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THE PROFILE: The Mask of Zimmerman

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On a sleepy morning in July 2005, developer Mike Zimmerman hopped onto a track hoe, then, without a permit, partially demolished three historic buildings in downtown Dover.

He did more than make a lot of noise and a big mess. What Zimmerman really did was dramatically end a legal battle over the future of the buildings, sending shock waves through Delaware’s capital.

For three years, Zimmerman and partners had been trying to build a three-story office building on the State Street site. Because their plan required partial demolition of the buildings, the Dover Historical Society filed suit to halt the project.

Appeals and counter appeals continued until Zimmerman learned that the Dover Historical Society had filed a second petition against the project.

“I just got fed up with it,” Zimmerman says. “I called somebody and said, ‘I want a track hoe at this job site tomorrow morning.’ I said, ‘Enough is enough.’”

The legendary incident is the only thing many people know about Mike Zimmerman. But those who watch Dover closely know that he began leaving his mark on the town long before the track hoe. Whether his work is a benefit or detriment to Dover depends on who you ask. To some, Zimmerman has become a target for the anti-development movement in Kent County. A larger and less vocal group recognizes the need, as well as the investment and heart, even if they don’t always agree with his approach.

Either way, Zimmerman has become the man to watch in Dover since his return in 1992. The show is never boring. He cuts a flamboyant figure around town, driving fancy cars in shorts and sunglasses year round, and he wouldn’t be caught dead in a tie. He’s even worn flip-flops in court while defending his projects.

Truth be told, Zimmerman rather enjoys his larger-than-life persona. He likes throwing out big ideas and occasionally thumbing his nose at the establishment. And though he describes himself as a control freak and deal junkie, he is also passionate about his “vision” for the city.

Zimmerman grew up in Dover, one of the late state Senator Jake Zimmerman’s seven children. In his boyhood, Dover’s commercial center remained Loockerman Street, anchored by various merchants, a movie theater, and stores such as Sears and JCPenney.

Then, like Main Streets across the country, Loockerman began to fade. When the Blue Hen Mall opened in 1969 on the outskirts of town, JCPenney pulled up its stakes and moved to the mall. Dover’s downtown felt the pinch, but continued to thrive, according to Dover Hardware owner Bob Berglund. Then the Dover Mall opened in 1981, so Sears left Loockerman. Downtown activity declined throughout the 1980s.

“The further erosion came in the early ’90s with Wal-Mart and Lowe’s,” Berglund says. “A lot of the big box stores were coming up out on the highway (U.S. 13). Downtown remained in a treading water pattern.”

Through the 1980s and early 1990s, Zimmerman lived in North Carolina and Florida, working for developers. He moved back to Dover with his wife and two small children when his father fell ill. Zimmerman returned just in time to see downtown Dover bottom out. Zimmerman began exploring business opportunities.

Though he makes no bones about the fact that he expects to make money on his downtown projects, his bread and butter is development outside Dover. He estimates he has built 50 to 60 shopping centers in Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania over the past 10 years. His work includes a very profitable relationship with Happy Harry’s, which led to his construction of about 50 stores. He has also done Food Lions, Wal-Marts, hotels, banks, apartment complexes and senior housing. Zimmerman also has projects as far as Florida and the Bahamas.

Even as he approached his first, more traditional projects in Dover, Zimmerman began making impressions on the powers that be. “He was more than your average developer when it came to creativity,” says city manager Tony DePrima. “He was a Dover person who worked in other places and brought back ideas occurring outside of Dover.”

His first downtown project in 1999 was the restoration of a historic and rather grand home across the street from the Governor’s Mansion. Zimmerman has since converted it into his office and named it the Governor’s Club. When misguided visitors stop in for a tour of the Governor’s Mansion, he jokingly directs them to “that little shack across the street.” One can only imagine their reaction to Zimmerman’s office, which flies a skull and crossbones flag and displays an array of fishing trophies.

Zimmerman has gone on to convert several old homes to offices in downtown Dover. His favorite is Zimmerhaus, which was featured on the television program “This Old House.” Architecturally stunning, it sat vacant and decaying on State Street for years.

Now the man who preservationists viewed with trepidation has even won awards from the Dover Historical Society for his work. But as the track hoe incident illustrates, Zimmerman has also seen fit to tear down old buildings.

“I understand what historical significance is,” he says, “but a piece of junk is a piece of junk.”

Zimmerman prefers to partner with trusted friends such as Dover attorneys Constantine F. Malmberg III and Kenneth Young and businessman Sal Leone. Zimmerman and Malmberg recently partnered with Wesley College to construct two new state-of-the-art dormitories on campus, and two more Wesley College projects are in planning. Another big project was construction of the three-story Attorney General’s Office Building—with underground parking.

