The city of Dover is divided by Division Street merchants deeply worried about the economic impact of a name change of their street while proponents for renaming the corridor to Martin Luther King Boulevard remain unflinching in their resolve to have a street in the capital city of the First State named after the civil rights pioneer.
City merchants from the Division Street corridor lambasted Dover City Council for considering the street name change of Division Street to Martin Luther King Boulevard without considering the economic cost to them while supporters of the renaming continued their refrain that it was high time for the capital of the First State to honor the slain civil rights hero Monday night at City Hall.
Merchants said they felt disenfranchised by Dover City Council's decision to bypass city code that had laid out certain procedures to be followed when they began the process of possibly renaming Division Street. That included allowing the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Dover MLK Boulevard Committee to move the street proposal this far forward without signatures from at least 50 percent of the merchants along the Del. Route 8 corridor.
About 60 people roughly divided equally into both sides of the question signed up to speak at the public hearing scheduled by City Council Monday night, although some left before the lengthy public hearing was over. For every merchant or resident that spoke against the proposal on the practical basis of the significant costs involved, there was someone in the audience who rose up and expressed support for the symbolic street name change. In short, City Council's public hearing Monday revealed the deep divide that exists in Dover regarding the Division Street question.
Dover Department of Planning & Inspections Director Ann Marie Townshend said in a report to council that the name change would affect 580 addresses. The Delaware Department of Transportation told the city it would not pay for any new street signs, she said. In addition, the city learned that Kent County had a moratorium on street name changes and it was unclear at this point what role the county would have in any street name change.
Councilwoman Beverly Williams and Councilmen James Hutchison and David Bonar said property owners should have been notified of the proposed name change, and a petition should have been circulated amongst merchants before this proceeded forward.
"We have procedures that we have to follow in order to do this," Bonar said.
Williams quizzed City Solicitor Nick Rodriguez about council's ability to follow the city code.
Council could legally bypass the code and enact a street name change through its legislative action, said Rodriguez, of the Schmittinger & Rodriguez firm. But, he repeatedly said council had not abdicated its ability to still follow code when all was said and done.
But, Councilman Sean Lynn, an attorney with Lynn, May, Perza, disagreed. Lynn, chairman of the Legislative, Finance & Administration Committee, said the bypass of city code was implicit in committee's action to recommend the name change to council.
"As Dr. King noted, 'Wait usually means never,'" he said to applause in City Hall chambers.
In end, Dover City Council voted in a split, 5-3 vote to send the matter back to its Legislative, Finance & Administration Committee for a recommendation.
Before their vote, council members heard nearly an hour and a half of arguments for both sides of the question. That public hearing almost did not take place after Williams made a motion to rescind council's previous action. But that motion failed by a 4-4 tie.
Councilman Adam Perza said he wanted to hear what the people had to say so that council could make the most educated decision in the future.
Most of the merchants who opposed the street name change said they favored some way of honoring King, whether through the new, unnamed U.S. Route 13 bypass being constructed on the west side of town near Saulsbury Road or the new Dover Public Library, among others.
Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce President Judy Diogo urged council to consider the economic hardship the change would make and to make any would-be change effective after about one year so that merchants could use up the business cards, stationary and telephone book advertisements they had paid for already.
Vernon Ingram, a businessman who grew up on Division Street, said this was not a racial issue.
"We can all agree that Dr. King was an outstanding American," he said. "But if Dr. King were here today, he would be concerned with the high cost this would bring to us. Today, we are in hard economic times. Is this the best way to spend our money?"
Star Hill A.M.E. Church Pastor Rita Mishoe Paige, chairwoman of the MLK committee, said opposition sounded to her like the same people who said "not in my back yard" when it came to constructing public housing for needy people.
The Rev. John Moore, youth pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, said renaming Division Street to Martin Luther King Boulevard was about bringing unity to the community.
Carla Benson Green, of John Wesley Church, said she answered the question, "Why now?" with a question of her own.
"Why not now?" she said.
But, Division Street businessman Dave Moses said the opposition was not about any slight to King. It was about dollars and cents.
"It's been a struggle," he said. "I'm working twice as much now to make half the money I used to make."
Division Street resident Florene Lecompte said it was also about the history of Division Street, whose name dates to the 1780s. And she took objection to the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance's attempt to cast negative connotations to the word "Division."
"Yes, it divides the north from the south," Lecompte said bluntly.
Many of the merchants speaking also pointed out that most of those advocating for the name change did not live on Division Street and would not incur the costs associated with a name change.
An exception to that rule was Division Street businessman Tolano Anderson, who acknowledged the expense he would sustain with the change.
"I think the costs would pale in comparison to what Dr. King gave his life for," he said.
Councilman David Anderson urged the committee to reconsider the original proposal to rename Division Street U.S. Route 13 to Saulsbury Road, not the more expansive renaming of Del. Route 8 from city limit to city limit.
Hutchison summed up the feeling of many in City Hall when he said he hoped the city could figure out a way to honor King's memory in a way that everyone could be proud of.
DOVER CITY COUNCIL VOTE
To refer recommendation to rename Division Street back to the Legislative, Finance & Administration Committee for a recommendation within 120 days.
The late Councilwoman Sophia R. Russell died Saturday night after suffering from a second bout of cancer.