Milford’s Parks & Rec focuses on ecotourism, education

MILFORD — The city’s Parks & Recreation Director Brad Dennehy spoke to City Council during its retreat Wednesday about how grants and partnerships focused on local waterways could bring more educational opportunities and ecotourism to the city.

Mr. Dennehy explained that his department intends to begin a partnership with the Delaware Nature Society, a nonprofit group dedicated to conservation and education that already has a presence at the Abbott’s Mill Nature Center southwest of town.

“I’ve been drafting a memorandum of understanding, which basically just outlines what we are going to do and what they are going to do,” Mr. Dennehy said.

That memorandum should be coming to council for approval at some point early next year.

Mr. Dennehy said DNS will help Milford put on a wide variety of educational programs after the pandemic winds down.

“They’re really good at their educational programs. They’ve got a lot of really smart volunteers,” he said, including many retired teachers. “Their whole thing is trying to get people outside into the natural world.”

Mr. Dennehy spoke about numerous potential classes or activities DNS could help his department put on along the Mispillion River and within city limits, including a fishing clinic for 7- to 8-year-olds, canoeing for 9- to 12-year-olds and an adult lecture series.

“They can help us offer a diverse variety of programs for diverse age groups and demographics,” he said. “We’ve got inner-city kids who aren’t going to go out to Abbott’s Mill, but I also think we have adults who would really like to have programming.”

Mayor Archie Campbell wanted to know if Mr. Dennehy’s department is ready for the surge of interest in activities and programs he assumed will follow the end of the pandemic.

“Once the pandemic is over and all these kids who have been locked up all winter” come out to play, “you’re going to get bombarded by a lot of kids for a lot of programs,” he said. “Is your department prepared for that?”

Mr. Dennehy said his department is ready and that its partnership with DNS has been a big part of its preparations.

“They already have paid staff, and they have volunteers. We’re not going to be on hook to pay those people,” he said. “If I’ve got to go in the van to pick (kids) up to get them to sign up, I would be happy to do that. We are so starved to see kids in any capacity.”

Councilman Andrew Fulton, who used to serve on the Parks & Recreation Advisory Board, said DNS is very interested in bringing more educational programs into town.

“They already have programs out at Abbott’s Mill, and when they presented to the Parks & Rec Advisory (Board), they talked about how they’d like to do a lot of stuff right off the Riverwalk,” he said. “They were very excited about that, having educational sites.”

The DNS programs could also bring additional foot traffic to Milford’s downtown, Mr. Dennehy said.

“They’ve got thousands of members and over a thousand volunteers,” he said. “If we can get those people into Milford to help us out with these programs, they may want to buy lunch downtown and walk around town and do some shopping.”

Mr. Dennehy added that the partnership could also help Milford obtain additional outside funding.

“They’re affiliated with the National Wildlife Federation, so they have federal backing, which is really important,” he said. “I think it really strengthens the ability to get money at the state level and the national level.”

He believes it will also help Milford get the Riverwalk designated as an NWF-certified wildlife habitat.

Even as the new partnership with DNS is being worked out, Milford has been lucky enough to receive a national grant.

Milford, Slaughter Beach and Kent and Sussex counties joined a coalition to study the economic and ecological value of the Mispillion River and the Cedar Creek watersheds earlier this month. DNS was one of the many nonprofits that also signed on.

Through this Waterways Infrastructure and Investment Network grant, over $220,000 has been committed to the study so far.

“It’s really exciting,” Mr. Dennehy said. “The project will support ecotourism and nature-based investments that produce win-win benefits of economic opportunity and community resilience to climate and land-use changes.”

Councilman Todd Culotta said the program will also likely bring more tourists to Milford.

“Slaughter Beach can’t grow north. It can’t grow south. It can’t grow west. So when it becomes a hot spot for bird-watching and things like that, Milford really benefits from the traffic that comes in,” he said. “That’s where the partnership is really valuable to us.”

Mr. Dennehy added that those looking to watch the birds or the horseshoe crabs “have disposable income. They want to go somewhere for lunch. They want to spend some money somewhere.”

There are very few places to shop or eat in Slaughter Beach, he said.

“So where are they going to go? Hopefully, they’ll come back to Milford,” Mr. Dennehy said.