By Sam Waltz
Jewel of the Nile, it’s not. But Delaware’s own namesake municipality Delaware City is repositioning itself as a hub for tourism and business in northern Delaware.
When Gov. Jack Markell snipped the ribbon June 9 to celebrate the remodeling and reopening of Crabby Dick’s with the city’s leaders, they were observing not just the return of the popular restaurant but also celebrating that the “no vacancy” sign shines once more on Clinton Street, with virtually all its storefronts occupied.
The Central Hotel, one of Clinton Street’s historic sites that long looked closer to collapse than restoration, is completely restored and occupied by a national birding group’s headquarters.
The Sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the Civil War is bringing more and more visitors to the real Jewel of the Delaware, Fort Delaware, which sits on Pea Patch Island in the middle of the Delaware River, where it once housed both Confederate prisoners from Gettysburg and civil dissidents protesting President Lincoln’s usurpation of civil liberties.
Even surrounding businesses are getting in on the act, including the Clarion Belle Hotel, which sits virtually at the foot of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, where it has effectively positioned itself as the hotel of choice for tourism visitors to Delaware City and Old New Castle, for history, for Route 9 sports like Kirkwood Soccer, and increasingly for eco-tourism.
Even another “gastropub meets artisanal deli” has opened on Clinton Street, the tongue-in-cheek-named Lewinsky’s on Clinton, a sly reference to former president Bill Clinton and his fling with young intern Monica Lewinsky.
Mayor Stanley E. Green, a silver-haired and diminutive retired cop, and City Manager Richard “Dick” Cathcart, a former longtime Delaware legislator, delight in the slightly ribald humor that prompts visitors to chuckle. But, more importantly, they value the renaissance that is underway.
“This city really is on the threshold of rediscovering its greatness,” said Mayor Green, who also serves on the board of directors of the Police Athletic League, and who helped bring a PAL center to Delaware City for the community’s youth.
Rise of a ‘shining star’
Founded in Delaware’s earliest years as a colony, Delaware City remained home to fewer than 1,000 residents until the Civil War, when its population began to increase. Today it has about 1,700 residents, based on nearly 600 households and 400 families. The city, which has about a $1.4 million budget, is about 85 percent white and about 10 percent African-American.
Its population is largely blue-collar, with a median household income of about $44,000, leaving its 19706 ZIP code well outside Delaware’s top 25 ZIP codes in affluence, according to the Book of Lists from the Delaware Business Times.
“I thought it had the phenomenal bones of a good body,” said Cathcart, who became city manager four years ago. “I became acquainted it with in much greater detail, when it became part of my ‘Rep District’ in the General Assembly, and I liked what I saw. I felt it could be turned into a shining star.”
He said the nationally known American Birding Association “put us on its map” in 2014, when it moved its ABA headquarters from Colorado to the old Central Hotel. The city put together a plan to restore the old hotel and cobbled together public and private funding to accomplish it.
The city developed its own “Main Street Program,” with a focused effort to redevelop and occupy Clinton Street, and to bring more people to town, and has also boosted community programming with car-cruising events and more events at Fort Delaware.
Perhaps the biggest event on the horizon, he said, is the prospective redevelopment of Fort DuPont, a 322-acre former military base used from the Civil War through World War II, of which portions have been dedicated as a state park. Named for Rear Adm. Samuel Francis du Pont, it has been home to a variety of activities, for years housing the Delaware Emergency Management Agency there in an underground bunker, housing the Gov. Bacon Health Center, and contracting out facilities for, among other things, residential treatment programs.
It fronts not only the Delaware River, but the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal.
The city this summer is hiring a manager to lead the redevelopment of the park over the next several years, and Cathcart encourages people to look at the site as a prospective business, office or industrial park.
Some businesses already are headquartering in Delaware City, among them Metro Merchant Services, a payment processing company, based there by its founder Mark Landis.
Ecotourism and recreational tourism will continue to play a bigger part in Delaware City’s economy, too, as more trails develop. The Michael Castle Trail, part of the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, will complete its Delaware City link later this year, connecting the trail from the north with Old New Castle and to the west along the C&D Canal.
Paul Rada, general manager of the Clarion Belle, also president of the Delaware Lodging Association this year, the hotel industry’s trade group, is delighted to see the progress, since he has based part of the Belle’s marketing focus on destination travel for historic and recreational travel to the New Castle and Delaware City regions.
“We’ve put together the Hidden Treasures package, which entitles our guests to an overnight stay, a $25 gift card to the Augusta Grille and a laminated coupon that could be used throughout Historic New Castle or Delaware City, for a 10 percent discount at most of the shops and restaurants,” said Rada.