Dover officials: The loss of Wesley would be 'a nightmare' for downtown

Natalia Alamdari
Delaware News Journal

The handful of legislators and Dover officials pushing hardest to secure taxpayer dollars for the financially struggling Wesley College say their efforts are as much about preserving downtown Dover as saving the private school. 

Since 2018, the liberal arts college has received a total of $3.375 million from the state. Now, the school is waiting to find out if its latest request for $3.2 million – called imperative by one legislator – will also be approved. 

The Jim & Shirley Wentworth Gymnasium at Wesley College. Millions in state taxpayer dollars have not alleviated concerns about whether Wesley College can remain financially solvent or if it will be absorbed by another school.

At the start of this year’s legislative session, the school seemed to lack necessary support from the five-member committee that decides whether to allocate those funds, said Sen. David Sokola, D-Newark, one of its members.  

Wesley’s supporters in the General Assembly compare the state aiding Wesley to assisting other private companies, as the state has done with DuPont and Astrazeneca. The funding is helping Wesley keep its doors open long enough for a potential merger to solidify, Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, told Delaware Online/The News Journal in early January. 

Should the funding not come through ⁠— or merger discussions fail ⁠— Wesley faces the possibility of closure, potentially leaving 50 acres of downtown Dover vacant until another buyer comes along and purchases the stretch of aging academic buildings, having, official have said. 

SHAKY GROUND: Wesley's future could depend on whether state approves yet another round of funding

The loss of Wesley would mean the loss of jobs, along with the money-spending staff and students who patronize downtown businesses during the school year. 

But beyond dollars and cents, local officials say losing Wesley as a physical presence would undermine years of efforts to revitalize downtown Dover, which is struggling to revamp its image and combat crime and homelessness in the surrounding neighborhoods. 

“It’s a core anchor in that disadvantaged community,” said Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover. “Imagining downtown Dover with 50 acres of vacant buildings in it is just a nightmare.” 

'Like a neighborhood getting emptied' 

The bulk of Wesley’s campus is in the heart of Dover, bordered by New and State streets to the west and east, and Mary and Division streets to the north and south. 

It’s a 20-building campus that includes academic halls, dorms, sports facilities, and administrative offices housed in old Victorian homes that line State Street. 

The main campus sits among a cross-section of Dover neighborhoods. To the east, more Victorian homes and businesses take up State Street, with a small residential area extending four blocks toward Silver Lake Park. 

A home being constructed by Habitat for Humanity on New Street in Dover.

To the west is a larger residential neighborhood. The homes here are older, but not as ornate as their Victorian counterparts across the college. Some blocks have boarded-up houses, and signs declaring “no trespassing” or “private property” can be seen in most windows. 

The city has spent years trying to revitalize the area, Robin Christiansen, Dover mayor, said. As homeowners have moved out and the number of renters have increased, so too has the level of crime, he said.  

Dover has become a "magnet for homelessness," Christiansen said. The 2019 point-in-time count found 200 people who were homeless in Kent County, 0.1% of the county's population and 20% of Delawareans facing homelessness. 

A block away, staff at the People’s Church of Dover host after-school youth programs and provide space for Code Purple, a nightly homeless shelter that rotates between Dover churches throughout the winter. 

“It’s always packed,” said Jennifer Childears, a moderator at the church on South Bradford Street. 

The church doesn’t interact too much with the college, Childears said. Out of its 140-person congregation, only one member is a student. But the potential loss of students renting in the area is worrisome, churchgoers said. 

“It deteriorates the neighborhood when it’s empty,” said Jacqui Sedmont, a church member. “Nobody wants to come here after dark anyways. I don’t want to say it’d be scarier, but it’d be more of a ghost town” if Wesley were to close.

Downtown Dover is perceived as a place with limited parking, coupled with high rates of homelessness and violence, Childears said, and she doesn’t think it’s overblown. 

“People are starting to think we’re in a race with Wilmington as far as shootings,” she said. 

Moderator of the People's Church of Dover Jennifer Childears stands for a portrait at the church Wednesday, Jan 22, 2019. Childears believes if Wesley College were to leave Dover that crime could become more of a problem. "People are starting to think we're in a race with Wilmington as far as shootings," said Childears.

CAPITAL CITY CRIME:Residents, business owners stress about shootings, violence in Dover

It isn’t unusual to hear about police raiding homes in the neighborhood west of the college, said church member Tracey Williams. 

