Downtown Dover director glories in ‘hands-on’ approach

DOVER — If there’s a crowd of people gathered for an event in downtown Dover, don’t be surprised to see Diane Laird right there in the middle of them.

A self-described “people person,” Ms. Laird has been hands-on since taking over the role of executive director of the Downtown Dover Partnership on Sept. 10 of last year. She just hopes that her passion for bringing positive energy to the downtown area is contagious and other people catch her fever.

“I love the people,” Ms. Laird said. “I love being in amongst people, I love finding solutions to problems and challenges, and I consider myself a problem-solver. That’s really what my role is … and finding creative solutions.

“Even with that, there are definitely a few nuts to crack, let’s put it that way. It could be with long-term vacant properties that are challenges, businesses that are not getting the highest and best use of the property (which) just doesn’t allow (the DDP) to make an overall best puzzle. The downtown mix of businesses and properties, it’s all a puzzle, and rearranging the puzzle pieces to get to a highest and best use will be an ongoing challenge.”

Ms. Laird said she hears the murmurs that the lure of downtown to visitors and shoppers is a thing of the past, but she is not buying it. She sees first-hand how the Downtown Dover Partnership, Destination Downtown Dover and NCALL’s Restoring Central Dover are all working in chorus to turn the downtown corridor around.

“It’s a very good time,” she said. “I kind of talk about the tipping point and I think we’re approaching a tipping point with development, with good organizations and leaders in place, and with coalescing our efforts.

“I think we’re reaching a tipping point where good things come together, more people invest, more businesses appear and more events, promotions and more reasons for people to come downtown, and the tipping point means people start to come faster, quicker and invest more.

“I think plans to address the parking (issues downtown) are imminent. I think that there will probably be new placement for the farmer’s market this summer near to where it’s been, but it’s a good relocation due to the Loockerman Way Plaza sale that’s pending and could be any day now and that, in itself, is excellent. It has always been the vision to redevelop that property. It’s always been a vision not to be a parkland there. It’s always been a vision to build more critical mass of retail and perhaps residential or commercial there.”

She added, “There are a lot of people who are disappointed to see that Loockerman Way Plaza will not be there any longer, but we’ll find other places to suit the activities that go on there.”

Ms. Laird admitted that she has no clear vision for what a “perfect” downtown Dover would look like, but she would like to see people of all ages — and races — come out to enjoy First Fridays, which take place with local musicians and artists performing in the businesses downtown in the cold weather months under the coordination of the DDP, before the event spills out onto Loockerman Street with Destination Downtown Dover when the weather heats up.

“I don’t have a vision of a perfect anywhere, but I do have a vision for almost full blocks with very little vacancy,” said Ms. Laird. “No vacancy is really not even an idea that you hope for because it’s almost impossible to achieve and you always need to have a little bit of vacancy, so you have room to move the puzzle pieces, good transportation for those who may be lacking transportation and thriving events that bring many, many people in on a regular basis.

“We want age diversity and let’s just say diversity of all kinds of people. We want to attract millennials, but those that are 55-plus often want the same thing that millennials want. We want a healthy lifestyle, we want to be able to walk to where we want to go, we want to be able to go to the drugstore, groceries and a good dinner in the same walk.

“So, the things that millennials want are things that most people want, and especially the boomers.”

Reaching out to colleges

Ms. Laird said she would especially love to see students and staff from Wesley College, Delaware State University, Wilmington University and Delaware Tech-Terry Campus volunteer to join the downtown organizations, gain some experience and help to create a buzz for the city.

“We want to engage the colleges more,” Ms. Laird said. “With First Fridays now (in the colder months), our purpose is programming artists and musicians in the stores, and this month we have a number of Wesley College students and even high school students from the region coming to perform in the stores. So, they bring their friends, and that encourages a younger population and then they get to see what’s down here and do a little shopping and eating, too.

