Creative Energy

Condos and houses designed by and marketed to artists—a $1.7 million project—breaks ground in Quaker Hill next month

With downtown revitalization having taken hold along Market Street, the Wilmington Renaissance Corporation is ready to extend the experience and investment with the launch of a comprehensive plan to establish a Creative District west of Market, bordered by Shipley, Fourth, Washington and Ninth streets.

The first concrete steps toward implementation of the plan, whose development started with a series of community focus groups in 2012, will come in early June. That’s when Interfaith Community Housing of Delaware will break ground on a $1.7 million project to transform six vacant buildings in Quaker Hill into seven one-bedroom condominium units and three two- and three-bedroom homes.

The units, with condo prices starting around $60,000 and the houses for up to $130,000 or so, “will be designed by artists and marketed and sold to artists,” says Gary Pollio, Interfaith’s executive director. Pricing will be set so monthly costs approximate what residents would be paying for a rental property of similar size, and purchasers will have to pledge to occupy their units for at least 10 years, he says.
Each unit will include studio space so artists will be able to work in their homes, Pollio says. The condos and homes should be ready for occupancy between June and September 2016.

Stabilizing the neighborhood by strengthening home ownership and bringing excitement to the community by making it attractive to artists and other creators are essential components of the plan. The area would eventually include new housing and retail, creative and gallery space for artists, and streetscape improvements, including a series of small parks.

A rendering of what a typical Creative District living space could look like. Drawing provided by WRC
A rendering of what a typical Creative District living space could look like. Drawing provided by WRC

“We’re widening the value of the very narrow Market Street corridor,” says Leonard Sophrin, Wilmington’s city planning director. “We’re not simply looking at a street. We’re looking at a larger grouping of city blocks, to create a more vibrant downtown.”

“It’s ambitious, but it’s really necessary,” says Cassandra Marshall, president of the Quaker Hill Neighborhood Association. “You’ve got a lot of development on Market Street, downtown on Rodney Square, and to the south at the Riverfront. Then you’ve got this one place in the middle that needs some stabilization in order to protect all those other investments.”

“Bringing art into the community can change the culture of our city, change the culture of our neighborhoods,” says Wilmington City Councilman Nnamdi Chukwuocha. “It could make the area very different from what it is today.”

“We talk about this as a marathon, not a sprint,” says Carrie Gray, Wilmington Renaissance managing director. “There will be some tangible changes that people will see in the next two or three years … but it could be 15 to 20 years [before it is completed],” she says.

Given that time line, comparisons to Wilmington’s Riverfront redevelopment, which began more than 20 years ago, are almost inevitable. One of the lessons learned from the Riverfront experience, proponents of the Creative District plan say, is that the infusion of a strong residential component was essential to ensuring the success of the commercial and office projects that marked the first stages of that redevelopment.

Bringing art into the community can change the culture of our city, change the culture of our neighborhoods.
—Wilmington City Councilman Nnamdi Chukwuocha

And that, Gray and Pollio say, is a big reason why the Creative District initiative will begin with housing.

A rendering of what a typical Creative District living space could look like. Drawing provided by WRC
A rendering of what a typical Creative District living space could look like. Drawing provided by WRC

“Most artists don’t have a lot of income, so they need affordable places to live, work and conduct their business,” says Raye Jones Avery, executive director of the Christina Cultural Arts Center and a Quaker Hill resident.

As more artists move into the area, she says, they will play a key role in shaping the district’s future. “The artist imagines possibilities. You have to be able to see it when others can’t see it. If we don’t believe it will happen, it won’t happen.”

What Avery and others hope to see happen is the gradual revival of a neighborhood that lacks cohesion and currently is a large gap between the redeveloped Riverfront and Market Street corridors and the downtown office district to the north.

“Having this kind of creative district will be very attractive to a lot of folks who might not have thought of Wilmington” as a place to work and live, Gov. Jack Markell says.

“Great employers want to attract very talented people,” Markell says, “and talented people want to work where they want to live—in nice places where there are outdoor spaces, weekend activities, restaurants, and are walkable, bikable, and have arts outlets as well.”
The Creative District plan, developed through a partnership that includes Wilmington Renaissance, Interfaith Housing, Christina Cultural Arts Center, the Chris White Community Development Center and the Quaker Hill Neighborhood Association, relies on “place-based strategies,” an incremental effort to place compatible activities near each other in a way that unifies the entire community.

Under this approach, the Quaker Hill area, in the southwest corner of the district, becomes the focal point for low-cost live/work options, with infill development and rehabilitation of vacant buildings on or near West Street. As residential development expands in the district it would gradually move to the east and north, Gray and Pollio say.

Meanwhile, Shipley Street, long regarded as the gritty service entrance to businesses fronting on Market Street, would see a gradual transformation focusing on streetscape and infill projects. The northeast corner of the district—bordered by Shipley, Eighth, Orange and Ninth streets—is already getting a major boost with construction of a 231-unit apartment building on the site of a former parking garage.

Heading south, widening sidewalks and burying utility lines along Shipley have been discussed for years, Gray says. Painting murals on the walls of existing buildings is likely, she adds. Other ideas mentioned in the plan include art galleries, small shops, temporary installations and event programming to reinforce Shipley’s linkage to Market Street.

Meanwhile, the goal for Washington Street, on the western edge of the district, would be the creation of a “village of social practice,” a home for art-based social services programs.
This combination of initiatives is anticipated to support existing shops along Ninth Street and encourage developers to improve existing structures and develop surface parking areas and vacant lots for higher uses.

Another key to the district’s development is the creation of a “maker space,” which Gray and others like to describe as “a high school woodshop on steroids.” The model under consideration is Philadelphia’s NextFab, which offers members the space and use of equipment for woodworking, metalworking, jewelry making and high-tech tasks like 3D printing, laser cutting and computer-aided design.

“It’s a gym for innovators,” Gray says. “The average person interested in doing these types of projects isn’t going to be able to afford to buy the equipment for their homes. Here, you pay your monthly fee, use the equipment on your own or get help from someone who works there.”

“If NextFab comes here, that’s huge,” says Joel McLaughlin, a Quaker Hill resident and home rehabilitator who has seen the operation firsthand in Philadelphia. “It attracts all kinds of people and creates synergies among them.”

Maker spaces contribute to economic development in the areas where they are located, adds Laura Semmelroth, Wilmington Renaissance’s Creative District strategist.

NextFab, Gray says, has served as an incubator for biomedical and robotics businesses in Philadelphia.

NextFab’s operators are scouting vacant buildings in the Creative District for a possible location, “an industrial-type space with a loading dock so it’s easy to move furnishings and materials in and out,” Gray says.

Neither the cost nor the funding sources for the Creative District initiative are clearly defined. Gray gives $50 million as a ballpark estimate for completing all the projects described in the master plan, but points out that “you don’t know what a particular project is going to cost until you know all the details.”

Wilmington Renaissance received $300,000 from the Longwood Foundation for Creative District planning, and it is a finalist for a grant from ArtPlace America, a collaboration among 12 foundations, whose recipients will be selected in June. Some funding will come through the state’s new Downtown Development District program and the Delaware State Housing Authority’s Strong Neighborhoods Housing Fund. Some projects may also qualify for special tax credits, including historic preservation credits for work done in Quaker Hill.
In addition, city and state officials have been discussing proposals to introduce legislation that would permit establishment of a “land bank,” an entity that would acquire and hold vacant properties within designated areas and then make them available for development.

(As of mid-April, enabling legislation had not been introduced in the General Assembly.)

“It would be another tool in the toolbox,” says Cleon Cauley, chief of staff for Wilmington Mayor Dennis P. Williams.

Gathering properties together and pooling resources makes it easier to create the critical mass that’s needed for successful development, Sophrin says.

At least two banks with major operations in Wilmington, JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America, are also potential supporters, according to Glenn Moore, a Delmarva Power vice president who serves as chair of Wilmington Renaissance’s board of directors.

As detailed plans for specific projects come together, Creative District planners will attempt to guide developers to the most appropriate funding sources, including foundations, government agencies, traditional banks and angel investors, Gray says.

“If a few pioneers make an investment, others will follow,” Avery says.

How long it takes remains to be seen but, Markell says, “if you don’t start, you’re never going to get there.”

Everyone involved in the planning is confident that significant progress, in addition to the housing in Quaker Hill, will be evident in two to three years.

“The real work is getting it toward a tipping point, when [the revitalization] starts running itself,” Marshall says. “How long that will take, I don’t know, but it will definitely take a long time.”

The process, Cauley adds, might never end. “Newer versions of [people like] us will come in and want to do more and more, and that’s a good thing,” he says.

More discussion of Wilmington’s Creative District will be on the agenda for the Wilmington Renaissance Corporation’s annual meeting, set for 7:30 to 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday, May 5, at World Cafe Live at the Queen, 500 N. Market St.
Keynote speaker for the event will be Ethan Kent, senior vice president at the Project for Public Spaces, a nonprofit that promotes transformational placemaking initiatives like the Creative District around the world.

Gov. Markell will also speak at the event.

Tickets are $50 per person and $475 for a table of 10. A gourmet breakfast and complimentary parking at the Courthouse Parking Garage are included. For tickets, call 425-5500, or purchase them online at wrc-annual-meeting.eventbrite.com.

Silicon Valley East

Entrepreneurs have found a haven at 1313 Innovation on Market Street, where they can transform their dreams into viable businesses

Staring intently at their laptops, sharing ideas with coworkers and people they hardly know, or designing prototypes that emerge from a 3-D printer, the denizens of 1313 Innovation are deeply into ideation—the process of transforming ideas into creations.

Located in the northwest corner of the first floor of Hercules Plaza at 1313 N. Market St., 1313 Innovation is one of Wilmington’s first co-working spaces, where individual entrepreneurs and operators of small businesses, especially those who rely heavily on computers and the internet, can hang out, make contacts, hold meetings and participate in special events.

What they’ll accomplish remains to be seen—and when it’s seen, it will more likely be visible on a computer or smartphone screen rather than in a retail outlet.

1313 Innovation is the brainchild of Paul McConnell, a principal in McConnell Johnson Real Estate, property manager of Hercules Plaza. He is in the process of transforming portions of the building’s lower level and first and second floors into a “business campus” that will also include on-demand office space, meeting and event space, and rooms that local colleges and universities could use to host classes and other programs.

“Paul is a visionary, a doer, and the most optimistic person I’ve ever met,” says Kjell Hegstad, who helped McConnell plan and design the space and who has made Digital Vikings, his mobile design and development business, a primary user of 1313 Innovation.
One of the goals of 1313 Innovation, Hegstad says, is to bring to Delaware “a slice of Silicon Valley”—the California technology hotbed where he and his three associates once worked.

Visitors to the space, however, aren’t always sure what they’re walking into, says Ryan Harrington, the unit’s education coordinator.

That’s understandable, considering that Hegstad’s immaculate chrome customized motorcycle is usually parked at the end of the hallway that opens into the “locker room,” a work space with plain cafeteria-style tables flanked by sleek, high-backed royal blue and black mesh chairs. A couple of life-size cardboard cutouts—Captain America and Thor from Marvel’s Avengers comic series —stand near the table that Harrington and Megan Anthony, the community manager, use as their desk.

