Artisan marketplace aims to open in downtown Dover

Diane Laird, executive director of the Downtown Dover Partnership is shown at 204 W. Loockerman St., where the DDP is seeking a combination of vendors for an artisan marketplace. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

DOVER — Downtown Dover is soon to join a growing number of cities and towns all over the country that feature “unique product, community and craft-oriented” artisan marketplaces.

The popularity of artisan marketplaces stems from their design, which brings together local vendors, craftsmen and boutique businesses into an open, one-stop shopping experience, according to Diane Laird, executive director of the Downtown Dover Partnership.

Dover’s artisan marketplace is hoping to combine around 10 agricultural and craft product vendors to promote and sell their wares in a permanent shop that will be situated in part of the Bayard Building at 204 W. Loockerman St., which has been empty over the past several years.

“We believe that this initiative is excellent time-wise, because business has been challenged during COVID-19 and seeing something new like this come to fruition is just very encouraging for everyone,” Ms. Laird said. “I also think it gives potentially eight or 10 small businesses an opportunity to get the benefit of collaboration, because there’s potentially 8,000 to 10,000 customers among these eight or 10 various merchants.

“Downtown Dover is considered a food desert, so to be able to get some fresh foods locally will be a plus, but this is really not limited to foods. We’ll also potentially have some artisan-made crafts there, as well,” she added.

Ms. Laird said that the idea of an artisan marketplace sprouted from the Unlock the Block initiative, a group including the Downtown Dover Partnership, the National Council on Agricultural Life & Labor Research’s Restoring Central Dover project and other community organizations that are striving to breathe new life and bring new businesses to the Loockerman Street area.

Ms. Laird said that not only do artisan marketplaces provide a more intimate and specialized shopping experience, but they also function as informal social gatherings where shoppers can meet and interact with local craftsmen, artists and designers from their community.

“It will not only operate as one store, but it will look like one store, so there won’t be any unique stalls for various subtenants or consignors,” she said. “We still have to work out the structure of how everybody makes this happen financially, but it is not going to look like a space with various stalls, and there’s not going to be tape on the floor to mark one tenant from another. It’s going to have a unified look, but with multiple partners in the venture.

“This is meant to be more of an upscale artisans’ market, and there are some examples in various parts of the country, but basically, it’s a sophisticated look, and they’re beautiful, really. This would be a higher-scale kind of a look and, hopefully, it will open by Christmas — that’s the goal.”

Ms. Laird added, “Our desire and belief for what will be most successful was (to be open) at least four days a week, one of the days being Saturday, and then, one night a week, because they can provide training, workshop demos and that kind of thing and invite the community to attend, and it becomes kind of a gathering place for locals or those from the region that want to learn more about the products that are sold in there.”

Currently, it appears as if Black Swamp Farmstead in Felton, which is owned and operated by veterans Justin and Tara Brant, is pursuing the opportunity to become the lead tenant in the venture.

While there will be multiple vendors involved in the artisan marketplace, only one primary tenant will sign the lease and will sublet product space to the others, which Ms. Laird said the property’s landowner, Milford Housing Development Corp., requested. MHDC will also be preparing the space for the artisan businesses to move in.

Tara Brant, left, owner of Black Swamp Farmstead in Felton, invites Tackesha Whyte to smell a scented bar of soap at the Capital City Farmers Market in Dover this summer. Ms. Brant and her husband, Justin, are hoping to play a prominent role in the development of an artisan marketplace in downtown Dover. (Delaware State News file photo)

The Brants’ Black Swamp Farmstead participated in the Capital City Farmers Market in downtown Dover for the first time this summer, offering pastured pork and chicken, coffee, soaps, lotions, candles and accessories.

The idea behind Dover’s artisan market is similar to most others in that the combined vendors will display their products together as if they were in a typical grocery store and there will be one place for customers to check out.

“It’s exciting, and we put a lot of work in, and it’s nice to see it — not trying to count my chickens before they hatch — but kind of see it go somewhere whether that’s now or somewhere down the line,” said Mr. Brant, who is active duty in the Navy. “That’s our desire. We told Diane (Laird) that we’re open either way. We’re going to participate no matter what.

“We’re going through all the steps currently in the hopes of being the lead. It’s not 100% guaranteed, I would say. At some point, if it makes sense for us to continue in that lead position, we will, and if not, that’s fine, and we’ll let the right people in if there’s somebody else that’s more equipped or capable. We’ll support them, and we’ll bring our goods to the market just as if we were the lead.”

Mr. Brant and his wife, a veteran of the Army, started their business with the idea of eventually working for themselves full time at their farm in Felton.

“We’re obviously super-pumped about it,” said Mr. Brant. “It’s a great opportunity for us to be able to participate in something like that, and it’s a great opportunity for us to be involved with the community. The community supports us, and in a big circle, we support the community, so I think it’s important and a win-win for everybody.”

A sampling of some of the other potential artisan marketplace vendors’ products include ice cream, kettle corn and other flavored popcorn, European gourmet products and French breads, cakes, pastries and savory items, like quiches, as well as honey, beeswax products, skin care products, fresh-cut flowers, herbs, some vegetables, flower art, seasonal wreaths and handmade birdhouses, to name a few.

Both Ms. Laird and Dave Hugg, Dover director of planning and inspections, are very excited about the possibilities that will soon be unfolding in the 1,200-foot artisan marketplace on West Loockerman Street.

“I am very excited and pleased,” Mr. Hugg said. “Long-vacant commercial space is being filled. This continues to build on the (Capital City) Farmers Market activities. This is a nice collaboration of merchants, with a varied and ever-changing variety of items. It should become another community gathering place in the downtown.

“This will help expand the activity on that block of Loockerman Street and be a positive signal that downtown business is thriving.”

The addition of an artisan marketplace on West Loockerman Street could be a potential boon to the area’s other businesses, which are well-represented.

“That block has several good, long-standing tenants, with the Dover Army-Navy Store and the Bayard Pharmacy, which is well-established, as well as Zuha Trend, which is well-established, Janaid’s Salon for Men and That Ish Boutique at New and Loockerman streets,” Ms. Laird said.

“The Suds Bar (soap and essentials store) is going in that block, as well, directly across the street from this location. There’s a lot going on at that block, and pretty soon, it’s going to be nearly full. That would add a few more eyes on the street at night and encourage a little more camaraderie among the community members.”

Ms. Laird added: “The demographic, the customer base, of those that have expressed interest in this project have a lot in common. It stands to be kind of a destination business, where people would come from around the region 20 or 30 miles away or when they’re traveling from Lewes to Wilmington or going up and down the state. It could be a really nice stop-off to get some upscale goods and items. That’s certainly what we’re hoping for.”