“We do have a very good core of volunteers, but that is absolutely one of my goals is to expand the volunteer base. I have a sign-up online (Tinyurl.com/DoverFun) for people to look at specifically the kinds of volunteer jobs that we’re trying to fill, so there are titles for volunteers and job descriptions and time frames. First Fridays has been a good opportunity to grow that volunteer base.”

Ms. Laird’s big plans come out of a small office on the first floor of the CenDel Foundation Community Building located at 101 Loockerman Street, alongside Tina Bradbury (operations manager for the DDP) and Brynn Voshell (administrative assistant/market manager).

Since becoming executive director of the DDP, Ms. Laird leads a downtown revitalization organization comprised almost wholly of volunteers from the local and state government, nearby educational institutions, tourism and economic development partners, business and property owners and residents of Dover.

“It’s good,” she said. “I feel well-received here and very welcomed by the community. I’m not really seeing surprises, but that’s not to say the work isn’t challenging.

“There’s plenty of challenges, but there’s also great opportunities, great leadership in place from Mayor (Robin Christiansen) on down, including Dave Hugg who is the city planner, and other organizations like NCALL, D3 (Destination Downtown Dover), who are all doing good work. So, coalescing those efforts and supporting one another, that’s really what my goal is.”

Right at home with DDP

The challenges aren’t new to Ms. Laird. She had served on the DDP board of directors and worked with city leadership to improve downtown Dover for eight years. She succeeded Interim Executive Director Maureen Feeney Roser after former Executive Director Joan Cote submitted her resignation to the DDP board of directors last January.

Ms. Laird brought more than 20 years of experience and leadership in downtown revitalization and small business development to her new role with the DDP.

Upon her hiring, she said she was excited to take over in her new expanded role after watching the DDP grow over the past decade after the Downtown Dover Development Corporation, Main Street Dover and the Dover Parking Authority merged to form the DDP in July 2008.

The New Jersey native had served on the National Main Street executive council and, since 1998, served as state coordinator for Downtown Delaware, a community revitalization resource center within the Division of Small Business, a division of the Delaware Secretary of State.

In that job, Ms. Laird secured more than $500,000 in USDA grants and coordinated and delivered technical services and resources to 16 accredited and affiliated Main Street communities statewide, while providing support to downtown entrepreneurs and small business owners.

“My years of service to the Downtown Delaware program as coordinator were a labor of love,” she said. “They showed me the impact of volunteer-driven, local revitalization efforts and strategies and particularly their impact on business development, vacancy reduction, and building stronger communities through preservation-based economic development.”

Anita Evans, chair of the DDP’s board of directors, said Ms. Laird was a natural fit for the DDP after it considered candidates both locally and nationally for the position.

“We are delighted that Diane (Laird) is joining the DDP as our new executive director,” Mrs. Evans said, when Ms. Laird was hired. “Her experience with Main Street programs and strong background in economic development, non-profit management, and design and marketing strategies are assets to the organization.

“We’re looking forward to Diane’s leadership in the continued enhancement of downtown Dover.”

Not a one-person job …

One thing that Ms. Laird makes clear is that making downtown Dover a success is something that she cannot do on her own.

“I like to say that our work here is by the community, for the community,” she said. “Partnering with other downtown organizations, with the city, nonprofits and people, that’s how you get to the end game. There’s really no end game, but there is a vision and everybody’s working toward the same vision, we’re sharing personnel and committees and we’re in regular conversations.

“I serve on the steering committee with Restoring Central Dover, (NCALL’s) Will Grimes is on all of our committees, so there’s a lot of cooperation there. We’re working with D3, partnering on First Fridays and our design committee just met with the D3 representatives to ensure that we’re supporting each other’s efforts. We have good ongoing relations with the city.”

She admitted that one of the perfect scenarios for Dover would to have the Schwartz Center for the Arts reopen with regular programming, as well as an anchor tenant that would take over the former site of the Loockerman Exchange at the busy corner of Loockerman and State Streets.