Sitting at the tables might be entrepreneurs who are renting space by the day or by the week, or others who have already found the location worthy of a longer commitment.
One example, Anthony says, is Carvatise, a year-old business started by two recent University of Delaware graduates who pay car owners to have their vehicles wrapped with advertising for area businesses and nonprofits.

Another is Connecthub, a team of software specialists that has created two mobile applications: an education platform called Insitehub.com and a coaching/sales training platform, Connecthub.com. The software, sold primarily to pharmaceutical businesses, helps sales representatives learn more about their product lines and enables sales managers to coach members of their sales teams through online connections even when they are miles apart, Connecthub CEO John Royer says.

Kjell Hegstad parks his customized motorcycle inside 1313. Digital Vikings, his mobile design and development business, is a primary user of the facility.
Kjell Hegstad parks his customized motorcycle inside 1313. Digital Vikings, his mobile design and development business,
is a primary user of the facility.

Royer learned about 1313 Innovation from managers of Start It Up Delaware, operators of the Coinloft, another Wilmington co-working space. As an entrepreneur, Royer is impressed by McConnell’s commitment to providing space for technology entrepreneurs. As a businessman, he’s pleased that he can rent Class A office space month to month at a location where he has plenty of room to expand.

“I’ve always wanted to get in on the ground floor of something that’s about to take off,” Royer says, adding that he hopes to hire eight or more people for his staff within the year.
Also on hand most of the time is one of the four Digital Vikings, a group that specializes in creating digital applications for multiple industries, including banking, healthcare and law enforcement.

Hegstad, who titles himself “chief innovation Viking,” launched the business after serving as managing director of mobile and emerging technologies for ING Direct, which pioneered online banking in the United States before its acquisition by Capital One.

One recent project, he says, was a digital app created for R2 Talent, a service that matches job seekers with prospective employers without the need for writing a resume. Job seekers follow a series of prompts on the app to create a digital profile and use the video feature of their smartphone to record their pitch. Employers then use their selection criteria to search the database for the best candidates for their openings.

Digital Vikings has projects underway with a local hospital and other businesses. Projects with law-enforcement agencies are in the discussion stage, pending available funding, Hegstad says.

In addition to their own work, he says, the Vikings mentor many of the entrepreneurs who gather at 1313 Innovation, offering advice during the day and arranging meetups for IT professionals and others interested in creating applications for use in banking, healthcare and other industries.

Many of those meetups take place in 1313 Innovation’s “presentation room,” which features an interactive projector and a “writable wall,” ideal for large-group brainstorming sessions. Modular furnishings—sofas, chairs, stools and beanbag chairs—provide comfortable seating in an informal atmosphere.

Among regular users of the space are Teach for America, the Relay Graduate School of Education, Barrel of Makers and TechForum of Delaware.

Tenants on the upper floors of Hercules Plaza, including the Siegried Group and Condé Nast Publications, are also using the space for staff meetings because “it’s so different from their regular conference rooms,” Anthony says.

Since January, 1313 Innovation has hosted at least 25 events, drawing more than 800 people, Harrington says.

Another feature of 1313 Innovation is a 3D printing lab, with a 3D scanner and a pair of 3D printers that can be used to make prototypes of product designs.

Harrington and Anthony are pleased with the favorable response 1313 Innovation has received. Because people are excited about the space, they haven’t had to embark on a push to sell memberships, Anthony says.

That could change as McConnell Johnson moves ahead with plans to add more co-workng space to create the business campus. There will be about 16,000 square feet of usable office space on the west side of Hercules Plaza’s second floor, says Shona Grace, chief operating officer for McConnell Johnson and 1313 Innovation.

The second-floor space will be configured to meet users’ preferences, with a combination of dedicated desk space in an open setting and private office areas to accommodate one to four users, she says.

“We’re finding that people want private office space, where they’re able to lock their stuff up, but they also want to connect with the community and have access to classroom space and conference rooms,” Harrington says.

As second-floor space is readied, the outreach effort to identify potential users will include recent graduates of UD, Wilmington University and other area schools, Harrington says. He also notes that plans are underway to launch a competitive program that would provide free office space for up to six months to recent graduates who have potentially successful business concepts.

“We want to work with them while they’re at the university, and when they graduate we want them to realize that Main Street [in Newark] isn’t all there is to Delaware,” Harrington says. “We would love to have them come to Wilmington, where they would have access to more business connections and to a professional environment.”

Ready, Set, Yoga!

Disregard the myths and get started in this ancient practice that has become a staple of mainstream fitness in the U.S.

Magazine covers of svelte women modeling idealized yoga poses. Sanskrit terms peppering class descriptions. YouTube videos of an 85-year-old effortlessly tucking his heels behind his head.

With all the intimidating and baffling messages about yoga, it’s no wonder some people simply refuse to make it one of their exercise options.

But a growing number of women and men are seeking out yoga classes and reaping its physical and mental rewards.

This ancient practice has come a long way in the U.S. since Weese Wagner, owner of Yoga U on Concord Pike, stumbled onto a yoga library book as a young teen and used it to teach herself, because that’s all that was available. Back then, if you could find a class, it was likely to be a continuing education course on an obscure topic in a chilly community center classroom—like the eight-week “yoga for the eyes” Wagner took as a teenager.

Thanks to modern research, today’s yoga teachers have more tools to structure a well-balanced class, techniques for cueing students in and out of poses safely, and ways to adapt traditional postures for every type of body in the room, says Erin Sweeney, co-owner of Liberty Yoga in Newark. That’s really important, because the postures were designed for boys training to sit for long periods of meditation, and a grown woman’s hips and a 74-year-old man’s ability to balance are nothing like a child’s. Today there are also classes that present specific challenges, like mobility and balance, prenatal, the MS population, even recovery from addiction.

Despite its growing popularity, myths abound that keep people from getting started in yoga. Among them:

Jason Aviles of Flyogi in downtown Wilmington brings the benefits of yoga to teens at Mt. Pleasant High School. (Photo courtesy of Flyogi Studio)
Jason Aviles of Flyogi in downtown Wilmington brings the
benefits of yoga to teens at Mt. Pleasant High School. (Photo courtesy of Flyogi Studio)

I can’t do it because I’m not athletic. This one comes in a variety of flavors: I’m not flexible enough, I’m too fat, I don’t have enough strength, I’m not coordinated, and so on. A core principle in yoga is acceptance and starting where you are. If showing up in shape had been a pre-requisite, Jason Aviles, owner of Flyogi in downtown Wilmington, never would have tried yoga, or transformed his life. “I was 250 pounds and could not touch my knees,” he says. “Yoga was the safe space where I could progress.”

Wagner agrees, and she loves it when people tell her they can’t try yoga because they can’t touch their toes. “That’s when I invite them to a class to see that 90 percent of the people in class can’t either.”

A video is the same as a class. Nothing can replace a teacher observing your movements and individualizing instruction for you. Vicki Mazik of Zen Yoga Room in Newark shares this story: “I never realized that I clench my jaw and raise my shoulders when I’m cold. In a yoga class one day, the instructor noticed and invited me to release my shoulders and jaw. I don’t have neck and shoulder issues anymore.”

Students in a class at the Awareness Center in Newark settle into "Stretch Pose," a challenging Kundalini posture that wakes up the body by engaging the core. (Photo Melissa Buckminster)
Students in a class at the Awareness Center in Newark settle into “Stretch Pose,”
a challenging Kundalini posture that wakes up the body by engaging the core. (Photo Melissa Buckminster)

Yoga is for women. This myth is ironic, because yoga was created for guys—monks-in-training, to be exact. However, when studios became popular in the U.S. in the 1990s, the meditative atmosphere attracted mostly women. Thankfully, the advent of yoga in guy-friendly places like fitness centers is making it popular among men, says YMCA teacher Gwen Gerty. “Accessibility is one of the reasons I teach at the Y,” she says. Ys have workout equipment, tracks, and basketball courts, which can make it easier for a man to walk into a yoga class. Whatever the reason, Gerty says that about 40 percent of her classes tend to be male.

That’s great, because men need yoga too, says Rita Stapiro, owner of Inner Light Yoga and teacher at Fit Studio in Wilmington’s Rockford Park. Athletes who have lost muscle flexibility as they bulked up find their way to yoga to get it back. She often hears them say they are surprised to find yoga is as physically challenging as a typical workout, but in a different way. Instead of promoting a forceful, aggressive lifestyle, yoga reinforces mental focus and inner discipline.

Yoga’s biggest payoff is physical. Make no mistake, regular practice tones and strengthens a body magnificently. It helps with weight loss as well as any exercise regimen out there. But the biggest benefit is a mind transformed, and with that, the possibility of a transformed life. That’s a big claim, yet one teachers and regular practitioners testify to over and over.

“It doesn’t matter who you are; get on the mat and you will experience a quieting of the mind,” says Stapiro. “Society is demanding and the mind is busy. When we quiet the mind, we are prepared to deal with life, and everything comes with more ease.”

Sounds unrealistic? It’s actually the whole point of yoga, says Sarah Wnenchak, owner of Truly Yoga Studio in Newark. “We start with the body because it’s tangible,” she says, knowing that it is connected to the mind, and they work together. Examples: specific breath work activates the parasympathetic relaxation response. Moving through postures shifts attention to the present moment, away from the mind’s un-restful storyline.

Sweeney puts it this way: “Once you relax the mind, nothing more really needs to be done. Everything else follows.”

The pros we talked to offered these tips for first-timers:

Start with a “Brand New Beginner” class. Most studios have them. When you do try your first “all levels” class, arrive early so you can put your mat in the middle of the room, where you can hear the teacher and see other students from any angle.

Know and act on what’s important to you. If you prefer anonymity during your learning curve or feel squeamish about people getting an unflattering view, try a large studio, get there early and unroll your mat in the back. If auditory and visual learning isn’t enough and you wish someone would physically help you get into a position, look for a class where the teacher makes physical adjustments.

Instructor Hunter Clarke-Fields adjusts a student's pose during class at Pure Yoga in Trolley Square. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)
Instructor Hunter Clarke-Fields adjusts a student’s pose during class at Pure Yoga in Trolley Square. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)

Try out a lot of studios, classes and teachers. Two gentle flow vinyasa teachers may cure the same posture quite differently. Be patient and experiment.

Practice with teachers who educate as they cue. The best ones will give you tools to help you tune in and make adjustments that work for your skeletal type, muscle tone, injuries and/or conditions. “When students first come to class they often can’t identify what they are sensing in their bodies and don’t know what to do about it even if they did,” says Sweeney. “Our aim is to help people feel in their own body what they are experiencing.”

Modify, modify, modify. When teachers invite the class to rest in child’s pose as needed, or to try a gentler or supported version of a posture, they mean it. In many group exercise classes, the norm is to push, feel the burn, work harder—which can breed competition with others or yourself. But in yoga, it’s the opposite: the norm is to listen to your body, not to imitate your neighbor. You’ll see experienced practitioners do just that in class.

