It’s official: Business is starting to boom in Dover

First State Orthopaedics was the most recent health care business to stage a ceremonial groundbreaking in Dover. The event was held on July 25 at the Enterprise Business Park. At center, state Sen. Brian Bushweller, Gov. John Carney and Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen join company officials in getting the construction started. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — It doesn’t seem to matter what corner of the city it’s located, whether it’s situated on the U.S. 13 corridor, nestled someplace downtown, or on the city’s outskirts, business is beginning to pick up in Dover.

Grocery stores Aldi and Lidl are making plans, as are restaurants Panera Bread and LongHorn Steakhouse, to make their mark in Dover, as are numerous other large-scale projects that are currently on the books.

David Hugg, acting planner for the city of Dover, is encouraged by all of the interest that businesses have shown in the area as of late. He said the influx of new businesses will naturally increase the number of job opportunities in Dover — which is a good thing.

Mr. Hugg will oversee much of that upcoming growth as his contract with the city was recently modified by city council and he will remain city planner until the end of December.

“All of a sudden on the commercial side there seems to be a lot of activity,” Mr. Hugg said. “To me, it’s a pretty good indicator that folks are starting to reinvest.

“You don’t put out that kind of money, even for design, unless you’re pretty serious about building a building and you probably have a tenant who has a letter-of-intent.”

The numbers appear to support the city leader’s theory.

As of May, building permit revenues for the city were up 141 percent over last year ($860,000 as opposed to 2016’s $600,000). More than $37 million in new commercial investment within the city had been approved.

Dave Hugg chats with Gov. John Carney at the groundbreaking for First State Orthopaedics. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“Dover is on the move, we’re on the rise,” Mayor Robin Christiansen said. “We’ve had a couple of bumps in the road that a lot of people are making a big issue out of and some of them — certainly the crime and the gun violence is a big issue — but there are a lot of great things happening in Dover.

“Our economy’s changing. We’re moving away from maybe having to be an industrial center with heavy manufacturing to service industries, medical expertise, dining and shopping.”

Hotbed for health care?

First State Orthopaedics was the most recent health care business to stage a ceremonial groundbreaking in Dover at the Enterprise Business Park on July 25.

The event attracted dignitaries such as Gov. John Carney, Sen. Brian Bushweller and Mayor Christiansen as ground was broken on a 43,000-square-foot, two-story, state-of-the-art medical facility.

The second floor will serve as the new Dover office for the expanding First State Orthopaedics, which has operated its business out of its current location at 737 S. Queen St. since 2010.

There will remain 23,000 square feet of leasable space on the upcoming building’s first floor.

Sen. Bushweller said the groundbreaking was a significant one for Dover.

“First of all, I love the idea that Dover is establishing itself as a regional center for health care,” he said. “We have already become a regional higher education center when you think about it with Delaware State, Wilmington University, DelTech and Wesley College.

“Now, the same thing is happening with health care, which I think it’s very, very good for the local economy. These kinds of businesses will bring nice jobs to the area.”

Another building project on the western side of Dover is the Center at Eden Hill, which will provide short-term rehabilitation after patients leave a hospital.

The $19 million, three-story, 65,000-square-foot medical facility is scheduled to open in December and will include 80 beds for patients needing sub-acute care.

More than 120 employees will staff the facility, including nursing professionals, physical, occupational and speech therapists, certified nursing assistants, administrative, support and food service staff.

Nemours DuPont Pediatrics has also relocated to west Dover, packing up its office on West Water Street and moving to the new Towne Centre building next to Eden Hill in late July.

Kent Pediatrics recently joined the health care push as it put in a site development plan to the city to permit construction of a 2,520-square-foot, one-story medical office building at 53 Roosevelt Ave.

Capital Station spurs interest

If there is one thing in the works that could possibly change the look and feel of Dover it would be the Capital Station project.

The developmental plans for Capital Station Dover, which hopes to revitalize the site of the long-abandoned Playtex factory at the intersection of U.S. 13 and Division Street, continues to press forward.

