Dover's 2015 was shaped by a diverse range of stories.
Some are strictly local, while others resonate with the year's national concerns: Delaware's opt-out bill, for example, was just part of a larger debate on standardized testing. Still others – from new country music festivals to downtown development in Dover – give us an idea of where the county's growth is headed.

Online shopping and large malls have combined to rob many once-prosperous city centers of their lifeblood: people and businesses.

Dover is a prime example, noted Gov. Jack Markell in April 2014: buildings that once housed thriving businesses were empty and homeowners had moved elsewhere, leaving behind rental properties that barely met building codes.

Throughout 2015, downtown has seen a combination of state and private funding meant to encourage businesses and families to restore and rehabilitate old buildings and homes or to build anew.

What’s happened

In January, Markell announced Dover was one of three Delaware municipalities – the others were Seaford and Wilmington – to be designated a Downtown Development District city. Some $7 million administered by the Delaware State Housing Authority would be split among the cities to spur downtown investment.

Of that, about $5.6 million was set aside for large projects exceeding $250,000, and the remainder for projects of less than $250,000. Each city was to receive $1 million toward funding smaller ventures.

Dover Director of Planning and Community Development Ann Marie Townshend said then the program would provide construction cost rebates, priority consideration for state funding and inducements through the city, including tax and fee waivers, to bring investment back.

“It will make downtown redevelopment projects feasible,” she said.

In April, the state housing authority awarded almost $75,000 to the Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity for construction of new homes in Dover.

At the same time, a little more than $89,000 was awarded to G&J Holdings for renovation of the second floor of the 120-year-old Priscilla Block. That work was targeted at bringing in a new business and preparing the first floor to be shown to prospective tenants.

In June, the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation awarded $75,000 to NCALL Research as part of the Restoring Central Dover project, targeted at revitalizing community neighborhoods. That project incorporates the downtown development program in an effort to improve housing in low income neighborhoods. The grant would be used to hire a neighborhood revitalization coordinator and community organizer, said NCALL Executive Director Joe L. Myer.

By July, Habitat for Humanity in partnership with 10 local churches completed one new home on South Kirkwood Street, was finishing another and held a groundbreaking for a third.

In September, Markell was on hand to help dedicate a newly built, $175,000 Mary Street home on what had been a vacant lot. Developer Jack Marble and his wife received a $10,000 rebate on construction costs under the DDD program.

Dover resident Carmen Hardcastle also received a $7,187 check, a rebate for her investment in renovating a home on North Kirkwood Street.

What’s next?

In September, Markell announced an additional $8 million would be made available for new investments in the three DDD cities.

 “I think we’ve gotten a solid start to the program,” Townshend said last week, adding that the city already is receiving applications for a second round of funding.

 “We’ll find out in January how that funding is being allocated,” she said. “I think we’ve put together a program with the state that has meaningful incentives for anything from small repairs to new construction. We’ve got a solid framework and we’re seeing applications come in. When we start seeing the success of some of those applications, we’ll be seeing more come in.”

During 2016, Townshend expects to see houses and mixed use buildings under construction. Mixed-use combines retail and residential.

“I think this has turned attention to the downtown for people who otherwise would not have put their attention there,” she said. “I think it’s helped level the playing field because it helps ensure the projects can be profitable.”

Cynthia L. Deakyne, housing asset manager for the DSHA, said the agency is pleased with what’s been accomplished and is looking forward to 2016.

“It’s just been an amazing process,” she said, noting the cooperation between all parties involved.

“They’ve embraced the entire Downtown Development District plan and they’re really trying to do as many things as possible for the central Dover area to spur community development and to bring more business downtown,” she said.