Meredith McFadden of Pure Yoga demonstrates an advanced pose: "Side Crow," an arm balance posture in which both legs rest on the same elbow. (Photo by Luigi Ciuffetelli)
Meredith McFadden of Pure Yoga demonstrates an advanced pose: “Side Crow,”
an arm balance posture in which both legs rest on the same elbow. (Photo by Luigi Ciuffetelli)

The Right Class for You

With the plethora of styles, formats and specializations out there, finding the right class can be tough. Here’s a guide to local studios to help get you started.

Hands-on Attention
Pure Yoga Pilates Studio, Trolley Square, Wilmington
226.9642 | pureyogapilatesstudio.com
Meredith McFadden’s studio is all about the “middle way”—a balance of serious and lighthearted, of work and play. Her studio isn’t heated, she says, because “there’s no need to. The practice creates heat internally and safely.” There are no mirrors to spur competition or self-judgment, and with the medium-sized classes (30 max), she aims to give personal attention to each student with either a verbal or physical adjustment. Non-heated Classes: Vinyasa, Yin, Power, Restorative, Beginner, Gentle, Fusion with weights. Specialty: Prenatal, Kids. Cost: Drop in/$15; Unlimited/$110 mo.

Practical Coaching
Yoga U, Concord Pike, North Wilmington
893.4585 | yogau.org
When fitness trainer Weese Wagner opened Yoga U, she almost called it “Oasis,” because that’s what she envisioned: a place where hard-working people could come for an hour and leave physically better and mentally more at ease. In this medium-sized studio (35 max), rather than strictly follow a preset workout or routine, she adapts each class to what people need that day. Those who want to make sure they “get it,” visit Wagner; she’ll pause an experienced class to go over a common posture if it looks like folks need review. Heated Classes: Vinyasa, Boot Camp Full Fit. Non-heated: Flow, Restorative, Gentle, Yin. Workshops: Inversion, Partner, Restorative with Reiki, Aroma-Vinyasa. Cost: Drop-in/$15; Unlimited/$99 mo. Noteworthy: five Classes: $40 for new customers.

Intimate Setting
Zen Yoga Room, St. Regis Dr., Newark
983.6983 | ZenYogaRoom.com
Owner Vicki Mazik says people recovering from injury and beginners gravitate to her studio and stay, perhaps because the intimate size (10 max) ensures individual attention. Or, perhaps because her vision and practice is to be practical, therapeutic and affordable. This unheated studio runs a Brand New Beginner class every five weeks. Non-heated Classes: Beginners, All Levels Vinyasa Flow. Specialty: Yoga as Medicine Series. Cost: Drop-in/$10. Noteworthy: Free yoga workshops for people in cancer treatment; Yoga and Meditation for high stress jobs like first responders, teachers, medical professions, bankers and collections, sales and customer service.

Youthful Vibe
Truly Yoga Studio, Polly Drummond Shopping Center, Newark
547.7905 | trulyyogastudio.com
Sarah Wnenchak, 25, is like her studio: young, energetic, and community-minded. The soccer and cross country athlete opened Truly Yoga in January because she felt strongly about sharing the benefits of yoga with her neighbors and friends. This larger studio (40 max) offers Vinyasa and gentle Hatha—a more stationary, less flowing movement, for older adults or people with balance challenges. Heated Classes: Vinyasa Flow, Balanced. Non-heated: Gentle Hatha. Specialty workshops: Kids. Cost: Drop-in/$16; Senior & Student/$14; Unlimited/$95 mo. Noteworthy: Private sessions for $75/ hour.

Get Grounded and Fly
Liberty Yoga, Liberty Plaza, Newark
367.5074 | LibertyYoga.org
Co-owner Christine Shaw’s unique Fly Vinyasa is great for building body awareness and mental grounding. The flowing repetitions build a strong core with movements that hug to center. Co-owner Erin Sweeney’s therapeutic yoga, once called yoga for seniors, is more stationary, and generally starts and ends each posture from a centered position, with time for using props as needed—great for anyone with injuries and balance challenges. Students must be able to get up and down on the floor unassisted. Max class: 26. Non-heated: Vinyasa, Fly, Therapeutic, Restorative, Gentle Therapeutic. Heated: Tues/Thurs evenings. Specialty Classes: Prenatal, MELT (acupressure self-treatment), Chair. Cost: Drop-in/$18; Unlimited/$99 mo. Noteworthy: 10 classes/$45 for new students.

Creative & Radically Inclusive
Flyogi, Shipley Lofts. North Shipley Street, Wilmington
298-0926| flyogi.com
Owner Jason Aviles’ mission is to make yoga accessible to urban kids and everyone else. A young black man raised in the projects, Aviles knows that substantial cultural barriers exist for many people, so in his intimate studio (10 max), be prepared to toss out every preconceived notion about what yoga is “supposed to be,” and get ready for an unconventional practice that will put you at ease. “Come here to breathe, work things out, share, feel a part of something,” he says. “No matter who you are, shape, size, ethnic background—you can say yes to you.” Non-heated: Vinyasa, Flow. Cost: Drop-in/$12 Noteworthy: 45-minute lunch hour classes Tuesday – Thursday. Cool Flyogi apparel online.

Mindful & Consistent
Empowered Yoga, Pennsylvania Ave., Wilmington; East Main Street,, Newark; Wilmington Pike, Glen Mills, Pa. (Owned and operated by Plexus Fitness)
654-YOGA | empoweredyoga.com
Empowered Yoga applies modern exercise science to the ancient practice, and achieves remarkable consistency among its 140 weekly classes and its roster of 40 teachers, because all are trained in the studio’s methods. Mindfulness is incorporated into every program. “A mindful brain is more beneficial and important than strong quads or the ability to do an arm balance,” says Operations Director and teacher Diana Hoscheit. Max class size varies by location, from 10 to 50. Heated & Non-heated: Stationary Sequence, Vinyasa, Roots, Balanced Athlete, Sacred Music. Specialty Classes: Yin, Restorative. Cost: Drop-in/$18; Unlimited/$135 mo. Sunday donation-based class. Noteworthy: eight-session Beginner course introduces postures, alignment and movement; Yoga for Recovery for Addiction is an eight-week evidence-based course that uses breath, movement and awareness for recovery.

Niche Offerings
Fit, Rockford Park, Wilmington
777.4FIT | fitdelaware.com
Michael Fahey, Ellyn Stanek Hutton and Rita Stapiro provide diverse offerings. Fahey’s classes are informed by Iyengar, focusing on proper alignment and the use of props (belts, blocks, blankets and chairs). In contrast, Hutton’s Kundalini-based class is infused with chanting, breath work and spiritual teachings (mudras and krias). It includes warm-up, extended savasana (final relaxation) and meditation. Hutton, author of Colors of Birth, also offers pregnancy and infant massage, and therapeutic body work in her studio, Wellness Within. Stapiro, a self-described traditionalist, offers a classic vinyasa flow, with breath work and challenging and healing postures, with cuing to evoke intentionality and mindfulness. Cost: $18/drop-in. Heated: Iyengar, Kundalini, Vinyasa Flow, Vinyasa Restorative, Relax & Release. Noteworthy: Preferred members can come early to Stapiro’s class for one-on-one review.

Popular with Guys
YMCA of Delaware, Wilmington, Newark, North Wilmington & more. Find your local Y at ymcade.org
All Y locations in northern Delaware offer a variety of yoga classes. Most of the teachers also teach at local yoga studios. Classes are held in multipurpose group exercise rooms, and so are unheated. Max class size varies by location. Cost: Free to members. Adult membership starts at $60/month, plus a one-time $60 joiner fee. Childcare and scholarships available. Non-heated: Sunrise, Gentle, Flex, Flow, Flow Challenge, Power, Fundamentals, Advanced. Specialty: Chair, Yoga and Meditation

Affordable Fitness
NCC Community Services, Community Recreation Center (inside PAL) in Hockessin, Brandywine Town Center, Garfield Park, New Castle
de-newcastlecounty.civicplus.com/255/The-Happenings-Guide
Max class size varies by location, small to 50. Non-heated: Core Stability, Dynamic Flow, Gentle, Senior Strength, YogaLates. Specialty: Restorative. Noteworthy: Most classes run in four-week series and cost $6/class. Preregistration recommended. Drop-in/$5 at the Gilliam Building, New Castle.

‘Delaware’ Becomes a Thru-Hiker

A recent UD grad does her home state proud on the 2,180-mile Appalachian Trail

Margaret Pierse was in third grade when she gaped, fascinated, at a female guest speaker during one of her Girl Scout meetings. The woman wove a story of adventure and excitement about her experience of completing the legendary Appalachian Trail—solo.

That she was a woman who had completed the A.T. alone inspired the young Scout. It’s estimated that only one out of every four potential “thru-hikers” (those who aim to walk the whole Trail in one continuous journey) succeed. And no wonder: the Trail stretches 2,180 miles, from Springer Mountain in Georgia through 14 states to the northern terminus, Mount Katahdin in Maine.

“Yeah, I’m going to do that someday,” Pierse told herself.

More than a decade later, in 2013, the Wilmington native graduated from the University of Delaware, and, with no immediate plans, revisited her childhood dream of thru-hiking. She was well-versed in nature, having grown up exploring trails and pitching tents with her family, who encouraged her love of the outdoors.

She decided to go for it. For the next year, at the age 23, she saved money from her barista job at the Trolley Square Brew HaHa! and researched the A.T.

Because of her parents’ concern for her safety, Pierse says, she reached out to another female hiker on an official A.T. forum, and they agreed to walk together.

Says Pierse’s father, Terry: “When I realized she was very serious, I had a lot of questions. I think that, for a time at least, I was probably too quick to offer advice. I was concerned about her personal safety and wanted to know what she was doing to make sure she would be safe on the Trail.”

Despite his concerns, Terry Pierse describes his daughter as practical, strong and able to “see things through to a conclusion,” so he had no doubt she would succeed. And he and her mother, Marie, were reassured when Margaret took proactive safety steps like purchasing tracking and location devices in case something went wrong.

Pierse, pictured, describes the Trail as a "romance with nature."
Pierse, pictured, describes the Trail as a “romance with nature.”

Generally, though, the 78-year-old A.T. is considered extremely safe. Hikers tend to look out for each other, and most female hikers make it through without an issue. The first A.T. solo female thru-hiker was Emma Gatewood, mother of 11 children and grandmother of 23. When she completed the Trail in 1955, she was 67. She was famous for carrying a small knapsack and wearing a pair of Keds instead of hiking boots for the entire trip.

On April 10 last year, Pierse and her traveling companion stuffed each of their backpacks with a rain jacket, sleeping bag, a water filter, a hammock (that’s what the Girl Scouts speaker used), and typical trail foods (Snickers bars, instant mashed potatoes, Clif Bars, peanut butter, tortillas, Ramen Noodles). Then, with just one set of clothes, which they had on, the young women were dropped off near the Trail and started north from Springer Mountain (Most hikers, like Pierse, start in the south and work their way north as the weather warms; it takes most thru-hikers about half a year to complete the Trail).

The hike quickly settled into a routine. When the women ran low on food and supplies, they would hike off the Trail or hitchhike to one of the hundreds of towns dotting its outskirts, replenish, then hike back out, following the white blazes on trees leading to and through the entire the A.T.

But just two weeks in, her companion dropped out, leaving Pierse to make the rest of the journey by herself.

