WILMINGTON — Two business-centric downtown organizations — the Wilmington Renaissance Corp. and the Wilmington Leaders Alliance (WLA) — have consolidated into a new organization called the Wilmington Alliance that will be an “ally for the city of Wilmington (at a level) that has never existed before.”
In an Aug. 5 press conference in the heart of downtown featuring a who’s who of Wilmington political and business leaders and economic development executives, the two organizations — one that’s been around for a quarter-century and the other for four years — officially became the Wilmington Alliance.
Observers say the WLA brings more senior board representation and a focus on workforce development, job creation, leadership development, and community safety while the 26-year-old Wilmington Renaissance brings an infrastructure and staffing that will allow the new organization to hit the ground running and bring a focus on “creative place making,” including Seventh and West Park and community garden; retail recruitment, and has been involved in revitalizing the Market Street Corridor since its inception in 1993 as Wilmington 2000. The organization has driven development of the downtown LOMA apartments, the Delaware College of Art and Design, the Creative District, and NewMarketWilm.
“I think that description is accurate but there are two additional dimensions,” said Longwood Foundation President There du Pont, who has been serving as chair of the Leaders Alliance. “Wilmington Renaissance also has a community connection and a relationship with Wilmington residents that the Leaders Alliance had not yet developed.
I also think their missions did align and it doesn’t make sense, in a very small city, to have two organizations trying to operate in parallel. And as the leader of a local foundation, I love the idea of two nonprofits merging.”
The Wilmington Alliance is being led by Renata Kowalczyk, who has served as executive director of Wilmington Renaissance for the past eight months, while du Pont will serve as chairman of the new organization through the end of 2019, when Dr. Edmondo Robinson, chief transformation officer for Christiana Care Health System — the state’s largest employer — will become chairman.
Supporting and driving economic development efforts will be a major focus of the Wilmington Alliance, which hopes to reduce the city’s unemployment rate — currently around 5.5% — to something closer to the state average of 3.2%, which would require finding jobs for 1,600 people.
“There is an opportunity for Wilmington Alliance to be the partner at the table and define what is needed in various neighborhoods to really lift
up their capacity and get to those 1,600 jobs,” Kowalczyk said.
From an economic-development standpoint, Kurt Foreman and the Delaware Prosperity Partnership are leading efforts to attract new businesses.
“Whether we are talking about a richer arts and cultural ecosystem, developing workforce or strengthening Wilmington’s downtown retail areas, every step forward is contingent on a strong economic foundation,” Foreman said. “The creation of The Wilmington Alliance is an organic and logical next step for both organizations and most importantly for Wilmington. The more we can work collaboratively and are laser-focused on the city’s economic vitality, the more successful we will be; the DPP team looks forward to the opportunity to work with the new Wilmington Alliance.”
“We’ve made tremendous progress under Mayor Purzycki and we want to continue it across administrations in the future,” says Bob Perkins, who has been serving for the past 14 months as “temporary executive director” for the Leaders Alliance and overseeing both the Delaware Business Roundtable and the statewide Ready in 6 initiative, which wants to streamline permitting processes throughout the state. “We’re seeking a sort of truthful advocacy. Let’s go after the things that are really hard and not be afraid. This is the size organization with the heft that I think is needed to help the administration pull this off.”
Discussions began last September when Colonial Parking President and Wilmington Renaissance board member Jed Hatfield approached Perkins and suggested that it might make more sense for the two organizations to combine efforts and realize some synergies, particularly in light of the departure of then-executive director Carrie Gray. An ad hoc committee of du Pont, Perkins, consultant Peggy Geisler from the Leaders Alliance side and Hatfield, Kowalczyk and chairman Glenn Moore from the Wilmington Renaissance side met to hammer out the details over the ensuing months. Both boards unanimously approved the plan and the legal documents were filed last week. All that remains are a few administrative details such as the opening of a Wilmington Alliance bank account.
