Dover seeks a ‘collective’ vision of capital city’s future

DOVER — There are several groups in Dover with a variety of ideas on how to improve not only the vibe and business atmosphere in the downtown area, but the entire city overall.

Basically, there’s plenty of input — but not one collective vision.

That’s why executives from Streetsense’s Vibrant Destination Program chose to make a presentation in front of several of Dover’s civic leaders, business owners and other interested parties at the Dover Public Library on Thursday morning.

Streetsense, a Washington, D.C., marketing firm which has successfully worked with Kent County Tourism over the past couple of years, said it could help corral all the group’s ideas — as well as the city’s Comprehensive Plan that it is working on this year — and help create a future vision that would reinvigorate Dover and make residents proud of their town.

Ralph Thompson, executive director of travel and tourism for Streetsense, said his firm has many layers and is not just about being a “branding” campaign.

“It’s not an advertising agency, it’s not a consultancy, really it’s a combination of all that,” Mr. Thompson said. “It’s a collective and it’s an experience-focused consultancy which is focused on building brands that people love and places people love to be.”

He said Dover could very well be one of those places where people love to be in the future.

Tom Frank, executive director of engagement for the firm, didn’t exactly get that feeling recently when he drove into Dover.

“One of the first things we always do is we walk into a gas station when we come into a new town and we ask, ‘What is there to do here?,’” Mr. Frank said. “I was amazed when I heard the answer because the guy looked at me and was like, ‘Ain’t nothing to do here.’

“Right there I knew we had a big mission in front of us. Not only do we have to rebuild a brand, but we have to transform a community to be proud of where they live, so when the next guy walks in (that gas station) he starts rattling all of the great things about his community and why he lives there. That is really our mission.”

The costs of a future vision

Of course, that mission comes with a price. Mr. Thompson said Streetsense would charge $42,000 for an assessment into Dover’s downtown area and another $29,000 on top of that for an assessment of all of Dover.

“The assessment would take about 90 days to put together, our visioning process takes 60 to 90 days, development of a plan is in the 60- to 90-day range and the whole document and vision moving forward would be put together and presented to the community,” Mr. Thompson said, “so it is a six to nine-month initiative to get everything together and to move forward in terms of action.”

Altogether, the initial six- to nine-month period of putting a collective plan into place would cost between $500,000 to $600,000.

Mr. Thompson said the plan usually takes around a decade to completely come to fruition with an overall price tag between $1.5 and $2 million.

It was unclear who would be responsible for picking up the tab – whether it just be for the assessment or further action – the city, Downtown Dover Partnership, Kent County, or a combination of everybody involved.

Anita Evans, board chair of the Downtown Dover Partnership, said that she sees Streetsense’s potential impact as being more than just Loockerman Street downtown.

“I just think it’s a natural evolution to go ahead and move … in the county you’ve got Dover, that sits in the center, that has obviously the largest population, we have state (offices), we have the national park,” Mrs. Evans said. “We’ve got to get Dover on board to be able to branch out and revitalize not just downtown, not just the city, but also the county here in Delaware.

“I think I’ve got some phone calls to make and ask people, ‘Can we count on your support?’”

Time to take a chance

Dover City Planner David Hugg said sometimes people need to take chances if they want to get a big return, like what happened with the city of Wilmington’s Riverfront, which is now bustling with economic and entertainment activity.

“A former governor and a former president of the University of Delaware got together and stood up on the waterfront in Wilmington and said, ‘By God, we can do this.’ And they did it,” Mr. Hugg said. “We need to figure out how they got it done.

“The most important thing that they got done was the government entities stood up, put aside the politics, put aside the ‘we can’t pay for it,’ and said, ‘If it’s worth doing, we’re going to find a way to make it happen.’

Mr. Hugg added, “That’s not happened in Dover. I hate to say it, but that’s not happened. Everybody’s kind of, ‘Oh well, it’s not in our budget,’ or ‘Well, it’s not government’s responsibility,’ or ‘Well, it’s somebody else.’

“There needs to be some leader that stands up and says, ‘By God, we’re going to do it,’ and isn’t afraid to take the crap that will come.”

Shortly after that, Dover Mayor Robin R. Christiansen made a plea to everybody gathered at the presentation.

“I ask that you all reach out and ask the members of (city) council to support this financially,” Mayor Christiansen said. “There always seems to be (some) good nature that says, ‘Oh yeah, let’s do this.’

“Well, let’s actually put our money where our mouth is because I think we need to know what we want to be when we grow up. I think we need tell the mayor and council to lead, follow or get the hell out of the way.”

Dover City Councilman Fred Neil said he has seen the numbers that Streetsense has helped provide Kent County Tourism.

While admitting that the new DE Turf sports facility is part of the increase, Mr. Neil said the work of the Kent tourism staff under Executive Director Wendie Vestfall is the driving force behind the new flow of income.

Under Ms. Vestfall and her new team, with the help of Streetsense, the organization set a record for income during Fiscal Year 2017-’18 at $452,400.

Opportunity knocking on deaf ears?

Mr. Thompson said of the 45 million people within a 250-mile radius of Dover, his research shows that 26 million would be interested in what the city has to offer.

Those kinds of numbers spell out “huge opportunity” to Mr. Hugg.

“We have an opportunity in downtown Dover to make some significant things happen and bits and pieces are coming,” Mr. Hugg said. “People are talking about a parking garage positively for the first time in what, 25 years? People are talking about safety, people are talking about reinvesting in some of these properties, but they’re still not quite on the same page.

“I think the program (Streetsense is) offering is a good start and maybe there’s some pieces from this that we need to do. Maybe if we only did the assessment we’d have a better understanding of where to go.”

Mrs. Evans said that Dover now has its starting place, now it needs to collectively decide on its destination.

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

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