However, the A.T. is supported by a tight-knit community of hikers. Even though she was technically solo, she was rarely totally alone. Like many hikers, she formed friendships and walked with others for months at a time. And solitude was a rarity: an estimated 2-3 million people visit the Trail every year and approximately 1,800 people attempt to thru-hike annually.

Hikers adopt trail names, which usually stay with them for the entire journey. Typically, a trail name is given to a hiker by another hiker as a sort of rite of passage, although the recipient can keep it or find another.

“It has a lot to do with the person you are on the Trail, building a new identity, forming a whole new persona,” says Pierse.

On her first day, a hiker named Ritz asked where she was from, and soon he was jokingly calling her “Delaware.” Others overheard and the name caught on. She gladly accepted representation for her small, far-away state.

“As much as I love to travel, I like coming back home. I liked the idea of people knowing where I was from; that’s important to me,” she says.

Usually, at first, she didn’t learn other hikers’ real names, but if they grew closer, they would learn all about each other.

Atlas, Gadget, Shay, Sassafras and Engineer were just some of the strangers who would eventually become Pierse’s pen pals and anticipated lifelong friends post-Trail. They would hike together for months, forming groups with names like Barbarian Kings. “At that point we were pretty feral,” Pierse jokes about the last stretch of the journey, when they foraged for food, looking and feeling a little crazy.

Pierse says she got in better shape as she progressed along the Trail, which acted as her personal fitness trainer. During the first days she made seven to nine miles. By the time she hit Virginia, she was often doing a marathon (26 miles) a day.

Backpackers can burn up to 6,000 calories daily on the A.T. Her friend Sassafras was extremely overweight when he started, Pierse says, and was “really slow”, hiking from first light until dark. But he ultimately finished the Trail, losing 46 pounds along the way.

The journey understandably got rough—really rough at times, pushing Pierse to tears and mental and physical exhaustion. But according to her father, her “strength of character, fortitude, goodness, strong moral compass, and the ability to ‘make do’” helped her continue.

The Trail ultimately boosted Pierse’s confidence. “I have no doubt in my capability to do things now,” she says.

Once back in Wilmington, she found that this self-assurance helped her in many areas of life: interacting with customers as assistant manager at Brew HaHa!; traveling to Namibia, Africa, to hike with friends; concluding that one day she’ll thru-hike the renowned 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail.

Continuing on despite blistering feet, weight loss, and an “unbelievable, unquenchable hunger,” Pierse reached Mount Katahdin in October, six months after she started in Georgia. That’s the equivalent of hiking Mount Everest from sea level and back 16 times.

It was well worth the hardship, she says.

bigk
Hiking 2,180 miles in six months, Pierse reached Mount Katahdin last October.

“Mountains burst up out of the earth. You’re climbing up through pine and deciduous forests, then it’s bare and rocky, and you feel like you can see the whole planet at the tops of those mountains. It’s almost like a romance with nature. It was the best thing I ever could have done, and I learned more hiking the A.T. in six months than I did in college in four years.”

Trail Tips

Margaret Pierse offers a few A.T. words of wisdom:

Everyone had the Sawyer Squeeze water filter; it’s unanimously considered the best.

I used the Z Lite sleeping pad.

I was divided between tents and hammocks, but I went with hammock because the woman with Girl Scouts had talked about that and I was really enamored by it. And I used a tarp and bug netting. I really liked it.

I would also sleep in shelters or “cowboy camp” under the stars.

When you are outside all day every day, you learn to know when it’s going to rain. I didn’t anticipate how in-tune I’d become with the weather.

If you have blisters, put duct tape on them, or moleskin.

It’s important to hang food in a bear bag. Otherwise, bears will eat your food.

A rule of thumb is to get rid of anything you won’t need for two weeks. I say get rid of it if you don’t use it for two days.

My first-aid kit was narrowed down to duct tape, moleskin, ibuprofen and a needle.

I saw six or seven bears. They’re not as cool as people think. They’re kind of scaredy-cats. They lumber around. Then you yell, and they run away.

You think you need clothes, but you don’t. You only need what will keep you alive. One set is fine, along with warm gear, a sleeping bag, a water filter, food, and a hammock/tent.

Everyone should quit their job and go on an adventure sometime.

New Places, Familiar Faces

Brian Ashby is hoping to open 8th & Union Kitchen this month in Little Italy. Photo David Norbut

Spring welcomes brewpubs, bistros and more to the restaurant scene

The frigid winter that kept foodies inside with their cookbooks has finally given way to warmer weather. So forget loading your Facebook page with photos of homemade soups and stews—it’s time to get out and dine in one of the many restaurants that have opened or are about to open in New Castle County and the surrounding area. Local chains are expanding and seasoned chefs are delving into new concepts. As summer approaches, there’ll be even more tasty options on the horizon.

The Far East in Little Italy

Brian Ashby, whose parents own the Deer Park Tavern, Cantwell’s Tavern and McGlynns Pub, is hoping to open 8th & Union Kitchen this month. The restaurant is located in Little Italy, in space formerly occupied by Union City Grille and, before that, Tarabicos Restaurant.

Ashby, who studied at Le Cordon Bleu, has rearranged the restaurant’s footprint. There’s a 30-seat copper-topped bar and a total capacity of 150 indoors. He also added 24 seats outside. The hip décor features subway tiles and natural materials, including reclaimed wood.

Ashby worked in a restaurant featuring Southeast Asian cuisine when he was in culinary school, and he’s incorporating some of those dishes into the eclectic menu. “For lack of a better term, it’s gastropub, but I’m not offering any sushi,” he says. Although he could handle the kitchen, he’s hired a chef, Scott Morozin, with whom he worked at Espuma in Rehoboth Beach.

Got Your Goat

The opening of another restaurant this month is whetting diners’ appetites. Goat Kitchen and Bar, whose sign in a small North Wilmington shopping center has prompted double takes for months, is scheduled to debut at any time.

You might remember owner David Weir from Buckley’s Tavern. His restaurant group also owned Four Dogs Tavern, the Chaddsford Inn, and the Marshalton Inn in Pennsylvania. After taking a break as a consultant at the Kitty Knight House for a year, Weir decided to get back in the business in space occupied by China Royal until that owner retired.

Goat is an approachable 75-seat space with lots of reclaimed wood, some of which came from the Marshalton Inn. The menu is peppered with shared snacks, salads and entrees with seasonal ingredients. There are burgers (beef, black bean, lamb and tuna), pizzas and sandwiches, as well as “big plates.” It sounds like pub food, and it is, but Goat is not competing with nearby Two Stones or Ulysses. Although Goat will offer craft beers, taps won’t line the bar. Yes, Buckley’s fans of old, there will be Thai chicken noodle soup.

Weir has been holding the “goat” name in reserve for years. “It sticks in the mind,” he says. “Goats are cute, and goats eat everything.” Further down the line he might open a vegetarian spot, Rabbit, and a rib-centric location, Pig.

The Return of Miz Walt’s

Barbecue has been the main offering at Fat Rick’s BBQ, which is tucked in a business-medical complex off Foulk Road near Brandywine High School. Owner Rick Betz originally took the space for its commercial kitchen, which he could use for catering. Then he opened the small dining room for lunch. This winter, he brought Miz Walt’s fried chicken into the fold. Betz and wife Tina opened a Miz Walt’s location in Little Italy in 1990, and it later moved to North Wilmington before closing. Fans of the juicy chicken with the crisp, golden crust are thrilled to see it on the menu.

That’s Italian!

Arguably Delaware’s favorite style of cuisine, Italian continues to dominate the restaurant scene, with the openings last year of Bella Coast on Concord Pike next to the Charcoal Pit, Vincenza & Margarita (V&M) Bistro on Marsh Road in Brandywine Hundred (across from the Shoppes of Graylyn), Café Sítaly, also in Brandywine Hundred, and Limoncello Italian Grill in Newark.

Meatball pizza at Bella Coast on Concord Pike. Photo provided by Big Fish Restaurant Group
Meatball pizza at Bella Coast on Concord Pike. Photo provided by Big Fish Restaurant Group

A new concept from the Big Fish Restaurant Group, Bella Coast has the same clean, bright design. There are branded bottles of olive oil on the tables, as well as copies of the Fodor Guide to Italy—should you care to read while you wait for your food. The restaurant serves lunch and dinner with a menu featuring baked ziti and meatballs, chicken parm, pizzas and sandwiches. Not surprisingly, you can’t go wrong if you choose a seafood dish. Big Fish also has a wholesale seafood division.

V&M Bistro brings an upscale look to the once pedestrian and mostly empty strip of shops across from the Shoppes of Graylyn. The restaurant is surprisingly roomy inside. Step in the vestibule to spot the open bakery and see the tempting loaves of bread, calzones and pizzas.

Named for sisters Vincenza and Margherita Carrieri-Russo, who run the restaurant with their family, V&M is a step above red gravy places, with the prices to prove it. But the budget-conscious can opt for sandwiches and pizzas at dinner as well as lunch.

On Naamans Road, Café Sítaly occupies European Bistro’s old digs in a small old-fashioned strip center that received a makeover. This slim space has quickly become popular with the North Wilmington crowd. One caution: Add a few minutes to takeout orders; arrive at the appointed time and you may have to wait.

Lauren Cox-Ristenbatt and her husband, Ed Ristenbatt, owned and operated Cafe Sole’ in Rehoboth Beach before moving to New Castle County and opening Limoncello on Ogletown-Stanton Road in Newark last spring. Here you’ll find pizzas, cheesesteaks and such entrees as pork roasted for 12 hours, Southwest salmon, crab cakes, and pasta specialties.

More Than a Deli

Speaking of Newark, Arena’s Deli & Bar in December opened a location on Main Street in the former home of Pita Pit and Cold Stone Creamery. The 93-seat restaurant, which has a pet-friendly patio, is the latest location for the restaurant chain, which initially gained fame for its creative sandwiches at the 25-year-old Rehoboth Beach site.

South of the Border Fare

Also on the casual side in Newark, El Diablo Burritos recently opened its third location on Main Street. Menu-wise, the 26-seat restaurant follows the lead of the Trolley Square and

El Diablo Burritos' house salad includes romaine, cheddar jack cheese, corn salsa and pico de gallo with crispy tortilla strips. Photo Tim Hawk
El Diablo Burritos’ house salad includes romaine, cheddar jack cheese, corn salsa and pico de gallo with crispy tortilla strips. Photo Tim Hawk

Brandywine Hundred locations. However, owner Dean Vilone hopes to offer breakfast in Newark at some point.

By May 1, Bryan Sikora plans to open Cocina Lolo in the Renaissance Building on King Street, across from the courthouse in downtown Wilmington. It’s a short jaunt from Sikora’s other restaurant, La Fia, which opened in 2013 on Market Street. The new restaurant, whose dining room will seat about 40, is inspired by Latin and Mexican cuisine. “It’s my interpretation,” Sikora says. “Everybody has their own; every chef does it his or her own way.”

Fresh ingredients and execution will differentiate Cocina Lolo from the many Mexican restaurants that dot the highways. Finishing is also key, from finding just the right cheese to the fresh salsa. The restaurant will also feature tequilas and rums, as well as craft cocktails.

