Riverwalk Center: Milford’s oldest strip mall survives

MILFORD — Across Northeast Front Street from Bicentennial Park, there’s a 100,000-square-foot strip mall called the Riverwalk Center.

Today, it’s home to an international grocery store, several immigrant-oriented businesses and Benvenuto, one of Milford’s most upscale restaurants.

But before the construction of the complex began in 1961, the area served as a swampy informal dumping ground.

Alex Aquilar, left, and his friend Jose De La Sauz, both 13, walking home across one of the foot bridges along the Riverwalk.

“It was really a marshy area, and it was really soft,” said Dave Kenton, Milford Museum’s vice president and a longtime Milford resident.

He said this soft, wet area used to extend north, up Northeast Fourth and Fifth streets.

“People used it as a landfill,” Mr. Kenton said. “They put dirt and stones and road material back there to fill it.”

He remembers the construction of the strip mall well. He was a high school freshman at the time.

Construction begins

“It was 1961 in August when they were laying the concrete and the floors. The firm that was doing it was the Downing Co. in Milford, but they had a superintendent named Frank Silicato,” Mr. Kenton said.

He said the Silicato family is still involved in a lot of Downstate real estate development.

Mr. Kenton’s older brother, Glenn Kenton, who at one point served as Delaware’s secretary of state, was working on the site.

“He was going to Swarthmore College, and he didn’t have enough money to get going there, so he was out hauling concrete,” Mr. Kenton said.

That summer, he would watch his brother work. The concrete needed to be manually hauled onto the site in wheelbarrows because the ground was too soft for the mixing trucks to get close.

“Everybody thought that the Downing family was crazy to put a shopping center out there, but the fill had gotten in there so good that it was compacted,” Mr. Kenton said.

This was Milford’s first strip mall with a big parking lot not designed with pedestrians in mind. It included stores like Woolworth’s and A&P, he said. But it didn’t signify the end of Walnut Street’s status as the city’s main commercial corridor.

For a decade, the shops downtown and the new strip mall functioned in tandem as Milford’s primary commercial district. The strip mall’s proximity to downtown served it well.

Competition

Mr. Kenton said both the downtown shopping district and the Riverwalk Center lost their supremacy in 1971.

“People still used the mom and pop stores and the ones downtown until 1971,” he said. “When they built (Milford Plaza) out there on (U.S.) 113, that’s when people started moving out to where the traffic was.”

The Riverwalk Center’s once-convenient location next to all the commerce happening downtown, away from the highway, suddenly left it at a disadvantage.

“The development of U.S. 113 probably killed not just that strip mall, but downtown Milford, also,” said Jason James, Milford’s vice mayor.

The mall began a period of slow decline over the last few decades of the 20th century, but residents didn’t stop shopping there immediately.

Mr. James remembers his mother would buy her groceries at the A&P supermarket in the late ’70s.

“That supermarket actually took up where Benvenuto is and the State Service Center beside it,” he said.

There were other prominent businesses located there, as well.

“There used to be a Woolworth’s store that had a lunch counter,” Mr. Kenton said. “There was a Farmers Bank there that became PNC Bank. There were two or three jewelry stores there.”

But the Riverwalk Center began to struggle even more in the ’80s and ’90s.

Vacancies and refurbishment

“Walmart opened, (and) ACME Market was out in Milford Plaza,” Mr. James said. “At one point in time, we had a Super Fresh out where Tractor Supply is. There was competition from other areas that were more located up and down U.S. 113.”

Mr. Kenton said that in the three decades following 1971, the strip mall “had various ups and downs, but more downs than ups. It continued to deteriorate.”

In 2004, an investor named Tony Vari bought the Riverwalk strip mall.

“When Tony Vari bought it, it was just sort of a run-down shopping center and had five or six vacancies,” Mr. Kenton said.

Canada geese looking for food along the Mispillion River in Milford.

Today, the Riverwalk Center is owned and operated by 706 Investments, a family trust Mr. Vari runs with some of his relatives.

“I purchased that center with a friend of mine,” Mr. Vari said. “That center was in dire need of a lot of repairs. I think we put (in) close to $3.5 (million) or $4 million just in repairs when we bought it.”

He said he and his partner had to replace all the utilities, resurface the parking lot and redo the sidewalks and facades on the building.

“It was a challenge,” Mr. Vari said. “Let’s put it that way.”

At the time he bought it, he said the strip mall was so dilapidated “that Milford was about ready to close it down.”

By that point, the center was largely vacant.

“We didn’t have any tenants at all,” Mr. Vari said. “Maybe one or two.”

Immigrants

One of the last renters hanging on at that time was Jesus Sandoval, who opened his Latino-oriented variety store called Plaza Mexicana in 2001 after moving to Milford from Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.

He thought it would be a good place to open a store because “there were a lot of Latinos,” the native of Jalisco, Mexico, said in Spanish.

“The Perdue chicken plant expanded between 2005 and 2015,” Mr. Kenton said. “Perdue went from one shift to three shifts out on old Rehoboth Boulevard, and when they did, that shopping center was the closest thing to where all the Hispanics were working.”

Mr. Sandoval and Mr. Kenton both recalled when Gigante, a Hispanic-oriented international supermarket, moved into an anchor space around the end of the first decade of the new millennium.

Mr. Kenton said the new anchor brought a lot of other Latino businesses to the strip mall, but Mr. Sandoval pointed out that the Riverwalk Center had been home to several Hispanic businesses before Gigante moved in.

“They were already here before. I was here, and the Mexican restaurant was here,” Mr. Sandoval said, referring to Bibi’s Restaurant and Bar.

