Growth curve: Dover attracting a wide array of businesses

Workers are busy getting the new Lidl grocery store ready to open on U.S. 13 in Dover. Delaware State News photos

DOVER — These are exciting times to be doing business in the city of Dover — certainly for the 27 projects that are currently active, 10 in the process of being approved and another 11 still in the discussion stages.

Don’t mind City Planner Dave Hugg if he boasts just a little bit about it. He’s proud of the work that the city’s planning and economic development departments have been doing.

“The state of the economy in Kent County is pretty good,” Mr. Hugg said. “Things are progressing well. Dover is certainly setting an example.

“The growth that we’re seeing in our local economy is primarily in healthcare, followed by retail trade, then all the food-related kinds of things and professional services, pretty much in that order. But the really good thing about our economy is that the other parts, such as the government and the military, and things that tend not to be growing so fast are not declining, and they’re actually either keeping steady or growing as well.”

Dave Hugg

Mr. Hugg can see the face of Dover business changing rapidly.

Among the 11 business prospects that the city is involved in discussions with but are not yet fully developed are a Cracker Barrel restaurant, a family entertainment center, a brewpub off the highway and an outpatient/preventive medicine service downtown.

“I guess the good news is that a lot of things are happening in Dover,” said Mr. Hugg. “There are about 11 projects that we’re still talking to in various stages and at the top of that list is Cracker Barrel. They come and they go, they come and they go, but they’re on again. They’ve looked at two different sites and had some inquiries about, ‘What could we do here?,’ ‘Where are the utilities?’

“We’ve also got a local hotel that’s interested in remodeling, a family entertainment center which has been kind of on again, off again, and several other discussions going on.”

Among the 27 projects that are actually under construction or in the permit phase include (in the U.S. 13 corridor): a Hobby Lobby at the former Acme location in the North Dover Center, a Dunkin Donuts/Baskin Robbins, Tasty Crab and Crab Shack (former site of Shuckers) restaurants, Red Robin at Capital Station, Lidl grocery store, an additional building at UNO Plaza, a Tommy Car Wash and Golden Corral restaurant.

Then there are several other businesses in the process of opening downtown and on the city’s west side, including: Loockerman Way (building No. 1 of two buildings planned), a Governor’s Café kitchen expansion, NCALL office building, Vincento’s restaurant relocation, Dover Animal Hospital, Ignite Gym, Calvary Church, Destiny Church and Eden Hill Townhouses.

The Bay Road corridor is also seeing activity as an office building is being constructed that will house Delaware State Police/Homeland Security and Delaware Solid Waste Authority is building offices, as well.

Independent Metal Strap is relocating to the east side of Dover on Horsepond Road while Frito Lay is expanding nearby.

A Red Robin restaurant is planned for Capital Station Shopping Center in Dover.

Some other business projects that remain in the works or are in preliminary planning, but not final design, include: the relocation of the Dover Post Office to the former Chesapeake Utilities site, Tomeka’s HomeStyle Eatery on Loockerman Street, a new Family Court building and a Grotto’s food prep/central pizza dough dispensary.

“So, our economy across the board is in pretty good shape,” Mr. Hugg said. “What makes it good for us, if you will, is that there’s a renewed sense of cooperation between municipalities, the county and the folks that are involved in economic development. We’re seeing lower costs of living and that’s a benefit of being here in this area and a lower cost of doing business.”

Future opportunities abound

Mr. Hugg addressed a question by City Councilman Ralph Taylor about what the city of Dover is doing to attract millennials to shop in the city. City Councilman David Anderson asked the city planner what the city is doing to connect the community with the parks.

For Mr. Hugg, the future of Dover seems limitless.

“In terms of millennials, I think the downtown folks have done a great deal of thinking about, ‘What are the business opportunities to downtown that would attract folks to live there and to work there and to shop downtown?,’ he said. “There are some that are high on my list. We desperately need a brew pub or two — that’s a millennial kind of thing.

“We’ve got a great coffee shop (House of Coffi), but we need places where millennials will go and congregate and that’s not necessarily dress shops and gift stores. There’s a consultant doing some work for the Downtown Dover Partnership to kind of identify what some of those targeted businesses might be and sort of how we can better promote and go out and talk to them.”

City Councilman Tanner Polce said he thinks bringing better technology to the city will attract that crowd.

“I think there’s a need for greater technology and that would be the incorporation of 4G technology that extends to 5G technology,” Councilman Polce said. “That really allows not only the city to become more attractive for your leisurely scrolling on Facebook and applications, but it also entices some of these really great tech-based companies with heavy intellectual property and heavy human capital to be attracted to Dover.

“City Manager (Donna Mitchell) and I continue to work on this front, and I think we’re now making more headway than we have in quite some time.”

Mr. Polce also said he believes the city needs to streamline its building processes.

“We should be looking at being shovel ready and turn-key within kind of a six-month process of site location and identification and then all of the permitting thereof,” he said. “I think ultimately when we think about economic development we’ve got to say, ‘What are we doing well?,’ and I argue, and have for multiple years, that we need something like a rocket docket in place for the city — an expedited permitting process that would expedite across the board but continue the good work.”

Big news on the horizon?

When it comes to economic development, Mr. Hugg said the city needs to continue to “promote, promote, promote.”

“It still amazes me to know there are some people who don’t know what Dover is all about, or where Dover is,” he said.

He said there are always things going on behind the scenes that could turn into big deals for the city. One example is the Civil Air Terminal at the end of Horsepond Road at Dover Air Force Base.

“We do have some studies going on and we’re working with DelDOT (Delaware Department of Transportation) and the (Delaware) River and Bay Authority and Kent County on trying to figure out what the next step for the Civil Air Terminal and Kent Aeropark is,” Mr. Hugg said. “It may not be passenger (service), it may be passenger in a more charter kind of approach.

“There clearly is an asset sitting there that is grossly underutilized and it looks very promising. I wish I could say for sure, but it looks very promising that by the end of the year the new joint-use agreement will be signed — and it’s a 50-year agreement between the city, the state and the Air Force for the use of that runway system — and 25,000 takeoffs and landings a year are what is being projected from that facility (Civil Air Terminal), which is about four times what happens out there now.”

He added, “The downside to some of that is we don’t have the return destination, if you will. We’ve got air cargo coming in today from Brazil and other places that’s going to big markets in our area, but they’re flying back empty. We’ve got to figure out what the return trip is so that those aircraft and those flights make sense.”

Councilman Taylor continues to prod Mr. Hugg about establishing passenger rail service to Dover for events such as the Firefly Music Festival, NASCAR races and the casinos. He thinks Dover should think bigger.

“Fortunately, we’ve got a new (railroad) operator that we’ve been working with closely,” Mr. Hugg said. “They’ve made a fair amount of investment in some of the existing trackage, but it’s freight driven. It’s a 25 mile-per-hour speed limit rail system and you don’t go from Dover to Wilmington at 25-miles-per hour on the railroad. It just doesn’t work.

“That doesn’t mean the possibility isn’t there. Some of those discussions are taking place.”

To Mr. Hugg, he takes Dover’s business personally.

“Most of it is because I was challenged when I first was hired,” he said. “We’ve tried to get the word out that you can come to Dover and talk to people and work with us, and basically, we want you here. It’s that simple.”

Right now, they appear to be coming — in droves.

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