Lauren Spinelli owns and operates HedgeApple Antiques in the heart of Old New Castle. She also works full-time in marketing and business development at 1313 Innovation in downtown Wilmington. For her, the tiny storefront is a labor of love.
“It was near and dear to my heart to sort of help reinvent and reinvigorate the main street,” said Spinelli, who recalls riding her bike around town as a kid and visiting for special events. “It tends to have its own heartbeat. I feel there is a draw here for people.”
Located in the City of New Castle, the historic town nonetheless has its own identity and physical footprint. Historic plaques and landmarks frequently pop up between Colonial, Dutch and Federal houses — one of which housed William Penn on his first night in North America — and patches of cobblestone cover the alleys and side streets.
For much of its history, Old New Castle was filled with retail shops, restaurants and bed-and- breakfast hotels. Delaware Street, which extends from the edge of the historic town to the Delaware River, served as the commercial backbone to the community.
Today a relatively small number of shops remain on the quiet, tree-lined street.
Spinelli, who opened the shop in July 2015, sees herself as part of a new generation of business owners that respect the town’s historic legacy and want to attract more visitors and commerce. In addition to Spinelli’s shop, the last couple of years have brought a new lunch place, a second antique shop, and the expansion of a skin care product shop.
“It’s been about two years, and the street has changed dramatically — a ton of new shops, new restaurants — and because of that things are picking up,” Spinelli said.
The recent uptick, however, came after several fallow years for Old New Castle.
“When we first opened up, there were a lot more businesses in town,” said Justin Day, owner of Jessop’s Tavern, a colonial-style restaurant and bar that opened in 1996. “There were at least four B&Bs, a lot more antique stores. There was a corner store, where you could get groceries and sandwiches.”
Jessop’s Tavern opened shortly before many of these stores closed, making it one of the longer-standing businesses on Delaware Street.
“I think it was the economy. I think it was 9/11. I think a lot of the people that owned these businesses were getting ready to retire,” Day said. “It was a sort of a perfect storm of things.”
Others blame the decline on the national shift from commercial main streets to big box stores and shopping strips.
“We have big box stores all around us. That definitely kills the main street,” said Esther Lovlie, owner of Penn’s Place, a coffee shop and lunch spot on the same block as Jessop’s. “A lot of the smaller stores can’t compete with the big chains. People want this originality, but they can’t handle the ticket price.”
Business owners also feel pressure from residents within the community who are skeptical of expansion.
“It’s always been a bit of a struggle between what we’d like to see and what the townspeople who live here want to see,” Day said. “The people who live here want this to be, for lack of a better word, a gated community, while the rest of us understand that this is a town and it’s a historical town that needs to be visited.”
The New Castle Community Partnership, a nonprofit devoted to revitalizing the main street of Old New Castle, has worked to bring in new tenants and draw more visitors to the town.
“I think there’s a perception in town that some folks like the sleepy atmosphere of the town and would like to keep it that way,” said Jean Norvell, a board member for the nonprofit and a well-known local resident. “I’m not quite sure what effect that has. The Main Street program is still going to press to bring visitors into town, because I think we have something that is unique here.”
The immediate problem, according to Norvell, is finding more people who are prepared to come into town and start the type of businesses lacking in the community, such as grocery stores, barber shops and places that meet other routine needs.
“We’ve got some retail establishments. We certainly have restaurants. We have some antique stores,” Norvell said. “It would be good to expand that further and bring in more variety.”
Newer businesses are optimistic that the town will welcome them.
“There will always be people who want to keep people out and keep it private, but I think we’re moving toward
a majority as far embracing bringing people to town,” said Erin Redding, general manager of New Castle Cafe, a modern restaurant and bakery that held a soft opening in November 2016 and officially launches this month. “This town is kind of craving people to come into town and build this up and possibly do a branding and be a little more well known.”
Redding echoed a sentiment shared by many business owners: she would like to see the town hold more events and festivals that would draw new people into their businesses. She would also like to see more active support from city officials.
“Support us. Hang up our flyers. Tell people about us,” she said.
Linda Ratchford, council president for the City of New Castle, said that’s exactly what the City has begun to do. It recently bought a banner that’s visible from I-95 and placed an advertisement in a local publication. It has also held a number of events on the riverfront aimed at drawing visitors.
“I don’t think we have a specific number goal, but certainly more retail and more restaurants,” said Ratchford on the long-term strategy for the main street. “I think a lot of good things are happening in the city, and I think that will improve with more options for visitors.”