.

“The gay and lesbian population tends to be creative and open-minded, and as a result, they drive that cultural mass of activities,” says Forney. (He calls the Rehoboth-Lewes area “Delaware’s third-largest city,” behind Wilmington and Dover.) “You’ve got that faction coming from the Washington, D.C., area, the sophisticated Wilmington crowd coming down on the weekends, and the strength of an active retired population. There are enough people here now to support an enclave of free thinking.”

All of this free thinking and new energy has turned Kent and Sussex into a string of art galleries, performance venues, theater groups and art leagues that rivals New Castle County for the upper hand in culture. Connect the dots from Middletown’s Everett Theatre and the Smyrna Opera House to the Schwartz Center for the Arts in Dover and the Milton Theatre, then keep on going.

Dover resident Susan Salkin and her husband used to spend one weekend a year on a blitz of the Ritz theaters in Philadelphia, where they would see up to 10 films in two or three days.

“We got a year’s supply of foreign and independent films in one weekend,” Salkin says. That was then. Last October, Salkin, deputy director of the Delaware Division of the Arts, spent four straight days at the Rehoboth Film Festival, where she saw the award-winning “Man on Wire,” “A Secret,” “Days and Clouds” and more.

The Rehoboth Beach event, now in its 11th year, has become known around the world as one of the leading festivals on the East Coast. The most recent set attendance records, and despite the economy, the festival recorded a 4 percent increase in ticket sales over the previous year. Nearly 50 of the 157 shows sold out.

The festival began in order to fill a void in Southern Delaware. It coincided with an influx of upscale suburban transplants who had access to indie, documentary and foreign films in their former communities. The Rehoboth Film Society now has a membership of 1,300 people from 16 states and a volunteer base just shy of 600. Many of them moved to the area from suburban Maryland, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and New York City.

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With Movies at Midway hosting all showings in one place, and fantastic restaurants nearby—Nage in Rehoboth, for instance, and Café Azafran in Lewes—where film goers can talk cinema, the area is perfect for such an event.

“Here we are in Sussex County, and we have the largest film festival in the state,” says Susan Early, executive director of the society. “The community is growing, and there is a diverse population getting involved, serving on boards. We’re getting the talent, interests and enthusiasm, and creating an energy that’s benefiting so many aspects of the community.”

The League now sponsors Art House Theater at Movies at Midway where, on select nights year round, film lovers can see other independent films. The screenings are very popular. Ticket sales have increased 40 percent over last year.

In the Wilmington offices of the Delaware Division of the Arts, Salkin ticks off the names of two dozen cultural groups in Southern Delaware that have either sprung new from the population growth there—the Rehoboth Jazz Festival and Clear Space Productions in Rehoboth, which produces live professional theater and concerts, to name just two—as well as those long-standing organizations that have received a transfusion of energy from the new population. She cites the Rehoboth Art League and the Delaware Music School as examples. Many of these organizations, she says, have become the cultural face of their communities.

“Just look at what El Central Cultural has done to break down barriers and keep the Hispanic tradition alive,” Salkin says. She points to the group’s annual performance of Christmas carols at the Georgetown Circle as an example of community building. “Sussex County has been brought together because of them.”

There is an economic plus to all of this entertainment, too. According to Paul Weagraff, director of the Delaware Division of the Arts, for every dollar invested in the arts in Delaware, there is an $8 return. Moreover, 3,700 jobs are related to the arts, many of them are in Kent and Sussex.

“These people have brought their skills, their interests and the generosity of their time,” says Weagraff. “More and more, we’re finding people coming to Delaware who have wide interests and varied backgrounds, who not only want to attend the arts, but help steer it in new directions.”

The hallway to the DEDO office, in the former Richardson & Robbins Cannery on Innovation Way in Dover, is lined with flags of many nations: Italy, Germany, Israel, Spain, the Bahamas and more. The flags, it turns out, reflect the role some want the state to play in the world.

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In the meantime, Kent and Sussex continue to become more worldly. The influx of highly educated professionals moving to those counties is helping to change the state’s approach to economic development.

With one of the largest concentrations of engineers and scientists in the world already residing in Delaware, officials would like to prompt talented retirees who live downstate to use their great minds to help boost the local economy.

But will great minds want to build a better contraption for pumpkin launching? Would that provide real economic or cultural stimulus? Not everyone agrees.

“It’s like herding cats, to get people from every culture and class to agree to one singular focus,” says Huber. He should know. His Punkin Chunkin’ association has grown to more than 3,000 members, and they’re all different.

But with the group’s website surpassing 1 million hits, Punkin Chunkin’ is negotiating with the Science Channel to develop programs about the science and technology of pumpkin launching. For Huber, a regular participant in Punkin Chunkin’, the goal is to continually break down stereotypes, to embrace change, and to grow what will “someday be considered a national event.”

“There’s a group of locals who don’t like change, and I ask them, ‘What in your personal life is the way it was five years ago?’” Huber says. “They’re reluctant to get out of that good old boy network and realize that the membership and our ideas and our vision are all much larger now.”

When Eric Sugrue opened his Big Fish Grill with his brother Norman in Rehoboth Beach 13 years ago, he wanted to develop a restaurant where the menu would appeal to the broadest cross-section of the Southern Delaware population. Today, the restaurant is a place where you can tuck into an 8-ounce pan-seared filet, but also enjoy Mom’s meatloaf served over mashed potatoes. It is this mass appeal that packs tables nearly 12 months a year.

“We find a very broad range of people come through our door, those from major metropolitan areas to the locals,” Sugrue says. “Our secret is not being too innovative and staying the same while the industry continues to change.”

It’s a formula that works, and one that, in its way, will change Northern Delaware. Big Fish started the summer by opening a brand-new restaurant on Wilmington’s burgeoning Riverfront. Similarly, the success of Rehoboth’s film festival was a good sign for the Newark Film Festival.

Like many Delawareans, Forney believes the absorption of ideas, attitudes and cultures between Northern and Southern Delaware is “a realization of inevitability,” that “there is nothing to fear.” The key to defining Delaware in the future will be to retain the traditions that tell the rest of America who we are.

“What is the heritage that will continue to define us?” Forney says. “What are the attractions that breed hospitality? Are we taking care of our beaches that will help our economy? You don’t fear change. You need to embrace change. We’re doing that. We have great festivals, galleries, restaurants, because people from other areas have come in with ideas, and for those who have lived here all their lives, they need not worry. They’re not about to lose scrapple.”

Or flying pumpkins.

Our Women in Business Upstate Luncheon Is December 6!