“These two organizations were created in two different time periods with two different forms of dissatisfaction with the situation at the time,” du Pont said. WLC was formed by real estate developer Paul McConnell in 2017 when Dennis Williams was Wilmington’s mayor.
The Wilmington Leaders Alliance has specifically been focused on workforce development and placed more than 90 individuals in the past year with a 92% placement rate and significant compensation increases for those individuals.
While there will be efficiencies by bringing the two organizations together, du Pont says there’s a lot of work left to be done. In fact, some organizations have already “stepped up and increased their contributions. We can be a lot more effective with the dollars we have. And then we need to invest more,” he said.
When asked to describe the current state of economic development for the city of Wilmington, du Pont responded, “Opportunistic. I don’t think there’s a great engine driving the economic development of the city. I think there’s a gap that needs to be filled and we intend to fill that gap.”
Perkins agrees: “You can’t just take things as they come in over the transom. There needs to be an engine, there needs to be a focus, there needs to be somebody pushing. We’ve got to get out of our [economic development] training wheels and ramp up dramatically, but that’s clearly on the agenda. Workforce development, I would argue, is a subset of that.”
During the press conference, Kowalczyk recalled a 2017 meeting she had with Sheila Bravo of Delaware Alliance for Nonprofit Advancement (DANA) as she considered moving from JPMorgan Chase into the social impact (nonprofit) space.
“Sheila asked me to make her a promise,” Kowalczyk said. “She said, ‘promise me that no matter what, you will not create another nonprofit.’ I feel very proud that not only are we not creating a nonprofit, we’re actually merging two, and being more efficient about it. I have this dream that one day we’ll have this one-stop central economic development center.”
Kowalczyk says she will be bringing a metrics-driven perspective to the new organization, focusing on what measures are needed to determine whether they’re moving the needle and what economic development really looks like in a city.
The group agrees that there could be opportunities to bring other organizations under the Wilmington Alliance umbrella. At the very least, they anticipate bringing groups with similar goals to the table and discussing how they can be part of a larger plan.
“We have lots of community organizations and they all have plans,” Kowalczyk said. “They all have challenges and lack of capacity, in many cases, to implement them. Let’s take West Center City where we do work through creative district. There was a very, very good plan that was developed with the community’s input in 2010. When you look at that plan, it barely has been implemented. Some organizations drive that agenda and others are struggling.”
“Take our violence reduction work as an example,” du Pont said. “There are more than a dozen small organizations around the city with different theories of change about how we can assist the social side of violence reduction. We can get them in a room — maybe not all in the same room at the same time — and figure out how we turn a dozen interesting ideas into two to three great ideas infused with national best practice that are of sufficient scale.”
Kowalczyk said she’s been talking to (REACH Riverside CEO) Logan Herring about how to engage downtown businesses in support of jobs creation for the teenagers that will be in the Warehouse. She said potential programs could include creation of a vertical farm for East Side residents, who already have a thriving community garden.
The group also expects to finish a park at Seventh and West streets and make two to three significant investments that the community can make on the social side of violence reduction. In addition, Kowalczyk says she’s working on a pilot with Grace Church in West Center City to create a pilot for a Kitchen Incubator by using an existing commercial kitchen to actually start growing food-related businesses.
Now that the Market Street project is nearing completion, the new organization will likely turn its attention elsewhere.
“The West Side is very, very active,” Kowalczyk said. “We [WRC] did a pilot marketing campaign for the downtown merchants in June called Made on Market. It was 10 days and 22 merchants participated and we got good feedback so we’ll be doing something in November called West Side Made that will include Union, Lincoln, and Fourth streets. If you ask me, “Where is the next prime one that really hopping?” it’s the West Side.
“It took 20 years to revitalize Market Street,” du Pont said. “That’s more than one mayoral administration. We need an entity that’s going to carry projects like that over the next five, six years, focused on West Center City and on other parts of the city.”