By Christine Facciolo
Special to Delaware Business Times
When Dave Hugg decided to grab a cup of coffee before work last year, he was shocked to find nothing brewing on Loockerman Street.
Delaware’s capital city seemed to encourage people to pass it by.
“If you have to go out on the highway to the Wawa, you’re probably not going to go back into Dover,” said Hugg, who came out of retirement to take over as city planner last year.
While Coffee is now perking in downtown Dover thanks to the House of Coffi, which opened in March, the problem of vacant storefronts still dogs Dover’s Loockerman Street corridor.
Now state and local entities are coming together to promote small business and reduce vacancies.
The “Unlock the Block” campaign which was unveiled last month looks to assist landlords in finding tenants for those empty properties and also directing property owners to incentives that are available for redevelopment.
Four properties have been confirmed to participate in the program: 1 W. Loockerman St., 155 So. Bradford St., 204 Loockerman St. and 147 S. Governors Ave.
Tenants for this initial group of vacancies will be selected through a pitch competition judged by local experts.
Those selected for the program will receive a combination of incentives and assistance, including fee waivers, free business consulting services and technical assistance.
“We’re doing the program to highlight the spaces but also to let people know about the DDD incentives,” said Tina Bradbury, operations manager of the Downtown Dover Partnership. “People worry about opening a business and this really lets them know that we support them.”
Diane Laird, state coordinator for the Division of Small Business’ Downtown Delaware program, calls the program a formula for success. “Dover has a number of excellent businesses and this provides a great opportunity to bring a few more in.”
Mayor Robin Christiansen agrees. “We need to pursue these programs and ‘Unlock the Block’ is just another item to help us revitalize our downtown area as people trend toward boutique shopping.”
Hugg is pleased with the collaboration among several organizations, including the Downtown Dover Partnership, city of Dover, Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce, Kent Economic Partnership, First State Community Loan Fund, NCALL and the Division of Small Business.
“What’s happened recently is that we’ve had great success in building a collaboration to get things done and ‘Unlock the Block’ is an example of it.”
Indeed, Hugg, former town manager for Smyrna, feels that it was a lack of vision and cooperation that caused Dover to lag behind other towns in Kent County in its efforts to revitalize its downtown district.
“In Smyrna, there was a shared vision in terms of what we wanted downtown to be and the kinds of things we wanted to go after,” he said. “I’m not so sure that was the case here in Dover.”
Moreover, he noted, the city had its own issues in trying to figure out its role in economic development. “It had an economic development department, and then it didn’t,” he said. Then it got transferred to the Downtown Partnership, and I think it’s unclear whether the focus is going to be downtown or the whole city. So there were a lot of things that slowed the success rate here in Dover.”
Hugg also feels that Dover has failed to leverage the many assets it has, namely its history, being the seat of state government and education. The city is home to four institutions of higher learning: Delaware State University, Wilmington University, Wesley College and Delaware Technical Community College.
“We’ve not been able to take advantage of the proximity particularly of Wesley College,” he said. “If you think of Newark or anywhere else that has a large student population, they’re integral to the community. That doesn’t seem to have happened in Dover … yet.”
One building Hugg would like to see occupied is the Loockerman Exchange Building on the corner of Loockerman and State streets. “That’s one of the signature buildings,” he said. “Getting someone in that building would really help downtown.”
Then there’s the challenge of what to do about the West End, the area below Governors Avenue. “It’s an area with all the perception issues, blighted, lots of crime, loitering,” he said. “That’s where we’re concentrating our efforts to get new homeownership opportunities to change the perception of the neighborhood.”
Hugg says things are looking up for downtown Dover, noting that vacancy rates are half of what they were last year. Plus, he is hopeful that all the business activity going on in the U.S. 13 corridor will eventually lift the fortunes of downtown.
Local merchants like Erin Thwaites, owner of Bel Boutique and The Loocke which opened last year, are excited about the “Unlock the Block” program. Thwaites even has a wish list of what she would like to see
come to downtown.
“I would love to see more boutique-type shops and restaurants,” she said. “A brew pub or a wine bar would be amazing and I know that would appeal to my customers which would only help grow this as a destination.”