Developing Dover: ‘Healthy economy’ spurs construction

DOVER — Construction projects scattered all around Dover offer visual evidence that the city continues to grow.

For proof, just take a glance at the future sites of the Capital Station shopping center and Century Engineering building projects where workers are putting their touches on new additions to the city’s business landscape.

Just in 2018, Dover saw the doors swing open to new facilities such as: Longhorn Steakhouse; renovations that created the House of Coffi; a building and warehouse facility for Chesapeake Utilities/Eastern Shore Natural Gas Dover Campus; the Islamic Society of Central Delaware mosque; Dover Christian Church; and the Truck Store.

Dave Hugg, director of planning, inspections and community development for the city of Dover, said the variety of new construction in 2018 is what makes him optimistic, though he admitted there are troubling signs when it comes to Dover’s housing market.

“It’s kind of an interesting economy that we live in,” Mr. Hugg said. “A whole lot of things went on last year. There are a wide variety of things that are going on in the city which seems to me is an indication that our overall economy is relatively healthy across the board.

“Development in the city over the past year has been proceeding briskly, continuing the pace of the previous year. Dover has been discovered, and our efforts to be proactive are reflected in growth in business opportunities, new facilities of all kinds, a revitalized downtown, and a leadership role in our region. And all of this is being well managed by a staff of dedicated professionals working together toward our shared goals.”

While many businesses and a couple of churches built new facilities in 2018, many others settled into renovated buildings, which appears to be the big trend in Dover, according to Mr. Hugg.

“What seems to be happening in Dover is a lot of renovation, a lot of folks discovering there are opportunities out there to take old buildings and either use them for new purposes or simply repurpose them for the same purpose,” he said. “We’re seeing a lot more of that in our workload than we were in the last couple of years.”

Some of those renovations to buildings that welcomed new tenants included: HomeGoods; the Tire Store; Wolfies Grill; Mod Pizza; Brandywine Valley SPCA property; several tenant spaces in the Dover Mall; tenant space improvements in the Blue Hen Corporate Center; and renovations to city’s Water Treatment Plant.

Then there were renovations and remodels to existing businesses that were just as popular, including: Pat’s Select; an expansion of the Golden Fleece; McDonald’s in North Dover; Wawa in West Dover; Target and Safeway; Victoria’s Secret in the Dover Mall; the creation of an outdoor patio at LaBaquette Bakery downtown; and renovations to the Delaware Department of Transportation’s Main Office Building.

Mr. Hugg said he is pleased at all the construction projects that are taking place within the city but is concerned at the same time.

“Business licenses is another indicator that we look at to see kind of what’s happening with the economy and this is another one of those places where I start to get nervous because it’s a pretty flat line,” he said. “One would expect that our total business licenses issued would at least eke up from year to year, but in fact, last year and the year before were pretty much identical.

“I guess the good news is that it means that as we lose businesses, new businesses are opening and taking their place, and the economy’s maintaining itself. The bad news is we’re not really gaining particularly. That will probably change when some of these tenant spaces that are under construction get filled, but at least for 2018, it was kind of a flat number.”

Anticipated projects

Some of those anticipated projects include Capital Station, being built at the site previously occupied by an abandoned Playtex manufacturing facility, as well as two new multi-tenant buildings at 1128 Forrest Avenue that will include a Dunkin Donuts.

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.

“I don’t think so much there are obstacles,” Mr. Finnegan said. “I understand the city of Dover sees this as the gateway (to the city), and very much so it is. You can see by the architecture that we’ve put together, it’s in keeping with what you see down here. There’s a lot of brick. We’re trying to give them a project that’s in keeping with this whole straightaway with this site.

“I think what we propose here is in keeping what’s going up and down with the commercial aspects of what’s going on, but it is going to look much better than what they’ve had for 17 years there in an abandoned state.”

Other projects currently underway throughout Dover are: Post-Acute Medical Rehabilitation Hospital for a new physical rehabilitation hospital project; Advantech office/light manufacturing building; compressed natural gas station facility at Chesapeake Utilities; Dover Dialysis Center; Century Engineering office building; new residence hall at Delaware State University; a clubhouse building at The Grande Apartment complex in west Dover and DGKP office and warehouse building project at 1351 West North Street, which includes demolition of the previous building foundation and construction of a new building

All those projects are invaluable to the city.

Mr. Hugg said he expects to see two or three new businesses downtown this year and noted that, based on permits, the value of new construction was around $170 million in 2018.