With typical flair, Zimmerman leaves a mark on his buildings—a Z, like the legendary Zorro.

Yet many projects have been overshadowed by Zimmerman’s battle with the Dover Historical Society. In such a small community, such disagreements often become personal. Zimmerman once sued members of the board after a carriage allegedly damaged one of his properties during Old Dover Days. Recalls former historical society president Larry Josefowski, “My wife calls up frantic, saying there is a note on the door. ‘You’re being sued.’ I laughed, but I probably lost a little bit of sleep, too.”

Zimmerman may never live down the track hoe, but both sides acknowledge that healing has begun. Josefowski says the society’s initial lawsuit was as much a statement against the city of Dover for approving Zimmerman’s plan as it was a statement against Zimmerman. He believes the story has “been mischaracterized as this epic battle between the forces of preservation and the forces of tear down.” Both Zimmerman and Josefowski point out that plans for the site are finally moving forward.

“We wouldn’t hold the other project against him,” Josefowski says. “He has done some good work and could do good work.”

So why does Zimmerman remain such a controversial figure? Some claim people simply envy his success. Some say there is basic resistance to change.

“No matter where you are, somebody’s memory is going to say, ‘I don’t want things to change from the way they were when I was a child,’” says Berglund. “Someday they will be tearing down his buildings. It’s all perspective.”

The irony is not lost on Zimmerman. He points to the example of the site, on The Green in Dover, where Delaware delegates ratified the Constitution. “I don’t know who tore down the Golden Fleece Tavern,” he says, “but somebody did.”

Growing up around politics, Zimmerman developed a thick skin, so he claims to take criticism in stride. “I don’t want to be liked by everybody,” he says. “I just ask for a little respect for what I have done.”

Right now he has cast his eye on other projects. Despite some public outcry, the Dover Planning Commission approved his plan to tear down the landmark Blue Coat Inn on Silver Lake to make way for Compass Pointe—a four-story retail and office building with architecture similar to Legislative Hall. Zimmerman is also working with City Councilman Reuben Salters on plans for the African American Cultural Arts Center downtown. Zimmerman’s most challenging ongoing project downtown is The Collegian on Loockerman Street. He has proposed construction of 136 condominium and apartment units and parking and hopes to proceed with the project when he closes on the Dover Hardware property next month.

Some whisper that these new projects may not come to pass, but people who know Zimmerman know his tenacity and his determination play a part in every project he touches. “When he gets an idea in his head,” says Kenneth Young, “he won’t give up on it.”

After Zimmerman bought the old Capitol Office building six years ago, he set his sights on Berglund’s Dover Hardware for The Collegian. Berglund’s family has owned and operated the store for 56 years; he has worked there for 35. Berglund and Zimmerman talked casually about a sale on and off for five years. “We’re both from Dover,” Berglund says. Once they began to negotiate in earnest, “We shook hands on it and it was a deal—done in 10 minutes.”

“Everyone thinks developers are takers,” Zimmerman says. “Basically, I want my family name to be known for a long time. There are certain things I want my kids to be able to say, ‘Hey, this what my dad did’. When I put a Z up, it doesn’t say Mike Z. My kids think I’m a little whacked. They won’t appreciate it as much until they get older.”

The other best kept secret about Mike Zimmerman: Behind the mask, he’s not quite the swashbuckling Zorro. A private person, he’s rather soft spoken. He’s a native son who has a genuine interest in his hometown. “He wants to do something of long-term value for the community,” says his brother, Bob Zimmerman. “He’s showing that you can put these projects together.”

Despite their differences, Josefowski says, “If he works within the framework, he can definitely be a positive influence. He has a vision. He does want what’s best for Dover.”

Zimmerman is quick to acknowledge that the business is lucrative, but that it is not for the faint of heart—at any given time, he can be sitting on $150 million to $200 million of debt. “If you can do this and sleep at night, you’re lucky. I purposely don’t tell my wife about 90 percent of my development deals.”

Zimmerman escapes the pressures of the business world whenever possible. He’ll lose himself in one of the six or seven books he’s reading, take off on a deep-sea fishing trip, or head to his home and marina in Jupiter Island, Florida, where he rubs elbows with neighbors like Alan Jackson and Tiger Woods.

Turning 50 in April, is Zimmerman ever tempted to just kick back and enjoy his success? “I could sell out and have a good time, fish all over the place,” he says. But he wouldn’t be satisfied for long.

“I’m a deal junkie,” he says. “I want the best of both worlds.” 

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