Brian Finnegan, principal at Whitewoods Capital Advisors LLC, which is developing Capital Station, said the project is moving along nicely and could eventually change the look and feel of the area.

“This is your one chance to develop a site like this,” Mr. Finnegan said. “Once it’s developed, it is what it is. It’s an important corner for the city of Dover.

“You’re looking at an old industrial building and it’s an eyesore, even for the neighborhood across the street. That’s not really what you really want to see driving into the governmental center.”

An Aldi grocery store is the proposed anchor tenant of Capital Station, which will be 60,285-square-foot of commercial development. Developers are also hoping to draw a Starbucks with a drive-thru window.

Mr. Finnegan said Capital Station will be quite an involved project, considering it will require demolishing the former Playtex plant and water tower on the property and rehabilitating the site.

“The key to this project is it’s an industrial building that’s been vacant for 17 years and, it being an industrial building, the environmental concerns that are out at the site, we’ve got to approach that the right way,” he said. “It will be a probably an eight-to 10-month-process of demolition and abatement for the building.

“Once that’s done we’ll have a site work, probably over a four-month period, and then we’ll go vertical with the buildings.”

One thing leads to others

Just as the gears have begun to move on the Capital Station project, another couple of significant projects are in their infancy stages of the city’s approval process.

Site development plans were presented to the Development Advisory Committee on July 5 for a pair of projects aimed at Bay Road.

“The (projects) on Bay Road kind of came in next door to each other,” Mr. Hugg said. “One is a four-building complex and the first tenant is Century Engineering, and that’s actually who’s building and developing that part.

“Literally, next door is a proposal that’s called for a site plan for 120,000-square-feet of new commercial that includes a grocery store and some other kinds of shops. These projects all of a sudden appear to be coming along.”

The Bay Road Office Park is to consist of four buildings in four phases, including: a 25,120-square-foot office building, a 17,500-square-foot office building, a 16,250-square-foot office building and a 15,000-square-foot flex/warehouse building.

The property is located on the southwest side of Bay Road and south of Miller Drive with access from Cowgill Street and Martin Street.

There is also a separate plan to develop commercial properties at 560 and 600 Bay Road, which would include 120,046-square-foot of commercial development on a 12.94-acre parcel that is currently named Bay Road Commercial.

The development is to include two restaurants of 4,200-square-foot and 6,400-square-foot, a 70,646-square-foot grocery store, an 18,000-square-foot multi-tenant building segment and a 20,800-square-foot multi-tenant building segment. The property is located on the southwest side of Bay Road.

Frito Lay also has submitted plans recently to seek construction of a 4,278-square-foot, one-story warehouse office/building at Tudor Business Park.

Mr. Hugg added that the city remains committed to finding business partners to fill out the Garrison Oak Technical Park located at Del. 1 and White Oak Road.

The park is occupied by Garrison Energy Center, Uzin Utz Manufacturing, Advantech and White Oak Solar Energy.

“We’re hoping to get some traction out at the Garrison tract,” said Mr. Hugg. “The strong part of the economy right now does seem to be retail and that’s often always the most fluid because businesses come and go more often on the retail side that they do in the industrial world or on the residential side.”

Filling in empty stores

Among the biggest things that are most encouraging to Mr. Hugg is how vacant stores such as Kmart and Walmart have found new tenants at their former locations at Towne Point and north Dover, respectively.

“Those kinds of sites are often hard to fill and maybe that’s what’s triggered some of this other interest,” Mr. Hugg said. “These sites that would normally be somewhat more difficult to fill have quickly been redeveloped.

“Maybe there are business investors out there going, ‘Hey, if that can happen with those kinds of sites maybe we should jump on some of these other ones.’”

The old Kmart property has been reinvented as the Capital Commons and has attracted stores such as Burlington and Big Lots as well as future restaurants in Panera Bread and LongHorn Steakhouse.