Bread, Bagels, Baked Goods

Sikora quietly opened Market Street Bagel & Bread in Primo’s old location on Wilmington’s Market Street about six months ago to make wholesale goods, but retail is on the way. “We’re getting our technique down and getting the right equipment,” he says. “In the future, we want to open a bagelry with sandwiches, sodas and lunch stuff—this area is bustling at lunchtime.”

Expect more for Sikora, who has plans for a bar concept, also on Market Street.

A Restoration and a Restaurant

In Smyrna, Howard Johnson also has had big plans. If all goes well, he will open the Inn at Duck Creek in June. Johnson, who opened and sold Odd Fellows Café in downtown Smyrna, is restoring the Inn at Duck Creek for use as an upscale restaurant.

“Our chimneys for our fireplace are just about finished, and then we will move inside to plaster and repair the flooring, and install restrooms, the kitchen and a bar,” he says. “This project is the direct response to the town of Smyrna forming a redevelopment authority, and the funds being used for our project are federal.”

He’s partnered with Donna Ignasz on the project, which also has received funds from a Kickstarter initiative.

Brew News

Johnson will feature local products, including beer from Blue Earl Brewery, which will hopefully open soon. “We don’t have an exact date—it depends on construction and inspections,” says Ron Price, president of the brewery. “Things don’t always go as planned.”

The brewery is located in the Smyrna Business Park. Price plans to brew varying styles of beer, including hoppy American ales, lagers and Belgian-style beers. The brewery will bottle, and there will be tours and a tasting room.

Also on the beer front, plans for a Two Stones Pub in Hockessin fell through before settlement. “We incorporated Hockessin Two Stones, so we have it if something else comes up,” says co-owner Mike Stiglitz. A Jennersville, Pa., restaurant is in the works. Meanwhile, he and his partners have more time to devote to 2SP, a brewery opening in Aston, just over the Pennsylvania state line.

Burger and fries from Stone Balloon Ale House. Photo Squatch Creative
Burger and fries from Stone Balloon Ale House. Photo Squatch Creative

The brewery benefits from the talent of Bob Barrar, whose beers have won medals at the Great American Beer Festival for Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant. The brewing system should be up by May 15, Stiglitz says, and the brewery should open for tours sometime this summer. 2SP plans to feature six core beers. (Barrar is known for his Russian Imperial Stouts, Stiglitz notes.) The brewery will offer glass and stainless steel growlers and noshes, such as charcuterie and pressed sandwiches. You may see some of the crazy themed tacos for which the pubs have become famous.

People in Pennsylvania and Delaware have been anxiously awaiting the opening of Victory Brewing Company’s Kennett Square location, which is scheduled to open this year. (Although the building looks as though it’s an old brick warehouse building in a commercial district, it was built from the ground up.) Expect a menu similar to the flagship Downingtown brewpub, which has sandwiches, burgers, pizzas and beer-friendly entrees.

Down in Newark, the Stone Balloon Ale House this year opened in the space most recently occupied by 16 Mile Taphouse, which took over the Stone Balloon Winehouse, built on the site of the old Stone Balloon nightclub. Got it? This incarnation has new owners, including Bobby Pancake, who owns Buffalo Wild Wings franchises in Delaware, and it salutes the old Stone Balloon with its décor, which includes a back wall sporting the names of popular acts that played there.

Chef Robbie Jester, formerly of Piccolina Toscana, is in the kitchen, and the beer list is impressive.

That’s appropriate, because for foodies, there are many good reasons to toast the Northern Delaware dining scene.

Spring Into the Arts!

The Wilmington area offers a cornucopia of arts events this spring. Here’s a comprehensive overview.

ARDEN CONCERT GILD
Spring in Arden kicks off Saturday, April 11, with the global Afropop sensation Fatoumata Diawara—an explosive mix of funk and African dance with glorious costumes. Arden

San Fermin (photo Joe del Tufo)
San Fermin (photo Joe del Tufo)

Concerts next welcomes budding Nashville star Lera Lynn and her trio on Friday, April 17, fresh off her universally praised 2014 album The Avenues and a rousing performance on the The Late Show with David Letterman. On Friday, May 8, Arden will have critically acclaimed Baltimore indie/shoegaze/synth pop titans Lower Dens. Their new album, Escape From Evil, is an absolute breakthrough—think Beach House meets Future Islands, with Jana Hunter’s soaring vocals.

Arden Gild Hall, 2126 The Highway, Arden • 475-3126 • ardenconcerts.com

BRANDYWINE BAROQUE
The region’s premier Early Music ensemble welcomes spring with Harpsichord Heaven. The annual early music festival highlights works performed on one of the largest private collections of antique instruments in the world. The festival runs April 24-26 and features brandywine_baroquesuch renowned international musicians as Arthur Haas, Luc Beauséjour, Janine Johnson, Adam Pearl and Davitt Moroney. A complete festival pass, including admission to three days of performances, the opening reception, all lectures and lunches, is $120. Details and tickets are available here.

The Barn at Flintwoods, 205 Center Meeting Rd., Wilmington • 877.594.4546 brandywinebaroque.org

CHRISTINA CULTURAL ARTS CENTER
Christina continues to produce first-rate live performances and creative programming for adults and youth. The Pivot, a monthly open mic night (second and fourth Fridays), draws some of the best local talent. On Saturday, April 18, Christina launches the First Annual Young People’s Festival of the Arts at the Laird Performing Arts Center of the Tatnall School. The Festival offers workshops on Songwriting, Modern Dance and Audition CCAC_Concrete RoseTechniques; live performances by faculty and guest artists; and the Delaware Premiere of Concrete Rose by choreographer Dara Stevens-Meredith, featuring Eleone Dance Theatre. Festival tickets are $12 for adults and $6 for students. At CCAC’s Clifford Brown Performance Space, musical trio WeBe3 presents a performance and vocal workshop for regional singers on Friday, May 8, and Saturday, May 9, respectively. Concert tickets are $15 in advance and $20 at the door. Vocal workshop registration is $25 for students and $40 for adults; advance reservations are encouraged. 705 N. Market St., Wilmington • 652.0101 • ccacde.org

CITYFEST
Cityfest, Inc., part of the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, provides a variety of arts offerings for City visitors and residents to enjoy. Wilmington’s popular Art on the Town (artloopwilm.com)—a free self-guided tour occurring on the first Friday of each month—connects patrons with the latest visual art exhibitions and artists. Theatre N at Nemours Pig, 1969-70(theatren.org) features weekly independent and foreign films in addition to special events and presentations by local filmmakers. The Visual Fringe Festival (fringede.org), May 20-24, will feature visual art exhibits and outdoor installations of non-traditional topics, materials or styles by visiting and local artists.

Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs, 800 N. French St., Wilmington • 576.2100 wilmingtonde.gov/government/cityfest

CITY THEATER COMPANY
Delaware’s Off-Broadway closes out its 21st season with the Delaware premiere of Green Day’s American Idiot, running April 10-25. The two-time Tony Award-winning musical—based on the Grammy Award-winning, multi-platinum album of the same name—is a multimedia rock opera following three friends as they search for meaning in a post 9/11 CTC_American Idiotworld. Songs include “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “21 Guns,” “Wake Me Up When September Ends,” “Holiday” and “American Idiot.” CTC’s Fearless Improv team continues to deliver belly laughs to comedy fans on the second Saturday of each month at Penn’s Place in Old New Castle. Tickets for American Idiot are $25-$40; Fearless Improv tickets are $5. All are available now here.

Performance address: The Black Box at OperaDelaware Studios, 4 S. Poplar St., Wilmington • 220.8285 • city-theater.org

DELAWARE SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA
The Symphony’s spring performances include the Chamber Concert at the DuPont Country Club (note the new venue) on Tuesday, April 14, at 8 p.m., and their ClassicsDSO_Amado Concert at The Grand Opera House on Friday, May 1, at 7:30 p.m. The Chamber Concert will feature works by Mozart and the piece Arcana by composer Kevin Puts, winner of the 2015 A.I. du Pont Composer’s Award. The Classics Concert celebrates works by Webern, Bach and Rachmaninoff. Tickets for both concerts are $66 and available at the Grand Box Office, 652.5577, or at ticketsatthegrand.org. Limited $10 tickets are offered for students under 21 with ID (by phone or in person).

818 N. Market St., Wilmington • 656.7442 • delawaresymphony.org

DELAWARE THEATRE COMPANY
This one gets two paws way up from Dewey the Art Dog! Delaware Theatre Company produces the new Broadway-bound musical Because of Winn Dixie (April 8-May 3), based on the award-winning children’s novel by Kate DeCamillo. A tale about the gentle and intimate friendship between a young girl and her dog, the production is poised to become the first Broadway musical starring a live dog as the main character. The show’s music is DTC_Aint Misbehavinwritten by Duncan Sheik (Tony Award winner for Spring Awakening) with book and lyrics by Nell Benjamin (Broadway’s Legally Blonde: The Musical) and animal direction by Bill Berloni (Broadway’s award-winning dog trainer). Every Saturday during the production run, DTC will host adoption events in conjunction with Delaware animal shelters. In May, DTC joins forces with the Delaware Symphony Orchestra to present Stephen Sondheim’s Putting it Together. Stay tuned for more details!

200 Water St., Wilmington • 594.1100 • DelawareTheatre.org

Mike Scott
The Waterboys

THE GRAND OPERA HOUSE/THE PLAYHOUSE ON RODNEY SQUARE
April at The Grand is busy. On Thursday, April 9, David Sedaris returns to offer insightful observations delivered with his characteristic sardonic wit. Alt-rock singer-songwriter Johnette Napolitano brings her far-reaching vocals on Friday, April 17. Felix Cavaliere’s Rascals get things “Groovin” with feel-good ‘60s rock on Thursday, April 23. On Friday, April 24, spice up your spring at Grand Baile Latin Dance Night. End the month with The Grand’s Stage of Discovery show, The Musical Adventures of Flat Stanley on Monday, April 27. The Grand also has announced several just-added shows: The Waterboys (Sunday, April 26); Ryan Adams (Tuesday, May 12); The Psychedelic Furs (Sunday, May 17), and Steven Wilson (Sunday, May 31).

Onstage at The Playhouse on Rodney Square, Camelot tells the legend of King Arthur as you’ve never seen it before, April 14-19. Then, laugh a little on Saturday, May 2, with Rich Little, the master mimic of more than 200 voices.

818 N. Market St., Wilmington • 800.37.GRAND
TheGrandWilmington.org for all Grand events

1007 N. Market St., Wilmington • 888-0200
ThePlayhouseDE.org for all Playhouse shows

DELAWARE ART MUSEUM
As Dewey the Art Dog and I say, there is no love like that of man’s best friend. The Art Museum proves it with Elliott Erwitt: Dog Dogs, on view through Sunday, May 24. The exhibit features photographs taken around the world by photojournalist Elliott Erwitt as ERE1971001W00014-08Ahe recorded the relationship between humans and their canine companions. Families are invited to the Dog Dogs Free Family Day on Sunday, April 19, from noon to 3:30 p.m., for dog-themed art activities and The Barker of Seville puppet show. Adult art lovers can stop by Art is Social: Dog Dogs on Friday, May 15, 7 to 10 p.m., for music by jazz band JD3, gallery games, dog-themed activities and treats, a cash bar and café. The event is free for museum members and $5 for non-members. Admission to the museum is free on Thursday evenings and Sundays.