Michelle Koam and her family moved to Milford from Philadelphia in 2012 when they bought Gigante.

“In Philadelphia, there was too much competition actually. All over, the Korean people started opening Hispanic stores,” she said. “Everybody was opening at the same time. That’s what the Korean people were doing.”

She thought it would be easier to be in that business in Milford.

“It’s a small town, so I thought we weren’t going to have too much competition,” Ms. Koam said. “That’s the whole reason why we came, to be honest.”

Today, Ms. Koam estimates that 80% of her customers are Hispanic.

“When we first came in 2012, we didn’t have any competition,” she said. “After three years, I think 2015, (Hispanics in the area) started opening small businesses.”

Latin American immigrants began opening numerous small grocery stores, restaurants and places to cash checks both in the Riverwalk Center and around downtown and the chicken plant.

Ms. Koam said these stores don’t detract from her business. They’re smaller, open late and are focused on individual Latin American nationalities.

“The Hispanics come from Honduras and Guatemala and Mexico,” she said. “They’re all different.”

Today, there is only one vacant storefront in the Riverwalk Center.

“He really gave it some tender love and care, which was really able to attract some businesses back to that strip mall,” Mr. James said of the improvements Mr. Vari funded.

“When I go there, I call it the international mall now because you have your Haitian business, all your different Mexican and Hispanic businesses, along with other businesses, also,” he said. “It’s really now a mix of cultural diversity. That’s what has brought it back to life really.”

New restaurant

But there’s a new business in the strip mall, too. Benvenuto, a high-end Italian restaurant, opened at the end of last year.
“My wife and I go every other week. It’s absolutely gorgeous in there,” Mr. James said.

“It’s definitely one of the high-end restaurants in Milford,” he said. “In my opinion, it’s a great anchor for that shopping center to inspire the owner to continue to invest in the area because they definitely attract people from all around the local area, within a 30- or 40-mile radius.”

Mr. James said he hopes Benvenuto will bring other “high-quality” businesses to that area.

He admitted that it is strange that one of Milford’s most expensive restaurants is located between the State Service Center, where the government provides health care to those in need, and a Family Dollar, a chain that is known for servicing low-income areas.

“There’s a place for everything, and maybe those things may be in the right place, maybe not,” Mr. James said. “Maybe the mix of businesses there will continue to evolve over time.”

There are other upscale businesses moving into and expanding on Northeast Front Street, too.

State Rep. Bryan Shupe, R-Milford, recently bought the old GROWMARK warehouse at 301 N.E. Front St. — the lot immediately east of Riverwalk Center — with his wife, Sherri, and his business partner, Jeff Bowers.

Rep. Shupe hopes to move Fur Baby, his wife’s kennel and pet store, into part of the warehouse early next year.

“Fur Baby will take up just under 10,000 square feet,” Rep. Shupe said. “The (pet) day care itself is moving from a space that’s under 3,000 square feet to a space that is over 9,000 square feet. We will also be adding on about half an acre of outdoor space, as well.”

Additionally, he plans to rent 3,000 square feet on the western edge of the building to Grant Shane, the owner of Clear Definition Auto Body on Rehoboth Boulevard, for a new high-end car-detailing shop.

“We’re doing high-end cars, high-end detailing,” Mr. Shane said. “Not just car washes.”

He expects the business to “bring in a lot of different people from all over the state. I’ve got a lot of clientele from all over, not just Milford.”

Overall, Mr. James is just happy that the Riverwalk Center and most of the other retail building around it are full and in good shape.

“We’re glad places are occupied,” Mr. James said. “You don’t want empty buildings or storefronts.”

Challenging location

Because he has no vacancies, Mr. Vari said he has not thought about bringing in additional high-end renters, but he said he doesn’t think they would be interested in the first place.

“I don’t think the center is the type of location that brings in higher-end clients,” he said. “I think you have to be on the highway. Higher-end clients look for traffic. That’s the one thing they look for.

“That location does not have the traffic count,” he said. “That’s a mom and pop location.”

Ms. Koam and Mr. Sandoval both like the location because it’s centrally located and their customers, some of whom are undocumented immigrants who can’t get driver’s licenses, can easily walk or bike there.

But Ms. Koam said she doesn’t get as much traffic as she would like at Gigante.

“The traffic is moving all over outside (of town) on the highways,” she said, but not through downtown.

Although many are willing to trek away from the highway to go to her business and the others in the Riverwalk Center, she said she still feels that there is simply “not enough traffic” there for the shops to be as successful as they could be.
Future

Rob Pierce, Milford’s planning and economic development director, has some ideas to revamp the Riverwalk Center.

They’re included in the Northeast Front Street streetscapes section of the city’s 2018 comprehensive plan.

Mr. Pierce said the “project will extend from Washington Street to Northeast Fourth Street, which will pass by that center.”

The goal is to “beautify” the street and make it more pedestrian-friendly.

“There will potentially be some crosswalks put in to make it more pedestrian-oriented,” Mr. Pierce said, as well as “bike paths to make it more successful to try to connect it into our overall bike network.”

He added that the comprehensive plan says, “The Riverwalk Center is close to downtown, but it feels disconnected, primarily because it’s a vehicular environment.”

In addition to increasing bike and pedestrian connections between the center and downtown, Mr. Pierce said there are renovations that could be made to the center itself.

“There are ways you could do some more tree-planting or some wider sidewalks out in front of the shopping center to make it more pedestrian-oriented,” he said. “You could even have some outdoor seating spaces for some of the eating establishments.”

Mr. Pierce said these potential changes to the strip mall’s layout are just ideas at this point.

“It doesn’t mean it necessarily has to happen or that it fits into the property owner’s business model,” he said.