By Kim Hoey
Special to Delaware Business Times
Michelle Johnson has always shopped in Middletown. Even as a kid living in Townsend, Maryland, she would ride along with her grandparents to the Acme supermarket just off Main Street in what was then a small commercial strip surrounded by countryside.
Today Middletown is more than its historic downtown. New retail options have sprung up across the western half of the town, including Walmart, Lowe’s Home Improvement, supermarkets Aldi and Lidl, and dozens of fast-food and fine-dining establishments.
“They do have everything,” Johnson said, while helping Girl Scout Troop 414 sell cookies outside of the Marshalls at Westown Town Center.
As the population exploded over the last decade or so in Middletown, the retail market kept up. Big box stores took over the western side of town, and mom-and-pop specialty stores held onto the downtown. This has left some to wonder if the town is big enough for two shopping destinations.
Business owners, at least, said there’s plenty of room for both.
“There are a lot of cool things downtown, but at the same time, I’ll go to Kohl’s to pick something up,” said Roxane Ferguson, executive director of the Middletown Area Chamber of Commerce. She said the retail market in Middletown is more like a family working together than strangers fighting for space.
She pointed to the Westown movie theater as a perfect example. The new theater didn’t want to crush the Everett — the historic theater downtown that hosts live theater and movies. Westown even had a mural painted in the lobby as a tribute to Main Street and the Everett.
“It’s indicative of our community,” Ferguson said. “We all want to support each other.”
Mary Kate Church agreed. She recently moved her shop, Femme Boutique, from Main Street to Westown. She just needed more space, she said. The new store is four times as large as the old, allowing her to add new lines and expand some old. “I still support Main Street,” she said.
Some of the brands she carries require a constant turnover in stock, Church said. The Westown location exposed the boutique to a different audience. It was part of her original business plan. When she took over the boutique in 2008, she planned to move to Westown once it was built. Construction just took longer than expected.
Across the street from Femme is Vino Vita at Frommage, another business that moved from downtown to expand and find a larger clientele. There is parking in front of the new site, which is one of the reasons for the move, said owner Christopher Pride. Many of his customers were coming to his shop for a single purchase. Having to park and walk was deterring some casual customers, he said.
Westown offered that convenience, he said. His shop grew to four times its former size, but so did his rent. It was like starting his business all over again, but he believes the benefits are starting to show. More new clients are wandering in to try a thing or two and his established audience is finding their way to the new shop as well.
Main Street was great, but it just wasn’t for his store. Marlena’s Mediterranean Deli that moved into his old spot has been getting rave reviews.
Comparing Westown to downtown is an apples and oranges kind of thing, said Danyea Jacobs, owner of Candy Connections on Main Street and executive director of the Main Street Middletown program.
Westown is more big box stores, while Main Street is more historic local charm, she said. Either way, there is business enough for both. She moved to Middletown from New York City for the feeling of connection she felt, and that’s what Main Street shops offer.
That doesn’t mean the shops don’t have to stay relevant, she said. Stores are renovating to update their look and new shops are moving in. She and other downtown business owners believe they are at the beginning of a big downtown boom.
“The whole block is a strip of cute shops,” said Amber Shader, owner of downtown clothing and accessory store, First and Little. She also sees a renaissance in the diversity of shops going in on Main Street and drawing in a new crowd of shoppers.
First and Little is one of those evolving downtown shops. Shader collaborates with stores in Westown. They send each other business all the time, but she doesn’t want to move there. Shader said she probably wouldn’t be in business now if it weren’t for downtown Main Street. Her store opened in a 250-square-foot space as a holiday “pop-up” store in 2012 and moved to an 800-square-foot space four doors down this year.
Being a small business is tough, said Shader. She believes her business succeeded because she was able to start small and build a clientele. “Once you shop here, you’re family,” she said.
“People are starting to pay more attention to how to stay connected with the community,” said Jacobs. A “Sips and Sweets” festival at the end of January brought more than 800 people downtown to tour the shops. Store owners were reaping the rewards of shoppers coming for second and third looks weeks later.
The next big step is to spread the secret of where the parking is in downtown, said Shader about the No. 1 reason people gave for not shopping there. There are spaces behind the buildings, she said.
The two areas [Westown and Main Street] complement each other, said Mayor Kenneth L. Branner Jr. People driving by Main Street on their way to Westown often come back to check out what they saw along the way. Conversely, people who come to Main Street specifically for a certain store then often wander over to buy groceries or see what is at Westown.
The town council is doing what it can to manage the growth that is happening, “as fast as they can build the buildings,” said Branner. Reviewing landscaping designs, upholding set-back and parking requirements, interconnectivity between shopping areas and residential areas and collecting Transportation Infrastructure Recoupment funds from new commercial development to pay for traffic improvements is all part of the plan to keep growth managed.
“People are coming from everywhere,” said Branner. “It’s a good mix.”