2301 Kentmere Pkwy., Wilmington • 571.9590 • delart.org

DELAWARE CENTER FOR THE CONTEMPORARY ARTS
The Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts will kick off April with a special Trailers, Tastes, and Trucks Art Loop on Friday, April 10 (note alternate Loop date), from 5-11 p.m., featuring WilmFilm Festival film trailers; wine, craft beer, and spirits tastings by Peco’s Liquor and Barry’s Events; a fantastic line-up of food trucks; and a DJ spinning movie soundtracks. At the Thursday, April 23, gala spring fundraising event make(r)evolution, the DCCA will highlight the work of artists exploring the medium of 3-D printing with on-site demos and a benefit sale of regional 3-D printed artworks. TDCCA_Allman-Puri installhe DCCA’s Friday, May 1, Art Loop will feature the first Rolling Revolution Food Truck Rally and an album release party with Richard Raw performing from his new hip-hop album, Conversational Pieces. On May 3, contemporary and baroque ensemble Mélomanie will premiere composer Larry Nelson’s work “Moonbow.” Scheduled for Saturday, May 9, is the DCCA’s 2015 Gretchen Hupfel Symposium, Selfies and Social Robotics in the Digital Age, which will explore the historical, contemporary, and future contexts of the ways we both connect to and distance ourselves from face-to-face engagement in an age of social media. Exhibitions opening in April and May include Layering Constructs, with works by Margo Allman, Charles Burwell, and Antonio Puri; Relics by Drew Leshko; Whisper by David Slovic; and the Annual Members’ Juried Exhibition, New Eyes: Experimental Photography Today; as well as shows by DCCA studio artists Rachel Briggs, Hugh Atkins, Dan Jackson and Ken Mabrey.

200 S. Madison St., Wilmington • 656-6466 • thedcca.org

DELAWARE COLLEGE OF ART & DESIGN
Join the DCAD community for the opening reception of its 18th Annual Student Exhibition, on Friday,DCAD_Art Loop April 3, from 5 to 8 p.m. in the Toni & Stuart B. Young Gallery. Enjoy the best student work from this past year, as selected by studio faculty. The work on display represents a variety of assignments and media from each of DCAD’s six majors: Animation, Fine Arts, Graphic Design, Illustration, Interior Design and Photography. The exhibition will be on display until April 24.

600 N. Market St., Wilmington • 622.8000 • dcad.edu

WORLD CAFE LIVE AT THE QUEEN
Musical spring has sprung in Wilmington. First up is the incomparable Sheila E., live on Wednesday, April 29; power-pop band Jukebox the Ghost on Wednesday, May 6; WXPN, AEG Live and World Cafe Live present Todd Rundgren on Saturday, May 16; Grateful

Dark Star Orchestra
Dark Star Orchestra

Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra hits the stage on Wednesday, May 27; and WCLQ and NOLAFUNK present Kermit Ruffins & the BBQ Swingers on Thursday, May 28.

500 N. Market St., Wilmington • 994-1400 • queen.worldcafelive.com

GABLE MUSIC VENTURES
Raise a glass for the City’s newest arts & culture happening—Wilmo Wednesdays—from Gable and World Cafe Live at the Queen. Every Wednesday at 7 p.m., Gable presents a curated variety show featuring live music, stand-up comedy, spoken word and slam poetry, storytelling and other forms of Gable_Wilmo Wednesdaysperformance art. NOTE: This is not an open mic; interested performers should contact Jeremy Hebbel at jeremy@gablemusicventures.com. Additional Gable projects include April 17 and May 15 Friday Singer Songwriter Showcases at the Queen; Betty & The Bullet at Cromwell’s Tavern on Saturday, April 18; and WilMusic Festival, a free event at Wilmington University featuring The Splashing Pearls, Nadjah Nicole, Minshara, Kevin McCove and more on Saturday, May 2.

 

Performance venues: World Cafe Live at the Queen, 500 N. Market St.; Extreme Pizza, 201 N. Market St., Wilmington gablemusicventures.com

OPERADELAWARE
Two Weekends, Three Programs = A Magical Spring Festival in Wilmington. The OperaDelaware series launches with Lakmé on Friday, May 8, 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, May 16, 2 p.m. at the baby grand. Sharon Cheng stars as Lakmé, with the Ocarmen-ufo4-bigperaDelaware chorus led by Maestro Anthony Barrese. For audiences who attend the performances of La Tragédie de Carmen, Peter Brook has transformed Bizet’s timeless classic, adding more passion, fresh blood and sexual fury than you’ve ever seen. Audrey Babcock’s portrayal of this seductive sorceress is irresistible. Shows are Saturday, May 9, and Friday, May 15, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, May 17, at 2 p.m. at the Laird Center for the Performing Arts. On May 14-16 at 7:30 p.m., opera blends with the culinary arts in Wine, Women & Food. The event will feature Bon Appétit, a 20-minute, one-woman opera based on Julia Child’s famous chocolate cake episode, capturing all the joie de vivre of the original French chef.

4 S. Poplar St., Wilmington • 442.7807 • operade.org

MARKET STREET MUSIC
Market Street Music’s noted Thursday Noontime Concerts continue weekly through May 14, with lineups of jazz, bossa nova, choral music and an OperaDelaware preview. The final Laube5X7Festival Concert on Saturday, May 16, celebrates the 25th Anniversary of the Gabriel Kney organ with a rare performance by concert organ virtuoso Nathan Laube. Laube has earned a place among the organ world’s elite performers with his brilliant playing and creative programming, which spans five centuries.

Performance address: First & Central Presbyterian Church, 1101 N. Market St., Wilmington • 654.5371 • marketstreetmusicde.org

 

MÉLOMANIE
Enjoy two art forms in one ticket! The provocative pairings of tMelomanie_Informalhis ensemble are juxtaposed with contemporary works of the DCCA’s featured gallery artists. The concert at 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 3, welcomes guest violinist Daniela Pierson and composer Larry Nelson. Nelson’s piece, Moonbow, will mark its Wilmington premiere with this performance, which also includes works of Vivaldi, Boismortier and Telemann.

Performance address: Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts,
200 S. Madison St., Wilmington • 764.6338 • melomanie.org

THE MUSIC SCHOOL OF DELAWARE
The Music School serves up musical experiences for the entire family this spring. On Saturday, April 18, at 5 p.m., the school celebrates its young alumni in a “Shining Stars” concert with artists Jennifer Campbell and Maria Scott, piano; Rachyl Duffy, viola; Witt Godden, singer/songwriter; Emma Scott, violin; and Alexander Weir, fiddle. Tickets are Music School of DE_DE Women's Chorus$5-10. The music continues on Sunday, May 3, at 4 p.m. for the Spring Choral Concert, which showcases performances by the Delaware Children’s Chorus, the Delaware Women’s Chorus (who will be prepping for their tour of Ireland in June) and special guest ensemble Brotherly Love, the chamber group from the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus. This performance is free. On Friday, May 15, the Wilmington Community Orchestra performs its final concert of the season with Winners of the Delaware Concerto Competition for Young Musicians. Tickets are $5-10.

4101 Washington St., Wilmington • 762.1132 • musicschoolofdelaware.org

…Just Who Is Mickey Donatello?

Restaurateur, golf pro, classic Porsche and motorcycle restorer, loyal friend? The next Major Tom?

Asked where he met Michael “Mickey” Donatello, John Schulte responds with a deadpan “astronaut school.”

Donatello, 50, is the kind of guy who could be an astronaut if he put his mind to it, Shulte says. But actually, the duo—creators of the retro Lucky’s Coffee Shop, the modern, sophisticated Corner Bistro, and new owners of the gourmet café Bon Appétit (blocks from each other along the Concord Pike corridor)—became friends in the 1980s through a mutual love for food, drink and golf.

At the time, Schulte was a seasoned golfer who could easily outplay the 20-something Donatello. But the latter surprised Schulte one day by casually remarking, “I like this. I think I’m going to be a golf pro.”

“I watched with growing respect as he actually did it,” Schulte says.

Donatello joined the Professional Golfers Association in 1998 and over the next 14 years moved through the Newark Country Club, the DuPont Country Club, Fieldstone, and Ed Oliver Golf Club. (Among his pupils was Georges Perrier, the famous restaurateur and creator of the Philadelphia dining institution Le Bec-Fin.)

That’s “quintessential Mic,” his friends say. Donatello doesn’t follow a formula. Once he discovers what he wants, there’s no challenge he won’t take on—often surpassing others with specialized training, thanks to his acumen and ability to drill down into a subject or activity, according to Schulte.

So in 2002, when Donatello the career golf pro did an about-face and said he’d like to open a restaurant, Schulte knew he would.

Donatello laid out his concept to Schulte, who by then was an experienced restaurateur with five projects under his belt, including Scratch Magoo’s in Trolley Square and Tyler Fitzgerald’s in Pike Creek. Within a year, the Corner Bistro, with its clean, contemporary décor and fresh, inventive food, launched. It got a robust reception and has sustained its popularity.

Four years later, Donatello was on the hunt for a place to play out a completely new creative vision. Soon, Lucky’s, with its open kitchen, signature furniture (including a disco ball by the bathrooms) and a banana cream pie suited to the retro diner vibe, was born. It, too, became a Concord Pike icon.

Donatello is always on the lookout for the next challenge. Take his passion for restoring classic Porsches and motorcycles, for instance. He’s on his fifth Porsche—a 2002 Porsche 911. And he’s on his fifth bike—a 1988 Yamaha FZ-600. “I get one, pour my heart and soul into it, but as soon as it’s done, I don’t want it anymore,” he says.

Schulte knows the signs, and that’s what makes him a great partner, says Donatello.
“Recently, I was spending a lot of time looking for a half dozen chairs for the Bistro bar. I kept sending John pictures and asking him what he thought of this or that. Finally, he’s like, ‘What’s with the chairs? Are you bored?’ Yep. I’m bored.” (Which proved to be perfect timing, because Bon Appétit was about to become available.)

As a young man, Donatello says he never imagined becoming a restaurant owner, but the love was there. He started working at H. A. Winston’s at 16, and stayed until he mastered each job in the house: bar back, receiving, dishes, wait staff, host, bartender, and every station in the kitchen. He went to Antonelli Institute in Erdenheim, Pa., to study photography, but restaurants kept calling him back. Even as a golf pro, the country club kitchens drew him in.

Donatello’s creative clarity is remarkable, says Mary Austin, longtime friend, golf buddy, sometime housemate, and owner of Mary’s Café in Trolley Square. He’s a modest man, careful not to inflate his credentials, but on this point, he agrees.

“I walk into a space and I know what it’s going to be, what needs to be done. What people need to see and feel and eat,” he says. The Concord High School grad, raised in North Wilmington in a DuPont Company family, also understands the local market. He says Wilmington wants the comfort of home—not too quirky, not too bland.

