The growth of large malls and the advent of online shopping have combined to drain many once-thriving downtown shopping areas of what they need most: customers.And Dover is no exception.
Downtown Dover soon could experience a resurgence of reinvestment and redevelopment under a new program approved by the General Assembly in June.
The Downtown Development District program, which is designed to spur economic development and renew urban areas throughout the state, might be just what Dover needs to move forward with its efforts to bring new life to the Capital City’s downtown, Mayor Robin Christiansen said.
“We’ve been moving forward, but not at the pace I’d like to see,” Christiansen said. “I’m sure it’s not at the pace members of city council would like, or those people who have a vested interest in downtown would like to see. The downtown is the heart of the city, and as I’ve said, if we don’t have a strong and healthy heart, then we all might be in danger.”
A July review by the Downtown Dover Partnership indicates there are 56 buildings lining both sides of Loockerman Street, between South State and Queen Street. Of those, 16 are unoccupied, although three have future tenants lined up.
Dover Economic Development Director Bill Neaton said he believes investors will begin really paying attention once the development district program starts awarding redevelopment assistance, including a 20-percent rebate on any investment greater than $25,000.
“That’s a major reduction in costs and we’re hoping developers will say this is money we weren’t expecting before, so now it makes financial sense to start investing in downtown areas,” Neaton said. “I talked to a developer who said it will make all the difference in the world in doing one project downtown that he’s considering. He’s looking at a $250,000 redevelopment project, and if Dover is designated one of the cities, he would move forward.”
Putting it together
In late June, the General Assembly approved Gov. Jack Markell’s plan to establish small areas in select cities and towns as Downtown Development Districts, each of which would qualify for significant development incentives and state benefits.
Legislators banked $7 million for the first round of DDDs, one of which must be established in each county.
Markell’s office has circulated a draft package and invited comments and revisions, according to Ann Marie Townshend, Dover’s director of planning and community development.
To qualify for the program, Dover must:
n Demonstrate the city has a need for the Downtown Development District designation;
n Provide a strategic plan of its overall approach for development in the proposed district;
n Be prepared to provide local incentives, such as expedited permit processing, that would apply to the proposed district.
“I’ve already submitted my comments to the state, and they’ll finalize the package and then send it out to local governments,” Townshend said.
Although applications cannot be submitted yet, members of the city’s staff already are laying the necessary groundwork.
“We’re putting together the information now so we can make sure we have a strong package,” Townshend said.
Jonathan Dworkin, a spokesman for the Markell administration, said the governor’s office is waiting for comments before finalizing the application.
“The application is likely to be finalized and posted by early [August] and we are aiming to have the governor designate districts by the end of the year,” he said.
Projects needed: small, medium, large
The key to success will be encouraging investors to commit their time and money to downtown Dover, said Dover City Manager Scott Koenig. That includes not only Loockerman Street, but also side streets to the north and south, he said.
“We’re in a transition,” Koenig said. “There’s been investment in parts of the downtown, such as the library, Wesley College and the new courthouse, but these are large scale projects.”
Those projects have meant a combined investment of almost $111 million by the city, Wesley College and Kent County.
But other types of investment are needed, Koenig added.
“There is significant need for medium- and small-scale development,” he said. “We need to run the gamut of all kinds of downtown redevelopment. There already has been significant public investment, but there still is room for significant improvement.”
That includes projects outside the immediate downtown area, such as solving the flooding problem along Water Street, which could cost up to $15 million; replacing aging water lines; and burying utility lines along Division Street to improve the visual aesthetics of the roadway.
“These are expensive projects, in some cases requiring public investment that needs to happen over time,” Koenig said. “But we cannot concentrate it all downtown for a city that covers 22 square miles.”
There have been prior downtown development incentive programs in the past, the most recent adopted by city council in 2012.
Under that program, which was aimed specivially at commercial buildings, investors would:
n Receive a partial waiver of fees for building, plumbing, mechanical and fire protection permits;
n Be granted partial waivers of impact fees; some project would qualify to have half the city sewer and water impact fees waived; and
n Receive property tax waivers of up to 10 years.
This was somewhat successful, garnering interest for about 20 projects, Koenig said.