Meanwhile, the old Walmart location has been transformed into the Dover Towne Center in north Dover. It now includes businesses such as: Outback Steakhouse, Five Below, Lane Bryant, Ulta Beauty, Ross, Petco, Xfinity, Shoe Carnival, OshKosh B’gosh and It’s My Style Home Furnishings.

Downtown seeking a spark

While the U.S. 13 corridor appears to be in the midst of a boom, downtown Dover is still looking for a main draw.

“I think the timing is right for something to happen downtown and I’m really hoping that we get one good announcement,” Mr. Hugg said. “I think it’s going to be a situation where somebody steps forward and opens a restaurant and does something downtown and sparks some other investment.

“There are owners out there that I think would be interested but are just kind of waiting to see.”

The former Loockerman Exchange restaurant has sat empty for years at the corner of Loockerman and South State Street and the Schwartz Center for the Arts recently closed its doors.

A plan for the construction of a pair of mixed-use buildings that developers hoped would change the look and vibe of downtown Dover, including restaurants, shops and apartments at 126 W. Loockerman St., is stagnant.

“I won’t say it’s died. That project has stalled,” said Mr. Hugg. “They had a commitment through the state with the Downtown Development District funding and that commitment has lapsed and I’m not sure what’s going on with that property. There’s nothing active at the moment.”

Eye on the future

One major plan that supporters have touted as a way to revitalize the local shopping scene is a new access road that will carry drivers directly from Del. 1 to the Dover Mall property.

Gov. John Carney signed five bills May 30 that would pave the way for such a toll road that is expected to spur the construction of a “Power Center” of stores behind the mall, much like what has occurred at the Christiana Mall in New Castle County.

Construction of the road could begin in 2019.

“There’s been some serious discussion about building a complex in back of the Dover Mall that would be one of these ‘Power Centers’ or something kind of like Christiana has done,” Mr. Hugg said. “That seems to be getting traction.

“We’ve also talked to some folks about the property in front of the Dover Mall where there’s still the potential for a pad site or two.”

Mr. Hugg added that every time a local business such as First State Orthopaedics or Chesapeake Utilities relocates it opens up a new business opportunity for Dover.

Chesapeake Utilities will be moving to a sparkling new $26 million business campus just south of the Blue Hen Corporate Center early next year.

The company currently operates out of four separate locations in Dover.

Its new facility will sit on more than 20 acres, occupy more than 100,000-square feet and will house more than 250 employees.

“This emphasizes the commitment that Chesapeake has to Dover and to the state of Delaware,” said Michael P. McMasters, president and CEO of Chesapeake Utilities.

“This is where Chesapeake was formed. We’ve been in Dover over 150 years going back to the gas light days, so it’s been quite some time and we’re proud to be here.”

New opportunities abound

When Chesapeake moves in to its new campus, a new opportunity will exist. That will also eventually happen for First State Orthopaedics.

“All of these things are kind of happening literally, kind of bang, bang, bang, bang, bang,” said Mr. Hugg. “We’ve got that whole massive expansion that Chesapeake Utilities is doing south and behind the Blue Hen Mall and that’s a major investment, but that also creates an interesting opportunity because they’ve (currently) got about four acres downtown across from the court buildings there. That creates a unique redevelopment opportunity that nobody’s quite sure yet where it’s going to go.”

Mr. Hugg said make no mistake about it, the city is more than happy to see the recent interest and the growth opportunities.

“It’s certainly an advantage to the city when any new business opens because it brings new employees and what have you,” he said. “It really would be nice to get another industrial activity out there.

“This (business boom) is kind of like, ‘Stay tuned.’ I think you’re going to see some things happening that maybe people haven’t thought of our have kind of given up on.”

Mayor Christiansen likes to say, “Any day dirt moves in Dover is a good day.”

“New businesses are creating a lot of jobs and they’re going to better the lives of all of our citizens here in Dover and in Kent County,” the mayor said.

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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