‘Unlock the Block’ launches second round in Dover

DOVER — It’s no secret that empty storefronts don’t attract shoppers, visitors or encourage economic vitality.
That is the primary reason why the Downtown Dover Partnership, NCALL and a team of their resource partners announced on Monday they have combined to embark on the second round of the “Unlock the Block” program.

The program aims to bring even more businesses to the city’s central business district around Loockerman Street. It also seeks to improve opportunities for current retailers in the area.

Judy Diogo, president of the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce and co-chair of the working group, said it’s extremely important to attract new businesses and fill up the historic downtown Dover office, restaurant and shopping district with activity.
More businesses mean more shoppers which equals more money, Ms. Diogo said.

“Successful outcomes in recruiting new businesses, fitting out spaces, getting finances in order and launching a successful opening take time,” Ms. Diogo said.

“One big advantage is that the resource team that comprises ‘Unlock the Block’ effectively becomes a ‘single point of contact’ whereby one-on-one help is available at each juncture of the process.”

Unlock the Block originated from NCALL’s Restoring Central Dover Economic Development Working Group and its’ targeted applicants are successful, established business owners that wish to expand.

Unlock the Block was designed to encourage economic vitality, facilitates re-development of first-floor commercial properties, and contributes to a vibrant commercial district in downtown Dover by securing owners of retail and professional goods and service businesses that have the capacity to serve/draw local and regional customers alike.

In addition to the Downtown Dover Partnership and NCALL, partners in the initiative include the city of Dover, Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce, TruAccess Capital (formerly First State Community Loan Fund), Delaware Division of Small Business and the Small Business Development Center.

The first round of Unlock the Block in 2018 brought such retailers as “Sweets & Treats,” “That Ish Boutique,” “Tina’s Timeless Threads,” “Sold Out Sneakers,” and an expanded “The Wedding Boutique” to the Loockerman Street corridor.

Previously a successful operator of a Christiana Mall kiosk, Ms. Monique Walker, owner of Sweets & Treats, said she sold out of inventory most weekends and was ready to not only expand to a brick and mortar, but also into event planning.

She continues to operate at the Capital City Farmers Market on Wednesday’s while running her store Tuesday through Saturday.
“I brought to Dover all the best sellers and more,” Mrs. Walker said, “including ice cream and milkshakes, banana pudding, cookie dough and strawberry crunch cupcakes and frozen drinks at special pricing on Thirsty Thursdays.”

This year, the Unlock the Block team is not only seeking to recruit at least one new business to the downtown district but has expanded the program to assist current downtown Dover businesses that plan to expand their footprint, inventory or customer base by March of 2020.

“It is important to first support the businesses that have already made an investment in downtown and are operating successfully,” said DDP Executive Director Diane Laird and co-chair of the working group. “These business owners already have a proven track record and we’d like to see them become even more profitable through additional square footage to accommodate more inventory or expanded product lines to diversify their customer base.”

Tammy Robinson and her daughter Ashley, owners of The Wedding Boutique at 125 A W. Loockerman Street, are one business that has seen such an expansion since opening.
Their award-winning shop features wedding and ladies formal wear, jewelry and accessories, as well as tuxedo rentals for men.

Tina Bradbury, operations and program manager for the Downtown Dover Partnership, said she is excited to see new business owners taking a chance on the city’s downtown shopping district.
“We are here to make sure we get small businesses back in the heart of our city,” Ms. Bradbury said. “This is the heartbeat (of the city) — downtown. We’re not calling them vacancies, they are ‘opportunities’ waiting to happen.

“We are interested in getting new entrepreneurs down here in our Loockerman/Main Street corridor to really be a catalyst to drive economic development.”
Under the second round of the Unlock the Block program that was announced on Monday, business owner applicants that can best exhibit the capacity to be successfully located in or expand within one of the properties will advance to an opportunity to “pitch” their concept.

Selected business owners will receive a package of incentives customized to their needs. The package will be determined on a case by case basis and may include a combination of technical services, monetary reimbursements, or other incentives, though not necessarily each.

Examples could include advertising/marketing or accounting assistance; building infrastructure, cosmetic enhancements, or business signage; essential equipment; web site design; and may include a Chamber of Commerce one-year membership and application fees waived by TruAccess Capital with possible expediting of loan process.

Unlock the Block is seeking businesses that include — but are not limited to — women’s clothing, fitness-related, healthy lifestyle such as frozen fruit bowls, smoothies, cooking and gourmet shop (cheeses, oils), a wine shop and florist.

Four properties are currently in the portfolio of available spaces in downtown Dover located on Loockerman Street, South Bradford and South Street Alley.

The deadline for entries is Oct. 18 while the target date to announce the program’s selectees is the end of November.
Ms. Bradbury said it’s important to have a vibrant downtown district, adding that the downtown area currently has around 86 active storefronts and businesses.

“I see this as a great advancement in our economic development and progression to other new businesses wanting to open downtown,” Mrs. Bradbury said.

“We have our next round of ‘Unlock the Block’ (business development program) starting and so this, along with our great Downtown Development District incentives, should make for an excellent opportunity to start or expand a business here in downtown Dover.

“We are in business to help new businesses and ready to welcome them to our neighborhood. Great things are happening here in downtown Dover and we want everyone to know.”

Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen described the Unlock the Block effort as a win-win for both business owners and the city.
“Downtown Dover has a lot to offer anyone who is considering starting or expanding a business,” Mayor Christiansen said. “From financial incentives to accessible government officials, we are big enough to be a city but small enough to be a hometown.

“Through the city of Dover, Kent County and state of Delaware, there are many incentives and grants available to help pave the way. With so many people living, working and playing in and around the downtown Dover area, it is a formula for success.”

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

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