“People here know good food, so if you’re predictable, they’ll head to a kitschy chain. You can’t create too much novelty either, because they want familiar, not exotic at home. When they want novelty, it’s 30 minutes to Center City Philadelphia.”

Donatello has a recipe for “home” but clearly it’s not set in stone, because the Bistro and Lucky’s are nothing alike. The paradox, the magic that he’s so good at, his friends say, is creating a comfortable experience that resists being cliché or boring through the judicious use of unique, fun, or “wow factor” touches. The touches show up in flavors, décor, operations, messaging, and elsewhere—it’s all fair game.

Case in point: when scouting furniture for Lucky’s, Donatello found an authentic Eero Aarnio white “ball chair” with red interior, a 1960s Industrial Design period classic. It was $5,000, but he knew that piece would come to represent Lucky’s like nothing else. He was right.

He’s a master at pulling off a risk, because he has a way of keeping his touch on everything at once, says Alice Zino, who supplies him with Island Beverage Company teas. For example, at Lucky’s, says Zino, “there’s a lot of pink hair, tattoos and nose rings”—even among front of the house staff. “That’s common in Philly, but progressive for Delaware,” Zino says. “It works, I think, because of the way the menu is worded.”

Wait, what? Menu descriptions balance out nose rings?

Absolutely, according to Donatello. The elements come together in a “we don’t take ourselves that seriously” vibe. Guests relax—and have a good laugh over the menu. It includes puns, pirate references, and descriptions like, “that cheese with the holes,” “meaty and cheesy, just like our chef,” and “Really, you’re still reading this?”

It’s fascinating to watch Donatello put together a concept, a room, even a plate of food, Schulte says.

The key is knowing what you’re good at and what you’re not, Donatello says, and having a stellar team to rely on. That’s why he trusts Schulte’s business savvy, even when it reins in his creative urge. “I wouldn’t dream of doing a thing, not a single furniture purchase, without John’s OK.”

It’s also why Donatello has no desire to emulate his idol, Stephen Starr, owner of dozens of over-the-top dining and entertainment venues in Philadelphia, New York City, Ft. Lauderdale and Atlantic City. “Starr is a machine. I love creating an atmosphere, too. But I immerse myself and don’t want to move on too quickly. I never wanted to be that.”

He also wanted a good relationship with his daughters, Tess, 11, and Sydney, 9. Work is busy but flexible, Donatello says. He gets them to extracurriculars; they hang out after school wherever he’s working. When they were young, they’d tag along in the garage as he worked on one of his classic cars, or whatever he was into.

Donatello’s devotion as a father shocks Austin, his friend of three decades.

“He raced go-carts, rode motorcycles, drove fast cars,” Austin says. “He was not a kid guy. When we taught the youth Sports Academy at DuPont, he’d get frustrated. The little ones wiggled, didn’t remember what you told them. I never thought he’d be a kid guy, but today he’s more so than any of my other friends. He’s a fabulous father.”

Family was a big reason Donatello left golf for food; he and his wife of 14 years, Lori, knew the “no such thing as weekends” life of a pro had to be over when kids came.

The latest Schulte-Donatello venture, Bon Appétit—purchased from longtime friend Louisette Amblard—is a departure. This time, it’s not about creating a concept; it’s about preserving one.

Why take it over then? The answer illustrates another side of Donatello: he’s quietly and deeply loyal to his friends and community. For 28 years, Amblard gifted local foodies with a bit of her homeland through the authentic French market and café. But it was time to slow down after she took a fall, and Donatello didn’t want Wilmington to lose this treasure.

“The mustards, cheeses, meats, fresh baked goods—it’s comforting knowing this place is here,” he says. “I’m not Mr. Nostalgia, but if I want a really good baguette and pâté, where else am I going to get it?”

Fine, but how does a guy with such a strong vision run three very different concepts? Fortunately, he’s not a micro-manager, Austin says.

He keeps a pulse on what’s going on by dropping in and installing a light fixture rather than descending on the scene to check up on employees. He hires competent staff and they stick around, in what is a transient industry. He hires staff with less experience so they can absorb his vision. For these reasons and more, they often become “disciples of Mickey,” Schulte says.

Yes, [there will be a new project]. What it is, I have no idea. I’ll know it when I see it.

—Mickey Donatello

One area where Donatello is absolutely hands on: dealing with disgruntled guests.
“I am happy being in the background when things are going well, but I want to be the one to personally smooth things over” when it goes wrong, he says. For two reasons: he’s the bottom line, and maintaining good relationships with neighbors is important. It’s different in a town like Ocean City, Md. Even if there’s an egregious mistake, a manager might only knock a drink off the bill, since there are 100 tourists outside waiting for a seat. Says Donatello: “At my place, everyone at the table would eat for free.”

Zino agrees, but adds that Donatello is not a “suck it up, the customer is always right” kind of boss. For example, when Lucky’s had been open a year, Zino saw a couple being very rude to a server. To their astonishment, Donatello invited them to leave and never come back.

With Donatello, expect creativity, expect a passion that sees a project from concept to completion. But don’t expect him to settle into the same thing forever.

Is there another project on the horizon for Donatello?

“Yes,” he says emphatically. “What it is, I have no idea. I’ll know it when I see it.”
That’s par for the course for the ex-golf pro.

“Mic is brilliant, charismatic, enigmatic and fascinating every day,” Schulte says. “I could ride on his coattails forever. But one day if he says he’s going to astronaut school, this [restaurant life] will be done and gone. In Mic’s world, it could happen.”

Golf, Anyone?

With help from area pros and our golf-addicted writer, here’s how to get started

As you gear up for warmer weather this spring, perhaps you’re thinking about trying your hand at a new sport or activity. If so, there are certain questions that will likely come up:

Do you want to spend time outside?
Do you want to play with family and friends?
Do you want it to be relatively inexpensive?
Do you want to be able to drink a beer while playing?
Do you look good in plaid?

If you answered yes to all these questions, then friends, it’s time to pick up the game of golf. (And even if you don’t look good in plaid or drink beer, stick with us.)
It’s easier and cheaper than you might think, and there are plenty of local courses and professionals ready to get you started on what can be a lifelong hobby.

White Clay Creek Country Club is a 7,000-yard behemoth (from the back tees), that surrounds the grounds of Delaware Park Racetrack and Casino. (Photo provided by WCCCC)
White Clay Creek Country Club is a 7,000-yard behemoth (from the back tees), that
surrounds the grounds of Delaware Park Racetrack and Casino. (Photo provided by WCCCC)

I Am a Golfer

I’ll admit, I first tried golf in college because some friends were playing, I knew I could drink beer and smoke cigars while I played, and the idea of zipping around 18 holes in a motorized golf cart sounded like fun.

I refused to acknowledge golf as a sport, though, let alone a hobby worth any real time or effort. Also, the extent of my knowledge regarding the game came solely from Caddyshack and Happy Gilmore. (See “Tee Off…” in this issue).

Then, about five years ago, something happened, and I went from casual golfer to someone who now plays about 50 times a year, watches tournaments on television, and will play in 40-degree weather as long as it’s sunny.

Some would say that I got “the fever,” which most golfers experience at one time or another. You start paying more attention, you skip the beer, you walk the course instead of riding the cart, you zone in, you become more patient, and your score finally drops under 100.

It’s a combination of hitting a few great shots per round, enjoying the people you’re with, making new friends and even business associates, and soaking up the sun in the peace and quiet you can find on a golf course.

There’s something else, though, and I think it’s the fact that at any point in any round, I can hit a shot or sink a putt as well as a pro. Conversely, a pro might hit as poor a shot as I tend to still do (more often than not). If you’ve followed Tiger Woods recently, you know what I’m talking about.

I still remember my longest drive—331 yards on Hole 2 at Rock Manor; my best chip-in—a 60-footer on Hole 5 at Broad Run in West Chester, Pa.; my longest putt—a 35-footer on Hole 1 at ChampionsGate in Davenport, Fla. It’s those shots that will keep you coming back for more.

But if you really want to learn not only how to get started in this game, but understand what it takes to go from novice to breaking 100 to scratch golfer, you need to talk to the local professionals and teachers in the area. And that’s exactly what we did for this story.

Michael Tobiason, new pro at Deerfield, was a qualifier for the 2011 U.S. Open. (Photo provided by Deerfield)
Michael Tobiason, new pro at Deerfield, was a qualifier for the 2011 U.S. Open. (Photo provided by Deerfield)

Seek Professional Help

For Dennis Taggart, head professional at Ed “Porky” Oliver Golf Club in Wilmington, the game became part of his life soon after he could walk. At age 3, his family moved to Hilton Head, N.C., where his father, Bill, took a position as a contractor in developing the golfing community. That was in the late ‘70s.

“From age 3 to 12, I basically grew up on a golf course,” Taggart says. “When we moved back to New Jersey, I played four years at Glassboro High School and then four years at Rider University, after which my Uncle Paul, a PGA Pro, taught me the finer points of the game.”

Taggart says that golf, especially in this day and age when most people are tethered to their cell phones and tablets, can provide a wonderful respite to otherwise hectic lives.
“It’s great for networking and business, sure, but you can also really enjoy the game with friends and loved ones,” Taggart says. “It can be a four-to-six-hour time commitment for some rounds, but that’s quality time spent away from work, and it’s great exercise, especially if you walk 18 holes with a 30-lb. bag on your shoulder.”

Ryan Kidwell, executive director of Golf and PGA Pro at White Clay Creek Country Club, got into the game while working part-time at Grand Cypress Resort in Orlando. It was there, while watching clinics and setting up the practice range, that he saw an opportunity for a career.

“I hadn’t played much outside of a little bit in high school, but I was immediately intrigued by the business side of the sport and becoming a PGA Professional,” Kidwell says. “Now when people come to me to ask about the sport, I tell them they should enjoy their time on the golf course, no matter how they are playing, and if they want to get better, demonstration clinics and education are of the utmost importance.”

Michael Tobiason, the newly announced head pro at Deerfield Golf Club, is one of the more experienced professionals currently teaching and working in Delaware. A qualifier for the 2011 U.S. Open and cast member on Golf Channel’s Big Break: Greenbrier in 2012, Tobiason also got into the sport through his father.

He’s been teaching junior golfers for about 12 years and says that imparting the knowledge he got from his father is one of his favorite facets of the game. Tobiason also cherishes that family connection.

“It was the one sport we could always play together and have a level playing field, thanks to handicapping,” he says, referring to the numerical measure of a golfer’s potential playing ability based on previous rounds. “There aren’t many games you can play with your parents when they reach a certain age, but golf is certainly one of them.”

Get a Grip!

Of the three professionals we spoke with, each one cited a correct grip of the golf club, along with posture and stance at address to the ball, as the keys to getting off to a good start in the game.

“When I teach a lesson, I begin by trying to match a proper grip, whether it’s overlapping or interlocking, to what the student feels is comfortable,” Taggart says. “Everything starts with the grip because it’s your only connection to the club, and therefore to the ball at impact.”

As Taggart suggests, the two common grips are the interlocking, wherein the right pinkie and left index finger (for right-handed players) are locked like a chain link around the club (vice versa for left-handed players), and the overlapping, wherein the same fingers overlap each other around the club.

