By Kim Hoey
Special to Delaware Business Times
Working on old buildings is the exploratory surgery of the construction world, according to Rick Clark. If that is the case, then Clark, owner of Clark Construction, is a master surgeon. He can’t seem to get enough of old building renovation.
“Downtowns are the stuff we like to do,” said Clark, who started working as a mason in Wilmington in 1987 before branching out to general contracting.
Since moving to Middletown in 1997, Clark and his company have been buying up and renovating buildings downtown for what he sees as a renaissance of the town of nearly 20,000.
He has no science behind his plan, but completely believes that people want and will support a vibrant accessible downtown with shops that stay open like they do in places like New Hope, Pennsylvania, and Lewes, he said.
“I think people would like to walk around and have lots of small shops,” said Clark, from his temporary office in a ranch house next to the Christiana Care Middletown Emergency Department. His company’s main office is in Bear, but with so much going on in Middletown, this house was just easier. Based on the number of phones ringing and blueprints being moved around the room, business is good. Clark hopes that is the same for everyone in Middletown.
“I’m one of his biggest fans,” said Mayor Kenneth Branner. Clark is always bringing people with ideas for new businesses to meet him. “He’s a partner in Middletown. He’s made a commitment to keep Main Street what it was.”
“What it was” is a collection of century-old buildings, many with Victorian charm and, often, surprises. Those surprise are sometimes hardwood under vinyl flooring and beautiful beams hidden behind dropped ceilings, and sometimes dead or live animals, rotten wood, and, in one case, an exterior wall that almost collapsed as they worked.
“Who knew there was a 16-inch footer on a block building,” laughed Clark. That find at the bank building on Main Street cost more than 12 weeks of renovation work as engineers were called in and the exterior wall braced. The bank needed an entire structural rebuild that has taken more than two years. It is almost complete, said Clark.
Renovation takes patience and a lot of money, he said. He knows from experience built, literally, on knowledge gained in neighboring states remodeling homes to make them accessible for people with disabilities. They still have ventures going in Virginia and New Jersey, but most of what his company
does now is in Middletown.
His Middletown undertakings include the bridal shop, the old hardware store, the cupcake shop building, the bistro building and several other Main Street properties. Around the corner he built Peach Tree station and Metro Pub and Grill, the restaurant he built only after he couldn’t get anyone else to take on the project he knew would flourish.
“He wants to be part of the success,” said Adam Cofield, general manager and property manager for Clark companies. “He and his wife, Jan, are some of the most generous people you’ll meet. He’s the first person to step up and help, and he doesn’t want any recognition.” For that reason, most people will never know about many of the things the Clarks do for the community, said Cofield.
Checking on his tenants is one of those things. He actually rattles doors to make sure they are locked, said Jennifer Marsh, whose family owns Stubborn Soul, a clothing and accessories store with a bit of a western flare. Clark renovated the downstairs of the building to their specifications and even helped them promote their opening. “I have nothing bad to say about him,” said Marsh.
It depends on who you talk to and what day it is as to whether you’ll get a good or bad review on him, said Clark. Sometimes he has to play the bad guy, he said. One of his properties has a large parking area, but it’s for the building it’s attached to. Clark has had to chase people out. When the longtime hardware store on Main closed, he, as the landlord, was blamed by many. He acknowledges the complaints and realizes that change is difficult for a lot of people.
Still, benefits of changes in town are tangible, such as the rising property values and new options
for dining and shopping.
“We’re not the only people making big investments here,” he said. “We’re not done in Middletown. There’s a
lot of opportunity here.”