“It would be great if we had a large number of people investing in the program,” he said. “It’s been utilized, but we’d like to see more people taking advantage of it.”
Businesses, old and new along Loockerman
The most recent addition to downtown Dover is a new Family Dollar store, now under construction at 300 W. Loockerman St.
Ed Perez, downtown coordinator for the Downtown Dover Partnership told the Dover Post in May that the store would give a major boost to Loockerman’s west side.
“It’s an extremely welcome addition that’s a significant redevelopment project for the economic base of the west side of Dover,” he said.
One of the anchor stores on the west end is the Dover Army-Navy Store, a fixture at 218-220 W. Loockerman Street since its founding in 1963 by the late Jerome Zaback.
Most of the company’s business comes from supplying clothing and gear to various law enforcement agencies in the state, said current owner Frank Zaback. The store also is the only commercial supplier of Boy Scout equipment in Delaware.
“I feel we’re fulfilling our obligation as a destination business,” Zaback said. “As we continue to grow and draw customers to downtown Dover, this gives smaller businesses an opportunity to attract new customers as well.”
One of central Dover’s newest small businesses is the Bayard Pharmacy at 200 W. Loockerman, which was opened in March 2013 by pharmacist Erik Mabus and his wife, Jenny Mabus.
“I’ve pretty much wanted to be an independent pharmacy owner my whole life,” Mabus said. “I was surprised that for a downtown market, there was no pharmacy here.”
After coming to Dover, he and his wife talked to others about the revitalization efforts in downtown Dover, specifically the Bayard Plaza apartment building, which was then under consideration. The retail space included in the plan seemed like a perfect spot to realize his lifetime ambition, Mabus said.
“We talked to [Dover Economic Development Director] Bill Neaton, and agreed the timing was very good,” he said.
To get the necessary capital, Mabus obtained a loan from the Delaware Economic Development office and combined that with a loan from the Dover Federal Credit Union.
“DEDO was a huge help to us,” he said. “If it weren’t for them giving us the first loan, we probably wouldn’t be here.”
Almost 18 months after opening his business, things are going well, Mabus said. Including himself, he has a staff of four full-time employees and two part-timers with plans to add a third soon.
But he also is looking forward to the day when someone steps up and commits to further investment downtown.
“We intend to be here for the long haul, but we’re new and growing,” he said. “We’re honored to already be a part of Dover’s revitalization.”
Although he was not previously aware of Markell’s plan for helping redevelop downtown areas, Dover small businessman Otis Brooks said he is in favor of the idea.
“I’ve been here for four years, and it’s an extreme desire of mine to see downtown get some attention,” said the owner of the Caribbean Cuisine restaurant at 313 W. Loockerman. “I’d especially like to see it west of Queen Street.”
Cobbler James Napier, who established his Capital Shoe Repair shop at 237 W. Loockerman four years ago, said he the area west of South Governors Avenue has benefitted from previous effort to establish business in the downtown area.
“Half the block was vacant when I came here,” he said. “Now, of the 13 storefronts between South New Street and South Governor’s Avenue, four remain to be filled. It takes time to redevelop this type of area. Retail shops are fine, but what we need are services, like restaurants, or my repair shop. You’ve got to have what the people need.”
Taking the first step
While the city would welcome commercial redevelopment, Koenig said housing also cannot be overlooked when it comes to establishing a Downtown Development District.
“We need to strike a balance between business and housing stock that people can afford to live in,” he said. “What we want to do is improve the quality of our building stock downtown, with new, modern buildings that meet codes, as well as trying to meet the needs for different levels of affordable housing. What we don’t want to do is convert it to all-commercial districts and move all the people living there out.”
Having people live within a short distance of where they work is an appealing scenario, Koenig said.
“For a city the size of Dover, the potential of having people living there and being able to walk to work is attractive,” he said.
New commercial development and improvements to the downtown housing supply also will help deter crime, giving police a chance to focus their efforts elsewhere, Koenig added.
Christiansen, meanwhile, said the most important step might be finding that first developer willing to make a major investment.
“I think there is reluctance on the part of some folks to invest downtown,” he said. “They want to see someone else be successful before they take on the venture. But I am really confident in the partnerships we have downtown and if we’re fortunate enough to be granted any of these funds, we can continue to move forward.”