Downstate cities, towns marked for development

Smyrna mayor Joanne Masten speaks during Downtown Development District winners announcement in Smyrna on Wednesday. (Delaware Sate News/Marc Clery)

Smyrna mayor Joanne Masten speaks during Downtown Development District winners announcement in Smyrna on Wednesday. (Delaware Sate News/Marc Clery)

SMYRNA — A decidedly downstate flavor prevailed Wednesday when Gov. Jack Markell announced the five new recipients of the Downtown Development Districts designation.

Smyrna, Milford and Harrington received the distinction from Kent County, while Georgetown and Laurel from Sussex County made up the second class of the Downtown Development Districts.

Gov. Markell looked around at the intersection of Main and Commerce streets in downtown Smyrna on a hot and steamy morning and said these are the kinds of places that need investment to revitalize towns throughout the state.

“We want more than our share of folks who want to live, work and enjoy themselves in our downtown areas,” the governor said. “Across the country you’ve seen a lot of people coming back downtown.

“When you look around [downtown Smyrna] this is the perfect place – and you can pick any place in any of these [DDD] towns to have this conversation. Just imagine … the infrastructure’s here. You don’t have to build. Everything you want is here.”

Investors who make qualified improvements to residential, commercial or industrial properties in Smyrna, Milford, Harrington, Georgetown and Laurel may now qualify for state and local development incentives, including 20 percent state grant rebates.

Delaware’s Office of State Planning Coordination led the process in reviewing the applications and designating the new districts.

Milford mayor Brian Shupe speaks during Downtown Development District winners announcement in Smyrna on Wednesday.

Milford mayor Brian Shupe speaks during Downtown Development District winners announcement in Smyrna on Wednesday.

Applications were scored based on the town or city’s need for Downtown Development District incentives, the jurisdiction’s downtown revitalization plan and the creativity of its incentive package.

Dover, Seaford and Wilmington were selected in January 2015 as Delaware’s first Downtown Development Districts. Since last year, $14 million in DDD grant fun¬ding has leveraged $290 million of private investment in those cities.

The DDD program, which was unanimously approved by the General Assembly in 2014, is designed to build on the state’s efforts to redevelop Delaware’s commercial business districts and help drive private investment in towns and cities throughout the state.

“The Downtown Development Districts program already is driving major investment in our cities, from Market Street in Wilmington to the banks of the Nanticoke River in Seaford,” said Gov. Markell. “More Delawareans than ever want to live and work in walkable, urban areas. This expansion will help meet that demand by encouraging private development of downtown areas statewide.”

Gov. Jack Markell speaks during Downtown Development District winners announcement in Smyrna on Wednesday.

Gov. Jack Markell speaks during Downtown Development District winners announcement in Smyrna on Wednesday.

Kent County cities search for spark

Brooks Banta, president of the Kent County Levy Court, announced an additional bonus for the DDD towns in Kent County. He said that Levy Court has agreed to match up to $10,000 for each town in the county that received the designation.

Smyrna Mayor Joanne Masten laid out four projects that she hopes “ignite even more progress” in her town.

She hopes the additional funding helps Smyrna renovate the Wright Mansion on the corner of East Commerce Street, which the town acquired in a sheriff’s sale in November 2015.

Mayor Masten is also hoping the town will be able to complete the third floor of the Smyrna Wellness Center on the South Main Street, build a new Smyrna Library downtown and do something more senior-focused “that will lend itself to housing and a variety of small shops.”

“We are excited about the transformation that will occur in the next few years in downtown Smyrna,” she said. “Smyrna has been working hard to grow our downtown and the Downtown Development District designation will help ignite even more progress and at a quicker pace.”

With a huge $300 million Bayhealth healthcare campus under construction on the southeast side of Milford, it is a town that is obviously on a growth spurt.

Milford Mayor Bryan Shupe and city officials have been pushing a Rivertown Rebirth Plan over the past year that they hope will revitalize the downtown area and take advantage of opportunities along the banks of the Mispillion River.

Mr. Shupe said the DDD designation should serve as a catalyst for improvements to Milford’s downtown.

“It’s very exciting for the city of Milford to start putting some shovels in the ground and the DDD designation really helps us to do that,” he said. “We had over $30 million dollars from developers and other individuals ready to go that were waiting on this decision by the state of Delaware.

“We’ve got a Touch of Italy [restaurant] coming to the corner of Front Street and Walnut Street at the former M&T Bank building and we have an interested party in [the vacant] Lou’s Bootery [store]. We also have some restaurants that are interested in moving onto the Mispillion River. So we’re really excited and this program will allow us to kick it into gear.”

Harrington Mayor Anthony R. Moyer said his city recently adopted a Downtown Development District Plan with input from the community, various organizations, downtown businesses and a Downtown Task Force with support from the City Council and Planning Commission.

He also believes the DDD funding will help get several projects jumpstarted in Harrington.

“The city recently approved five District specific incentives and 10 other citywide incentives, created several development resources and ensured infrastructure was in place,” Mayor Moyer said. “With this designation, our downtown is certain to prosper, maintain its character and be the center of our community.”

Sussex County towns also rallying for revitalization

Georgetown Mayor Bill Moyer joked that he wasn’t looking to his town to turn into the next Philadelphia, he just wants visitors to stay about five minutes longer.

He said the town will be working on completing its implementation plan, spreading the word about its DDD designation and invite new and existing projects to take advantage of the opportunity.

“Georgetown is committed to revitalizing the downtown district,” Mr. Moyer said. “It only takes 13 seconds to go through ‘The Circle’ to out of town.

“With this money and these accomplishments that we can make we’re going to make that a three- or four-minute drive and get people interested in stopping and visiting our downtown district.”

Meanwhile, Laurel Mayor John Shwed said his town will be focusing its efforts on attracting businesses along Broad Creek and helping to preserve some 800 homes on the historic register.

“Laurel is a town that is proud of its past and has a bright future and right now that future is settling in our downtown district along Broad Creek,” Mr. Shwed said. “We want to turn that little town into a center of ecotourism, so along the creek we’re trying to build some new businesses and build some new housing.”

The future for DDD cities and towns

In early September, the Delaware State Housing Authority will launch a new funding round for large projects in each of the five newly named Downtown Development Districts.

Nearly $8 million in funding will be available for projects statewide. Applications to fund small projects – defined as investments of less than $250,000 in a designed downtown district – are accepted on a rolling basis.

Each town has different goals and different incentives for participating in the DDD program.

For example, in Laurel, local incentives include property tax relief and coordinated cross-agency efforts to help investors build homes, promote homeownership and rehabilitate vacant properties.

Meanwhile, Smyrna is offering business consulting services, discounted utility charges and assistance from a Revolving Loan Fund for Downtown Development District investors.

“All of Delaware’s towns and cities are unique and I am so pleased that we were able to expand this program to the five diverse communities being recognized [Wednesday]: Laurel, Harrington, Smyrna, Milford and Georgetown,” said State Planning Director Constance Holland.

“The best part of this program is that it supports such a wide range of redevelopment activities so each town can thrive.”

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