Milford floats food-distribution idea for former Parks & Rec building

MILFORD — City Council debated the future of a former Parks & Recreation Department building during its meeting Monday.

The facility, at 5 Mill St., is vacant and used partially for storage, said Mike Svaby, Milford’s public works director.

“We’ve been approached by a local food bank entrepreneur to take over the property on a leased basis,” he said.

Mr. Svaby said the request came from Bridget Knowler, “the business manager and CEO of For Him Ministries, and now, she’s moving forward with an effort to expand her food bank operation as ‘The Gathering at the Table.’ This is a nonprofit organization that I have the documents for.”

Mr. Svaby said Ms. Knowler has been struggling to get enough time in the kitchen at her local church to prepare the meals, given all the other groups that use that space.

“She expressed the urgency of this, because of COVID and the needs of local residents who are in desperate need of food and assistance,” Mr. Svaby said.

“With the expertise of Solicitor (David) Rutt, we worked up a draft lease that would offer this to her for a very nominal fee for five years,” he said.

He added that in the lease, the tenant would be responsible for maintaining the building, which is old and in poor condition, and would have the opportunity to renew her lease twice over the next 15 years.

But councilmembers were not excited about this prospect.

“I don’t think anyone argues the benefit of the food bank or the value it can provide to the community,” Councilman Todd Culotta said. “I just think we need to rethink this one, because of the uniqueness of that building and the impact on the residents around it.”

He said that the topic should be open for public comment, which it was not.

“I think the neighbors to that location should have a say in the purpose of that building if it’s going to be repurposed,” Councilman Culotta said.

“Just last week, we talked about some budget constraints,” he said. “Maybe we should look to see what other interest there might be in that building rather than just being approached by a single person.”

Some councilmembers wondered if the nonprofit in question could really afford all the demands of renovating and maintaining the run-down building, which would need to be brought up to restaurant code.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations about this building and its current condition. We all know there needs to be some work done,” Vice Mayor Jason James said. “Do they have the wherewithal to do the work, the upkeep, so it does not fall back on the city as a building that cannot be maintained by the tenant?”

Mr. Svaby said he had not looked into For Him Ministries’ finances.

One member of the council did support the move.

“We don’t have anything like this as far as providing a hot, edible meal in real time,” Councilwoman Katrina Wilson said.

“Most of the food banks are nonperishable foods, or it’s given to people, but (for) those individuals that do not have proper housing or stay with others or could even be homeless, the service she’s providing is just phenomenal,” she said.

“It’s a wonderful service because an individual who has no place to go to eat dinner … can go there and get a meal,” Councilwoman Wilson said.

Other council members floated the idea of having Ms. Knowler share a kitchen space with community advocate Lillian Harrison and other nonprofits at the Armory, a building on North Walnut Street.

“I’d really like to see this teamed up with the Armory,” Councilman Andrew Fulton said. “They have a full industrial (kitchen) over in there, and the kitchen area is ready to start making food.”

He said the arrangement “would be perfect for both of them. It would help the Armory to function more as a community center and the outreach toward the entire community.”

But not everybody felt the same way.

“We can’t make a suggestion to have two individuals work together, not even knowing the timing and all the different activities that are happening right now,” Councilwoman Wilson said.

“She might fall into the same situation of (needing) enough time because of the other activities coming before or after her,” she said.

Ultimately, the council moved to table the vote on leasing out 5 Mill St. for a later meeting.

However, the council did unanimously approve moving forward with a grant application to study the city’s water woes on the southeast side of town.

“This is essentially just a planning grant to explore multiple different options for fixing two different things,” City Engineer James Puddicombe said. “One, ensuring we have a solid water supply for (Bayhealth Hospital, Sussex Campus), as well as improving the water quality in that area.”

He said that for the city “to apply for the grant, council has to approve a resolution saying we will follow through with the grant if the grant is awarded.”

The council also needed to commit to funding half of the study.

“The total funds from the city would be $36,750, and that is at a 50% sharing cost, meaning the grant would cover the other $36,750,” Mr. Puddicombe said.

Council also voted to move forward with its plan to hire a Philadelphia consulting firm to write Milford’s new emergency operation plan.

“The city’s emergency operation plan has not been updated since the 1970s,” City Manager Mark Whitfield said. “It was identified in the strategic plan that was adopted by the council as needing to be updated.”

He said the city “did receive a grant application through (the Delaware Emergency Management Agency) and the Department of Homeland Security for $45,000, which we hoped would cover all the costs for this project.”

But Mr. Whitfield said the city put out two calls for proposals and that the only offering that came close to the city’s budget was from Philadelphia’s AARC Consultants LLC.

“This time, we did get a proposal for $56,630, which is about $11,630 more than the DEMA grant,” Mr. Whitfield said. “In order to complete this project, we will need an appropriation of $11,630 from the general fund reserves.”

Although the city ultimately voted to move forward with this appropriation, not everyone on the council was happy with it.

Councilman Culotta wanted to know if Mr. Whitfield had gone back to AARC to see if it would lower the price further given the limitations of the grant.

“Given that I’ve had two different proposals that came in over $90,000, I was pretty happy with this. The other alternative I had was, and it is permissible under the DEMA grant, you could hire an intern to come in and write the plan for you,” Mr. Whitfield said.

“That’s actually a good idea,” Councilman Culotta said. “The talent to be able to do this is right in our own state.”

He said emergency operations are a key area of study at the University of Delaware’s Joseph R. Biden, Jr. School of Public Policy & Administration and that school would have undergraduate, graduate and doctorate-level students eager to intern with the city.

“I think in this case, I’d feel much more comfortable going with a professional firm,” Mr. Whitfield said.

Mayor Archie Campbell agreed.

“I would think we should stick with the firm,” he said.