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Cascade: No. 63, Fall 2006

How Do Those Involved Assess Wilmington’s Redevelopment?

Cascade asked six people who have had a role in Wilmington’s revitalization for their responses to three questions. Three other individuals shared their views when they learned about this exercise. Edited comments from the nine individuals appear below.

In what way(s) has Wilmington’s downtown revitalization been successful?

Michael Hare, Deputy Director, Riverfront Development Corporation of Delaware (RDC): Public-sector investment of $200 million on the riverfront leveraged about $650 million of private investment that’s in the ground or committed. More than 350 acres of contaminated land that lay fallow for five decades has been remediated and put into active use.

Douglas Hazelton, Executive Vice President, Bank of America, Wilmington: For a long time, there was a fairly steady level of development by nonprofits that did new construction and rehabilitation. The nonprofits’ work, and the strong support by the state and city for the RDC, served as a catalyst that convinced for-profit developers that there was an opportunity for market-rate housing in Wilmington.

Michael Skipper, Vice President, Wilmington Savings Fund Society: Wilmington’s downtown has achieved a stronger balance of commercial and residential space through the conversion of upper stories of commercial buildings to residential condominium or rental space. The development of residential space has provided a stabilizing influence as commercial entities have downsized over previous years.

What challenges remain?

Jayne Armstrong, Director, Delaware District Office, U.S. Small Business Administration: It will take several years for the influx of residents to drive the demand for business development throughout the entire downtown area. An analysis of what’s missing should be conducted and then businesses that support market-rate housing should be recruited. A challenge facing our community is nurturing the overall entrepreneurial mindset.

The Hon. James Baker, Mayor of Wilmington: One of the challenges is convincing Wilmingtonians that change is possible. People within a community often don’t believe in their own success. We also need to improve transportation. We started a trolley on wheels and we’d like to connect the city with trolley service.

Christopher F. Buccini, Managing Partner, The Buccini/Pollin Group: We need a critical mass of people living here. More density will result in more retail, which is our biggest challenge.

Douglas Hazelton: One of the next challenges is acquiring and rehabilitating some very poor housing stock in some distressed parts of Wilmington. This will require government subsidy and the involvement of the public and possibly banking sectors.

Don Meginley, President, Preservation Initiatives: One of the greatest needs is bringing upscale retail back to Market Street. Initial tenants will be local boutique stores or restaurants. Rent levels must be artificially low in some cases to attract a tenant to take the initial risk. Also, development must happen block by block, not building by building.

Michael Skipper: Two of the challenges to continued downtown revitalization are the development of a strong retail sector and the provision of affordable as well as marketrate housing in the downtown and riverfront areas. There has been some retail growth, primarily restaurants, but the downtown area still provides few entertainment options and retail shopping is limited to small specialty items and discount stores.

What are the lessons learned for the benefit of those in other cities pursuing downtown revitalization?

Hon. James Baker: There must be a will to make things happen because rebuilding downtown is very complicated and usually painfully slow. Also, we enabled developers to meet early in the planning process with a group of people from the economic development, public works, and parking departments, the mayor’s office, RDC, and Wilmington Renaissance Corporation. Developers meet the people they need to work with. If there’s a problem, we learn about it early and find a way to make the project work.

Christopher F. Buccini: It makes sense to build things in stages. If one stage goes wrong, you can stop and fix it.

Michael Hare: The ability to demonstrate progress immediately is key to sustaining a development effort. It’s important, too, to have people in power engaged in the process and participating in decisions on projects.*

Douglas Hazelton: In any community undergoing downtown revitalization, it’s desirable to have good cooperation on the community development side among banks, which are normally competitors. In Wilmington, there’s been a great deal of cooperation, enabling banks to spread the risk and have three or four sets of eyes looking at a deal.

Doris Schnider, President, Delaware Community Investment Corporation: Cities trying to revitalize their downtowns ought to know that a project’s initial success cannot be taken for granted. The former Market Street Mall in Wilmington, which started well, is one such example.

Carrie White, Managing Director, Wilmington Renaissance Corporation: A nonprofit intermediary that wants to buy, hold, and sell properties for development needs working capital in order to do so. Also, it’s better to make infrastructure and aesthetic streetscape changes in a sizable area all at once because it has greater impact, rather than one block at a time.

  • * RDC’s board includes the governor of Delaware, mayor of Wilmington, New Castle County executive, Wilmington city council president, two co-chairs of the state’s capital budget committee, and two co-chairs of the state’s joint finance committee.