Empty storefronts, vacant buildings send 'bad message' about downtown Dover, mayor says
City, community organizations work to fill longtime vacant buildings
A walk down Loockerman Street takes visitors past some of the gems of downtown Dover, from boutiques boasting trendy fashions to gift shops with handcrafted treasures to family-owned restaurants and barbershops where everyone knows your name.
Still, scattered among these businesses are empty storefronts, which Mayor Robin Christiansen said may discourage potential business owners who see the vacancies as a sign the area is not a good investment.
“Vacant buildings don’t send a great message as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “We need to get them filled up, and we need to get them fixed up, so people know we’re in business to do business.”
Tina Bradbury, operations manager of the Downtown Dover Partnership, said the nonprofit organization has put up blue “open” flags to encourage shoppers to walk past the vacant spaces toward open shops.
“When you have vacant buildings, it’s like a missing tooth in a comb,” she said. “You don’t see the next three shops or the next four shops down.”
Over the years, the city has faced several challenges in keeping and attracting businesses downtown.
The mayor, representatives from the Downtown Dover Partnership and business owners point out ongoing loitering and panhandling, a need for more parking and a desire to restore a sense of community and nightlife in the area.
Vacant buildings present one more obstacle to growth, and as the pandemic persists and many businesses gradually reopen with adjusted hours, the city and the partnership's focus on filling empty spaces has not subsided.
As of Sept. 2, the city has recorded 167 vacant buildings. Director of Planning and Inspections Dave Hugg said 137 of those buildings are residential and 30 are public commercial (businesses) or mixed-use. A building in Dover is deemed vacant after it is unoccupied for three consecutive months, according to the city’s vacant building ordinance.
But the total number of vacancies has more than halved over the last five years, which reached 375 in April 2015, Hugg said.
Despite this improvement, which Hugg attributes to more aggressive code enforcement and an economic boost that drove people to fill unoccupied spaces, some buildings in the downtown area have remained vacant for a decade or more.
The longest unoccupied building, 201 W. Loockerman St. on the corner of Governors Avenue, has been vacant for 13 years, Hugg said.
Fees and loopholes
Owners of vacant buildings can pay anywhere between $375 and $5,000 in annual registration fees depending on how long the space is left unoccupied.
The fees are meant to disincentivize property owners from keeping a space empty, but some continue to absorb huge fees for years, Hugg said. Others have avoided the fees due to loopholes in the vacancy ordinance.
One of the most common loopholes is when a building, like the old Loockerman Exchange at Loockerman and State streets, has an empty storefront but can avoid fees because it has apartments and offices on the second floor.
The vacant building ordinance does not penalize a building for keeping a storefront empty unless that space is greater than 10,000 square feet, which Hugg called a flaw in the ordinance.
Christiansen said the city should consider revising the vacant building ordinance to be more specific about the "actual wording of vacant or underused."
“A loophole needs to be closed up if that’s the case," he said.
Streamlining the process
Another part of city code that sometimes applies to empty buildings is the dangerous building ordinance.
Under this ordinance, it is the City Council’s responsibility to hold a hearing when the building inspector identifies a “dangerous building,” which often includes those that are unoccupied or violate city codes. The City Council then votes on whether the occupant or owner must repair, vacate, close or demolish the building.
Christiansen said he hopes to change that process, so the authority moves away from the City Council and toward a separate committee that relies on guidance from code enforcement and the Fire Marshal’s office.
“The process used to be streamlined,” he said. “We need to take the politics out of it.”
Partnerships providing solutions
The Downtown Dover Partnership provides resources from the state, city and county to incentivize property owners to fill their vacant spaces.
For example, the partnership is now in talks with the owner of the longest-vacant building on Loockerman Street and Governors Avenue to develop a potential food and beverage business there.
Across the street, the Unlock the Block initiative – which includes the partnership, the National Council on Agricultural Life & Labor Research Fund and other community organizations – is working with local farmers market vendors to develop a type of indoor market with multiple vendors at 204 W. Loockerman St.
Bradbury said the key to progress is when the landlords work together with the partnership and the city to support businesses downtown.
She encouraged anyone to cash in on the incentives, adding that this is a prime time to get involved.
“This can be one person taking a shot to make a great investment,” she said. “They’re making an investment not only in their future but an investment in the downtown.”
For more about the incentives or development downtown, call Bradbury at (302) 678-2940.