Police raids and an overall “zero-tolerance policy” when it comes to drugs and violence are necessary to stunting crime in downtown Dover, Christiansen said. City police dedicate about 40% of department resources there. 

Currently, Wesley College provides its own on-campus security. But were the school to be emptied, Dover police’s role in the area would “change significantly,” he said. 

Having Wesley as a “well-lit, beautiful campus” for people in Dover to use as a gathering space is critical for downtown, said Bonini, a graduate. 

“If it’s not there, things will get worse,” Bonini said. “If you look at what happens when neighborhoods get emptied — and Wesley College would kind of be like a neighborhood getting emptied — crime goes up, drug use goes up.”

Erik Mabus, owner of Bayard Pharmacy in downtown Dover, said that while crime is present in the area, he feels people perceive it to be worse than it is. The most common complaint he hears is about panhandlers.

“I don’t hear a lot of actual issues with it, other than the annoyance of somebody coming up and asking you for money,” Mabus said. “For some people, that’s very uncomfortable, and that would put them off from coming downtown. But you go to any city and you have that. I think it just depends on how sensitive you are to that.” 

Dover faces the same problems as similarly sized cities across Delaware and the country, Christiansen said.  

Downtown Dover Bayard Pharmacy owner and operator Erik Mabus works in his shop Wednesday afternoon.

Banking on Wesley

Should Wesley close, state money invested in revitalization efforts would go down the drain, Lynn said. 

“If Wesley fails, I think it’s the death knell of all efforts to reinvigorate downtown,” Lynn said. “Not only to the efforts that we’ve made to restore downtown Dover, but also to the diverse and varied neighborhoods that straddle that block between State Street and Governors Avenue. The damage to the integrity of those neighborhoods, we would not recover.” 

In 2015, Gov. Jack Markell named Dover one of three Downtown Development Districts. The program offered a variety of incentives and construction rebates to builders and business owners in an effort to bring new businesses and developments downtown. 

The Downtown Dover Partnership formed in 1990, when the commercial sphere of downtown started losing business to the Dover Mall, built in 1982. 

Mabus's pharmacy has occupied the same corner for seven years. While he's heard talk of revitalization efforts, he still feels that the past seven years haven't seen much change. His store is one of the only storefronts to stay in business over that span of time. 

"I don't know that too many businesses have left, but I don't think that too many are willing to come down and take the chance, either," he said. "A lot of it is just an image issue."

More recently, the city has focused its attention on building new housing to attract more homeowners to downtown. 

Habitat for Humanity has built close to 25 homes along Queen, New and Kirkwood streets, along with a segment of South Governors Avenue. 

Officials had hoped the influx of permanent residents with more “skin in the game, who aren’t going to tolerate what’s going on” would help curb crime rates in the area, Christiansen said. 

But an empty Wesley would be a setback to those efforts, he said. 

“Any time you have a vacant building, every day that it’s not occupied, the building dies,” Christiansen said. “There is a whole lot of real estate there. Somebody would have to pick up the slack there of picking up the security, and also making sure people don’t come there and squat or vandalize the buildings.” 

Wesley is a partner in the continued efforts to bring the Schwartz Center for the Arts back to life, giving the arts a stronger presence in Dover, Christiansen said. 

The city is also banking on Wesley to complete renovations to the old Dover Public Library, which the school bought from the city for just $1 in 2017. 

DEEP DIVE:Recent moves show Wesley College is trying to shore up financial health

Wesley had begun work converting the building to house a new graduate occupational therapy program, but construction is at a standstill until the school is more financially stable. 

Over $2 million — $1.375 from the state and $1 million from the Longwood Foundation — were originally given for the project, but have since been reallocated to cover general college expenses. 

The completion of the library and introduction of the program would have meant an influx of new graduate students, along with the opportunity to build new housing options for a group of students not likely to want to live in on-campus dorms. 

It would also have offered out-patient services at a lower rate to Dover residents. 

"My job is to put faith and hope in the fact that Wesley can be turned around, or another entity can come along and manage those buildings," Christiansen said.

He said he has "a loyalty to Wesley, but there's also a loyalty to whatever is in the best interest of the city of Dover." 

Natalia Alamdari covers education for The News Journal. You can reach her at (302) 324-2312 or nalamdari@delawareonline.com.