By Christine Facciolo
Special to Delaware Business eeTimes
Rebirth is something Milford knows something about.
Once a bustling shipyard town, the city seemed destined to suffer the fate of other communities that relied on old-school industries.
Milford is looking to its past to secure its future. The Mispillion River, once home to six shipyards, became the catalyst for the revitalization of the city’s downtown business district.
“The city of Milford was founded as a shipbuilding town,” said Mayor Bryan Shupe. “We want to make sure our vision draws on the heritage of the Mispillion River and carries our history into the future with us.”
Rivertown Rebirth 2025 was drawn up three years ago to serve as the blueprint for the revitalization of downtown Milford and also formed the basis of the city’s application to the state’s Downtown Designation Development (DDD) program. Milford won designation in August 2016.
Pierce notes that three projects tapped DDD grant money the first year. The historic building that housed Lou’s Bootery is being renovated to create retail space on the first floor and high-end apartments on the upper floors. The former Milford Skating Rink has been refurbished to house the architectural and engineering firm Davis, Bowen and Friedel. Restaurateurs Robert Ciprietti and Joseph Curzi are renovating the former M&T Bank building on the corner of NW Front and Walnut streets to house Touch of Italy, slated to open in the fall.
“We’ve issued probably 30 permits within the DDD area,” said Pierce. “We’ve seen a commitment of over $4 million in private investment.”
City officials note that Milford’s DDD area was drawn to include not only the commercial areas but the residential areas surrounding the downtown area.
“We felt that attracting businesses to downtown would be more successful if the neighborhoods surrounding downtown were more vibrant,” said City Manager Eric Norenberg.
Businesses have been responding. “We had one day in December when we had three grand openings in the downtown area,” Norenberg said. We’ve had a pastry shop that’s just opened — My Sister’s Fault — and it’s just packed on Saturdays and Sundays. It’s really been an incremental but steady pace of businesses coming in. If one happens to close, other stores come in pretty quickly.”
As stipulated in the Rivertown Rebirth plan, the Mispillion, which divides the city between Kent and Sussex Counties, plays a major role in attracting businesses and visitors. “We’re really trying to create the kinds of unique opportunities for a downtown experience that’s not just stop, shop, eat and run,” said Norenberg. “It’s ‘spend and afternoon and have fun in the downtown area.’”
Last fall the city installed a third kayak dock near Arena’s Deli and Bar. A nearby tattoo shop has responded by expanding its business to include kayak rentals, he added.
Business owners engage in a kind of “social entrepreneurship,” sponsoring events to bring the community together and increase foot traffic in the downtown area. Their efforts largely follow the results of the “Community Conversations” that engaged the public to think about how Milford’s economy should evolve in the coming years.
“I think the city does truly care about what the residents want, and I think to get that well-rounded approach has paid off and will continue to pay off,” said Sara Pletcher, president of Downtown Milford Inc.
Lifecycle owners Jenn Rowan and Ben Jones have organized cycling events, championed healthy lifestyles and advocated for safer streets for pedestrians and cyclists alike.
“We provide evidence-based research to the city of Milford that shows that a pedestrian-based infrastructure brings economic and cultural growth to a downtown area,” said Rowan.
Organizations such as the Mispillion Art League, the Music School of Delaware, the Milford Public Library and the Riverfront Theatre also sponsor events that draw people to the area.
Downtown Milford is also host to several events such as the Saturday Farmers Market, the Bug & Bud Festival, the Riverwalk “Freedom” Festival and Third Thursdays when stores remain open until 8 p.m.
“We rope off our parking lot and put out tables and chairs for people so that they can get to the food trucks,” said Jones. “We typically have a parking lot packed with 50 to 100 people for four hours,” said Lifecycle’s Jones.
This fall the third day of Wilmington’s Ladybug Festival music festival will take place in Milford.
“Milford has a lot of outlying neighborhoods that have been built in the last 10 or 15 years and the residents are mostly retirees and transplants from New Jersey and Pennsylvania and we hear it a lot that they don’t know what Downtown Milford is or what it offers,” said Pletcher. “So, we have to market to our own residents as well as to visitors.”