World Café owner to headline May symposium

Hal Real of World Café at the Queen
Hal Real of World Café at the Queen

By Matt Sullivan
Special to the Delaware Business Times

The Delaware Economic Summit will welcome Hal Real, founder of Real Entertainment Group, Inc., as its keynote speaker on Thursday, April 24.

Real, a former commercial real estate attorney, opened World Cafe Live at Walnut Street in Philadelphia in 2004. In 2011, he moved his home and his offices to Wilmington with the opening of World Café Live at the Queen on Market Street. The Queen project started in 2008 with a private/public effort among Real Entertainment Group, the Buccini/Pollin), the City of Wilmington and a number of corporate, foundation and individual supporters who supported the revitalized Queen Theater in hopes that it would become a catalyst for efforts to revive the historic Market Street corridor.

Matt Sullivan sat down with Hal Real to talk about what’s come to pass since.

Having worked inside the business communities in both Philadelphia and Wilmington, how do the two compare?
When people talk about what has made Philly move into this renaissance it is experiencing right now, I say it’s two things: It’s leadership and it’s collaboration. I think Delaware has been missing some of that leadership in comparison to Philly.

For example, when we opened in west Philly 11 years ago, the neighborhood we went into made Market Street look like the suburbs. Under the Walnut Street Bridge, where we were, was pretty tough. Fast-forward 10 years. We were the hole in the doughnut in Philly, and now, we’re the cream in the doughnut. There’s a 49-story tower being built literally next to us.

The leadership in West Philly offered incentives to get people to move there by starting an elementary school, by getting the business community to work together, by forming the University City District to work on cleanliness and security. All of those things made a difference.

What I struggled with during those early years, is that even though we had Wilmington Renaissance, we had InWilmington, we had Downtown Visions, we didn’t seem to have a business community that was really working together to try to figure out how the rising tide could lift all boats. And the biggest change that I’ve seen is that we’re really starting to see the community work together in meaningful ways.

Can you talk about that progress?
We had a meeting in July of 2013 here at the Queen of several business leaders so I could update them on how we’re doing and what the future looked like, and that included leaders from Chase, Capital One, Bank of America, DuPont, all of the meaningful players.

Two things happened out of that meeting. In working with the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce, we formed the Wilmington Business Leaders Network. Paul McConnell and I chair that. Out of that came this campaign for 5,000 new residents in five years. It’s a great thing, because all of our other concerns fell under that umbrella. If you’re going to get 5,000 new residents in five years, you have to look at safety, you have to look at options for dining and retail, you have to look at education, you have to look at transportation, you have to improve SEPTA service.

We have Capital One and Chase and this entire community that’s trying to attract millennials. And it’s no different [from what happened in west Philly] for these banks and the city to get together and create an incentive program. The amount of money you’re talking about is minimal to say to someone, hey, here’s $5,000 toward your down payment or your closing costs, and here’s a low interest rate mortgage, and here’s a tax break.

That kind of thinking would create a tipping point in Wilmington in very rapid fashion.

Do you think those incentive programs will happen soon?
Absolutely. It’s happening now. Another thing that came out of that original summit is that we formed the CEO/Executive summit. We now have leaders from these banks and other companies asking what incentives make sense, looking at what other cities have done, and coming up with a concrete plan with the city that will encourage people to own and/or rent in the next five years in Wilmington.

How can the business community help?
I think one of the things that concerns me the most is hearing about businesses that are moving out of the city instead of staying in the city and fighting the fight.

And it’s not just the business leaders, but all the citizens in greater Wilmington who need to stop being naysayers and start being positive. There are so many positive things going on in this city.

There’s been this attitude for decades that downtown is never going to come back. Well, downtown is coming back. It’s not a “someday.” It’s today. I love it when people complain that there’s traffic downtown because The Grand has a sold-out show and World Café Live has a sold-out show and something great is going on at Delaware Theatre Company and the other Riverfront attractions and they can’t get a hotel room and they can’t park their car. Great! It’s happening. And it’s happening more
and more often.

There is a crime problem. There is a perception that downtown Wilmington isn’t safe. But it’s not Market Street. Market Street is probably one of the safest downtown Main Streets anywhere in America. If you took north Philadelphia and made it its own city, north Philadelphia would be the murder capital. Any city has that. It’s just the way it works. But it’s not all of Wilmington.

It’s the time to invest … and come down to what’s becoming a much more vibrant downtown and support it, even if you’re located in Greenville. ♦

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