“There has to be compelling reasons to come to a place,” said Ms. Laird. “We have a number of excellent businesses here, and restaurants as well, and so encouraging people to come down to use them they certainly see other things going on then.

“We’re looking at eventually having a First Friday music jam in one of our smaller spaces where people can just come with their instruments and play and meet other musicians, so that starts to be a reason for people to come for social reasons as well as for shopping or other reasons.

“We just are trying to make downtown again the social core of the community — that is the goal.”

First Friday in February

This Friday will mark the First Friday in February when local musicians and artists will fill downtown stores and restaurants to entertain visitors with their talents from 5 p.m. until 8 p.m.

Guests are also invited to a kickoff celebration for a downtown mural project at Wesley College on Friday at 5:15 p.m. inside the Longwood Hall Room 101 at 21 North Bradford Street. Painting will take place until 8 p.m.

People of all ages — no experience is necessary — are invited to participate in the project that will take place at the college every Friday this spring from 5 until 8 p.m.

The finished mural will eventually be attached to the rear of a building downtown and will beautify an alley and parking lot on Minor Street.

The Downtown Dover Partnership Design Committee, led by Kristin Pleasanton, partnered with Josh Nobling, assistant professor of art at Wesley College, on the design of the latest community mural.

“Professor Nobling created a colorful scene of native Delaware birds to bring visual excitement to the Minor Street alley and parking lot,” Ms. Pleasanton said. “The mural will be painted directly onto parachute cloth and applied to the rear façade of the building owned by Mitten and Winters CPAs by early summer.”

The popular First Friday Jolly Trolley Bus will return on Friday to take visitors on a free-to-ride loop around downtown Dover attractions where they are invited to hop on or off at any of the locations, including the Dover Public Library, Wesley College, The Green, Loockerman Street and the Biggs Museum.

If visitors look hard enough, either in one of the businesses or on the trolley Friday night, they will probably spot Ms. Laird among the crowds — trying her best to make downtown Dover “the place to be” once again.

First Friday’s performance lineup

(subject to change)

Anthony, Victor, and Cambria at Zuha Trends – Percussion, Trumpet, and Saxophone Trio from Wesley College.

Lyndsey Collison, Roving Poet at My Roots, Bel Boutique, Forney’s Too and House of Coffi.

Tom Hench at Forney’s Too – Singer/Songwriter on guitar/harmonica, mixed folk type story-telling, with a variety of humorous to serious overtones. Daniele Lundin at My Roots – Casual acoustic, pop and inspirational music accompanied by acoustic guitar.

Mike Miller at Bayard Pharmacy – Acoustic guitar and Americana themed pieces.

Mollie Raley Hall at House of Coffi – Singer/Songwriter on guitar, ukulele and mandolin, an eclectic mix of mostly folk and pop.

Earl Reed at Simaron Pizza and Steak Shop – Acoustic guitar blend of classic rock & pop.

Ryan Schumacher and friends from Wesley College at BLUvintage – Jazz to more popular tunes in the acoustic style on guitar, bass, and piano.

Rick and Tish Schuman at Dover Health Care Center – Singers/Songwriters on acoustic guitar and drums with a focus on late 1960’s/early 1970’s and original pieces. Ambient background restaurant sounds.

Bill Trench at Bel Boutique – Acoustic guitar/vocalist pop and inspirational, gentle sounds.

Leilani Wall at La Baguette Bakery – Singer/Songwriter, accompanied by her 12 string Adamas guitar, enjoy everything from quiet ballads, classic rock to table-thumping Irish drinking songs.

Mitchell Wiseman and Friends at The Loocke – Tenor sax, trombone, clarinet and keyboard from Middletown High School.

In Harmony Concert Series: Steel drummers – Dover Public Library

Jan Crumpley and the Delmarva Ukelele Band as well as presentations on the historic Capitol Hotel and lore of The Green – The Delaware Store and Parke Green Galleries

Various musicians – The Grey Fox, 33 West and Governor’s Café

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

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