At last May’s groundbreaking at the new Century Engineering building at 550 Bay Road, Dover Mayor Robin R. Christiansen said he believes the project, along with several other ones in the area, is heralding a new lease on life for the stretch of Bay Road that used to house the Blue Hen Mall.

“We’re actively going to market the Bay Road area to hotels, motels and places to eat,” he said. “Century Engineering and the $26 million Chesapeake Utilities building across the street are going to be a few of the drivers that bring more people to come live, work and play in the city of Dover. When dirt is moving in Dover, Dover is moving ahead.”

Housing market concerns

While all the stores, restaurants and businesses all have their shovels in the dirt, Mr. Hugg did say he has concern for the future of Dover’s housing market.

The city issued 238 Certificates of Occupancy last year – 60 for commercial projects, 144 for single-family, townhouse and duplex residences (178 actual dwellings due to duplexes) and 29 permits were for apartment buildings with multiple units (378 units). These new residential units are estimated to have added almost 1,360 new residents to the city last year.

“The good news is we’re seeing build-out of existing developments,” Mr. Hugg said. “The bad news is we’re not seeing a lot of new subdivision activity, and that’s a bit of a concern. There’s a little bit of concern that there may be a bubble here in the housing market that we may see a slowdown either this year or next year.

“If there is bad news (to new home construction in Dover), it’s that the average value of new housing in Dover is fairly flat at around $200,000. We’re not seeing mid- or upper-level value construction taking place and we don’t see much on the horizon.”

Residential construction

Residential construction activity took place in 2018 and some continues in: Clearview Meadows; Nottingham Meadows; Seskinore; Village of Cannon Mill; Village of Westover; Chestnut Grove Farms; Lexington Glen and Patriot Village, as well as in the Downtown Development District with single-family homes being built on North Kirkwood Street, North New Street and North Governors Avenue.

Mr. Hugg said construction activities continue at the Leander Lakes Apartments, with the last two apartment buildings under construction.

Multi-family residential projects completed in 2018 included: Phase 2 of the Blue Hen Apartment Complex; the reconstruction of Liberty Court Apartments; the renovations of Whatcoat Village Apartments and a new Clubhouse Building; and the Tall Pines project on Kenton Road. A permit was also issued for a Multiplex Building at 299 College Road.

Mr. Hugg’s city Planning Office has been busy over the past several months finalizing Dover’s new Comprehensive Plan, while also keeping an eye out for such potential future projects as the construction of a downtown parking garage and working with State of Delaware and Kent County officials on opening an air cargo ramp at what was formerly called the “Civil Air Terminal” at Dover Air Force Base.

Future focus

“As we think about the future, we think about what the things are that we need to be focusing on,” Mr. Hugg said. “Obviously, our day-to-day business is important, but we’ve still got a lot of comprehensive planning work to do, we’ve got some special studies underway.

” We’re actively working with the state and the county on the air cargo facility, trying to put together a marketing strategy for Garrison Oak (Technology Park) and we’ve got an RFP for the downtown parking garage out.”

Mr. Hugg seemed particularly excited, and optimistic, about the potential for the air cargo ramp project.

The biggest sticking point may be that previous discussions of a Joint Use Agreement between the state and the Air Force only called for two-year agreements.

The new agreement calls for a 50-year agreement between the state and the military.

‘Tremendous opportunity’

“We’re working with the state and the county on some master planning to the Central Delaware Aviation complex, otherwise known as the Civil Air Terminal,” he said. “I think that’s just a tremendous opportunity for Dover and the county that has, for a variety of reasons, not been achieved.

“I wish I could stand here and tell you the Joint Use Agreement was signed, but I can tell you it’s awfully close, and that will be a major accomplishment.”

The air cargo ramp largely was pitched as a place to “park” and service private cargo planes in what was formerly called the “Civil Air Terminal” area at Dover Air Force Base among some of the original discussion and initiatives outlined over the past few decades. Cargo outfits such Evergreen and Atlas would fly in to the base, but not be able to stay so the planes would be flown to Philadelphia and costs amounted to tens of thousands of dollars each time.

The air cargo ramp would be what formerly was called the Civil Air Terminal at the end of Horsepond Road in Dover. Currently, the terminal is most used on NASCAR weekends when drivers and crews arrive and depart in private planes.

As for those other goals, Mr. Hugg said he just wants people to know that Dover is always “open for business.”

“I think we have done a good job of being service-oriented,” he said. “We have certainly turned around the image of the department and that’s certainly very encouraging.”

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