Dover Mall legislation snarled up in Senate

 

An aerial photo shows the Dover Mall from the intersection of U.S. 13. Mall owners want to develop 83 acres behind the mall with direct access from Del. 1. (Special to the Delaware State News/Gary Emeigh)

DOVER — After passing with a strong 38 votes in the House on April 25, a package of five bills aimed at fast tracking a proposed access road that would connect Dover Mall directly to Del. 1 was argued and eventually tabled in the Senate on Wednesday. The Senate is expected to resume the discussion in session next Tuesday.

The five bills don’t concern Dover Mall directly, but instead provide the city of Dover and Kent County with several funding mechanisms, already available to New Castle County and the city of Wilmington, that would help make the proposed Del. 1 exit to the mall possible. The mechanisms would authorize the city and county to take out bonds for transportation projects and pay the debt service and make use of both tax increment financing and special development district tax financing.

According to John Paradee, a lawyer representing Dover Mall’s owners, the 35-year-old mall “is in jeopardy” and needs changes to draw more customers. The road, supporters say, would revitalize the ailing mall by providing direct access from Del. 1 and eliminating travelers using U.S. 13.

The Del. 1 exit to the mall is already on DelDOT’s proposed Capital Transportation Plan — officials said that planning is set to begin in 2022 with construction to follow in 2024 — but owners of the mall are rallying behind the legislation in hopes to get the project completed sooner.

Supporters of the bill claim that this would be possible through a public-private partnership. Under the partnership, the road — which is estimated to cost $30 million — would be built with money from a bond sale. The debt would be serviced by revenue generated by tolls on the newly constructed road. During the legislative session, Mr. Paradee noted that the estimated revenue would be somewhere between $600,000 to $1.2 million per year according to a DelDOT study.

Supporters of the bill in the senate hinged repeatedly on the claim that taxpayers would not be “on the hook” to pay for the project.

“The combination of the three sources of revenue — tolls, tax increment financing and the special development district combined — is believed to be more than sufficient to pay off $30 million in bonds,” said Sen. Brian Bushweller, D-Dover. “In the event that it’s is still not sufficient, all the legislation is explicit in that the taxpayers are never on the hook for these bonds. In the end, the final guarantor is the mall itself being put up as collateral to pay off the bonds. So, you really have four possible sources, none of which include the taxpayer.”

Although feeling comfortable with their understanding of the financing mechanisms described in the bills, dissenting senators wanted more time to “digest” the longer-term implications of how the legislation, if passed, would result in a toll road to the mall and what impact it may have on the surrounding area.

Thumbs up so far

The legislation being pitched and its connection to the proposed mall road has met with near unanimous support from the other governmental bodies its encountered so far.

“In these difficult budget times we have to look for creative solutions to move Delaware forward and bolster local economies,” main sponsor Rep. William Carson, D-Smyrna, said in a statement. “This one-of-a-kind partnership could become a model for the state at a time where we need transportation projects funded, but our state revenues are lacking.”

In addition to its strong pass in the House, the funding mechanisms in the bill received a good reception from both city and county government. Both entities agreed that even if the legislation on the table didn’t ultimately lead to the proposed Del. 1 project, the funding mechanisms would still make a good addition to the financing “tools” they have at their disposal.

Dover City Council and Kent County Levy Court voted in support of draft legislation in February, ahead of the bills being filed.

Kent County Administrator Michael Petit de Mange, who is in favor of the project, compared the potential benefits to the ones Christiana Mall saw when road connection projects at the complex brought increased popularity to the retail center. He doesn’t feel that popularity will come at the cost of reduced traffic through Dover either.

“Some traffic will probably be diverted from (U.S.) 13, but because of the ease of access the project will provide, the area will likely see a net increase in activity rather than a loss,” he said. “(U.S.) 13’s traffic would probably stay the same as it is now.”

Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen feels that big changes at the mall are long overdue.

“I’ve been involved in city government since before 1983 and I’ve always thought with the advent of the Dover Mall that there need to be some additional service roads that run along there,” he said. “Particularly, I think the idea of a dedicated exit off of (Del.) 1 will be beneficial.”

As acting chairman of the Kent County MPO (Metropolitan Planning Organization), the mayor said they have prioritized discussions about the project to explore the possibilities of public and private funding for it.

Big plans for the mall

Mr. Paradee feels that a direct-access from to the mall from Del. 1 would not only protect the mall’s future, but could help it double in size.

The mall’s owners, Simon Property Group and Western Development Corp., are pushing the road because they hope to make a large investment in the property and turn it into a “destination.”

However, the planned revitalization of the mall is hinged on successfully building the access road.

“The Dover Mall is in jeopardy as it currently exists,” Mr. Paradee said in January.

Sears and Macy’s, two of the mall’s anchor stores, announced waves of nationwide store closures earlier in the year. Dover’s stores survived the cuts, but supporters of the project wonder how much longer they will last if the mall isn’t updated. Mr. Paradee said if they closed, more stores could follow.

“Macy’s is likely to stay if this (proposed road) happens quickly but not sure if it’s not quick,” Mr. Paradee said. “It’s important to get it done sooner rather than later.”

Dover Mall opened for business in 1982. There has been virtually no traffic improvements built around the shopping facility since.

According to Mr. Paradee, the mall owners believe more people would visit the mall if it was accessible from Del. 1 — the main road people use to travel from New Castle County to Sussex County, and vice versa. He added that the owners have spoken to stores about setting down roots in north Dover, and businesses are receptive. But there’s a catch — they will only come if the road is constructed within the next few years.

“What they have all essentially told us is if you build it we will come,” Mr. Paradee said.

He declined to specify what stores had been considering a move, noting businesses prefer to keep that information private at first so as to prevent competitors from learning about plans.

The owners’ proposed expansion would add about 54,700 square feet for new stores to the current mall, while slightly shrinking Sears

Meanwhile, a 647,000-square-foot “power center” would be built between the mall and Del. 1 with thousands of new parking spaces added as well.

In the developer’s vision, the Dover Mall would look more like the Christiana Mall by the time the work is done.

Expanding the mall with the proposed project would create between 1,100 and 1,300 jobs, Mr. Paradee said. The mall currently has a mix of about 750 full- and part-time positions.

The construction work would also necessitate about 300 to 375 temporary jobs, according to Mr. Paradee.

 

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

You are encouraged to leave relevant comments but engaging in personal attacks, threats, online bullying or commercial spam will not be allowed. All comments should remain within the bounds of fair play and civility. (You can disagree with others courteously, without being disagreeable.) Feel free to express yourself but keep an open mind toward finding value in what others say. To report abuse or spam, click the X in the upper right corner of the comment box.