“Too many fingers on the club and you will start to hook the ball,” Tobiason says. “I’ve had plenty of former baseball and hockey players come to me with the baseball grip, where all 10 fingers are on the club. I try to move them away from that as quickly as possible, so they are more comfortable with the club.”

For Kidwell, posture and stance are of equal importance to the grip. “Those are the three fundamentals that 90 percent of amateur or beginner golfers just don’t have when they come through for a lesson. If you’re not aligned properly, the ball is going to go every which way. Adjusting that from the start will save a lot of strokes down the road.”

Golfer in a bunker at Deerfield, which is surrounded by the beauty of White Clay Creek Park. (Photo provided by Deerfield)
Golfer in a bunker at Deerfield, which is surrounded by the beauty of White Clay Creek Park.
(Photo provided by Deerfield)

Cheap Gear

If you’re considering taking up the sport, you’re going to want to know what it costs. Gear can range widely in cost, but fortunately you don’t need a full bag of 14 clubs right from the jump. With just the basics, a starter kit or even some used clubs will cost you about $150, or even less if you do a bit of looking.

“I knew an old guy named Charlie Day, who played DuPont regularly years ago, and he would shoot in the mid-80s all the time with five clubs,” Tobiason says. “So even though you hear about pros using woods, hybrids, all kinds of irons and wedges, you only need a few clubs to get started.”

The driver, a 3- or 5-wood, a 7- and a 9-iron, a pitching wedge and putter are really all you need to get going. A sand wedge is also recommended by our pros, but it’s not a necessity. Starter kits, like TourEdge, are available locally at sporting goods stores like Dick’s or Sports Authority, as well as Golf Galaxy and Golfsmith.

“I know a lot of folks who purchased used, cheap clubs on eBay and other online outlets,” Taggart says. “And most pro shops have a barrel of used clubs they’ll sell you, sometimes for as low as a few bucks per club.”

When you’re ready to get more serious about the sport and are willing to invest $500-$1,000 or more on a set of clubs, Kidwell recommends trying out a few different brands or going for a custom fitting.

“You might like a brand or the look of the clubs, but if you come to our golf shop, we can custom fit you based on your height, swing, and so forth,” Kidwell says. “If you’re going to invest that kind of money, you want the clubs that fit properly, just like anything else.”
As for a round of golf, it can cost as low as $20 or as high as $100 (and up). For an average round, I spend between $50 and $75, when you figure in greens fees, a couple of beers, a hot dog at the turn, and maybe a few gambling bucks to my playing partner if I don’t play well.

The thing is, even if you don’t play well or lose a bet while on the course, or skip the eats and drinks, getting outdoors for a solid chunk of time with friends is really what it’s all about.

Places to Play

A rundown of public courses from Wilmington to Odessa

Nine golf courses can be seen from the roads across New Castle County, whether it’s Rock Manor from I-95 before entering the city, Back Creek from Route 896 in Middletown, or Ed Oliver from Pennsylvania Avenue in Wilmington.

For a quick tour of what each course offers, from layout to greens fees to memberships and playing on the cheap, take a ride along with us from north to south. Each course offers something different for the duffer and the scratcher. (Greens fees subject to change.)

Brandywine Country Club
2822 Shipley Rd., Wilmington
478-2110, brandywinecountryclub.net

The course: Brandywine demands that golfers step up their game a bit compared to the straighter local courses like Delcastle and Ed Oliver. Tight fairways abound, many of which are lined on each side by trees, and the par-3 18th hole provides a real challenge to end your round. You may carry your tee shot over the water some 150 yards or more (depending on which tee you play) only to find a very undulating green on the other side.
Greens fees: $40 (winter rates); $65 (weekday in-season); $50 (weekday in-season twilight after 4 p.m.); $75 (weekend in-season); $40 (weekend in-season twilight after 3 p.m.)
Membership rates: $3,700-$4,500 (includes pool and tennis court access)
On the cheap: Brandywine doesn’t offer any discount cards or frequent player programs, but sign up for daily deal sites like Groupon.com and LivingSocial.com, which frequently send out offers for discounted rates.

Rock Manor Golf Club
1319 Carruthers Lane, Wilmington
295-1400, rockmanorgolf.com

The course: Lengthened, redesigned and then re-opened in 2008, “The Rock,” as regulars call it, features enough twists and turns over its 6,405 yards to provide some excitement for the seasoned golfer, but enough straight shots so as to not scare off the novice.
Greens fees: $30-$55 (winter rates through mid-March); $60-$79 (in-season)
Membership rates: $499-$2,099
On the cheap: Purchase the club’s Advantage Card—a $35 one-time fee—and get $7 or $3 off greens fees (for 18 holes and 9 holes of play, respectively), as well as 10 percent off merchandise. The card also can be used at Ed Oliver and Delcastle—all three are owned by parent company Billy Casper Golf.

Ed Oliver Golf Club
800 North Dupont Road, Wilmington
571-9041, edolivergolfclub.com

The course: Of the eight public courses in New Castle County, Ed Oliver might be the most approachable for beginners. Located in the heart of Wilmington, “Porky’s,” as it’s known locally, features straight fairways, open greens and few doglegs, allowing new players to get in a round without getting too frustrated.
Greens fees: $20-$39 (winter rates through mid-March); $45-49 (in-season); $20 (super twilight after 4 p.m.)
Membership rates: $699-$1,599
On the cheap: For just $139, the Player’s Pack discount includes three free rounds valid any day, any time, along with five free range buckets, one-hour early twilight access, and the same Advantage Card rates featured at Rock Manor.

Delcastle Golf Course
801 McKennans Church Rd., Wilmington
998-9505, delcastlegc.com

The course: Nestled in the heart of Pike Creek, Delcastle is another local course that offers enough challenges for the seasoned veteran, but plenty of open space to give newbies a shot at breaking 100.
Greens fees: $15-$40 (winter rates); $30-$55 (in-season rates)
Membership rates: $499-$1,799
On the cheap: For just $159, the Player’s Pack discount includes three rounds to be played at any time, a $60 Range Express Card to be used at the driving range just down the road, one-hour early twilight access, and the same Advantage Card rates featured at Rock Manor.

Deerfield
507 Thompson Station Rd., Newark
368-6640, deerfieldgolfclub.com

The course: Situated on 145 acres of undulating terrain, Deerfield is surrounded by the beauty of White Clay Creek State Park. The result is some of the most beautiful scenery you’ll see while on the links in Delaware, with plenty of tree-lined fairways and secluded greens where the silence of the woods can be deafening.
Greens fees: $35-$45 (winter rates); in-season rates can be found for as low as $20, but during the week are normally $63 from open to 11 a.m. ($74 on weekends), $60 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. ($66 on weekends), and $45 after 3 p.m. ($47 on weekends).
Membership rates: $1,900-$3,200
On the cheap: If you plan on spending a majority of your day at Deerfield (highly recommended), go for the VIP Golf Ticket. A $100 value priced at $89, it gives you 18 holes with cart, a basket of range balls, a golf ball and divot repair tool with ball marker, all featuring the Deerfield logo, a bag of golf tees and lunch at the turn (including either a hot dog or Deerfield’s famous Whimpy burgers, with chips and a soda).

White Clay Creek Country Club
777 Delaware Park Blvd., Wilmington
994-6700, whiteclaycreekcc.com

The course: As Head Pro Ryan Kidwell puts it, “This is not the best course for beginners.” The 7,000-yard behemoth (from the back tees), which surrounds the Delaware Park racetrack and casino grounds, is a monster of a challenge for even seasoned players. Get there early for your round and tune up on the incredible practice facility, which includes a long driving range, unlimited balls, and two bunkers to work on your sand shots.
Greens fees: $45-$50 (through March 28); $39-$63 (March 29-April 25); $40-$80 (April 26-Sept. 26)
Membership rates: $1,500-$3,000
On the cheap: While White Clay can sometimes be on the pricy side, be sure to check out discount tee time websites like GolfNow.com and TeeOff.com.

Back Creek Golf Club
101 Back Creek Drive, Middletown
378-6499, backcreekgc.com

The course: A link-style course located northwest of Middletown, Back Creek features small trees but plenty of high, native grass that can add strokes to your game in a heartbeat. Keep the ball in play to avoid those areas, and it can be a very enjoyable course. There isn’t much water either, save for the two par-3s – holes 8 and 17 – both of which require you to carry your tee shot some 165 yards over the ponds.
Greens fees: $32.50 (weekday winter rates), $25 (winter twilight rates after 12 p.m.); $37.50 (weekend winter rates); $39-$46 (in-season weekday rates); $28-$30 (in-season weekday twilight rates, starting at 2 p.m.); $45-$52 (in-season weekend rates); $32 (in-season weekend twilight rates, starting at 2 p.m.).
Membership rates: $999-$2,750
On the cheap: While Back Creek doesn’t feature any particular discount programs, you can sign up for a nice birthday present. Fill out the online form and you’ll be entitled to a free round of golf two weeks prior to or after your birthday, Monday through Friday anytime, or after noon on weekends. (Cart rental additional; must provide proof of birthday.)

Frog Hollow Golf Club
1 East Whittington Way, Middletown
376-6505, froghollowgolfclub.com

The course: This windswept course just north of Middletown features more than a few arena-style holes, wherein the fairways and greens are surrounded by large, single homes (don’t worry, they’re far enough out of bounds). Be sure to bring a sand wedge, as the Hollow features more than 50 bunkers over 18 holes.
Greens fees: $30-$33 (winter rates); $38-$45 and $48-$55 (in-season rates on weekdays and weekends, respectively)
Membership rates: $350-$2,700
On the cheap: Fill out the online form and stay in the know regarding upcoming tournaments, discounted rates and deals at the pub, as well as a free round of golf on your next visit.

Odessa National Golf Club
1131 Fieldsboro Rd., Townsend
464-1007, odessanationalgolfclub.com

The course: This seven-year-old course is a combination links style and traditional layout, with plenty of bunkers, trees and water throughout. The par-5 2nd hole is one of the more difficult on a course that offers plenty of challenges, with a dogleg right that brings in a very large lake on every shot from tee to green.
Greens fees: $35 (winter rates); $45-$55 (peak in-season rates); $35 (twilight rates, usually after 3 p.m.)
Membership rates: $1,600-$2,500; $375 for a practice range pass, which allows access to the practice area with an unlimited number of balls for the year.
On the cheap: Odessa National features varying morning, mid-day and twilight rates, and the Victory Golf Pass Book offers many discounts for courses in Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The book costs $55 for the year and typically pays for itself in 10 rounds of play.

Rockin’ In the Real World

The Wilmington School of Rock builds the next wave of local musicians through the rigors of performance

It’s a Saturday night at JB McGinnes Pub & Grille, nestled in a New Castle strip mall just off Basin Road, and the band is setting up for the evening’s show.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that tonight’s performers are a Doors tribute band, promising a good two hours of the Lizard King’s better known hits and lesser known spoken word pieces. That being the case, 30 minutes into the set, a voice that’s the sonic spitting image of late lead singer Jim Morrison blasts from the amplifiers, backed by a tight rhythm section and a deadon rendering of Ray Manzarek’s signature keyboard and organ stylings. Basketball and MMA wrestling silently play on the establishment’s flat-screen TVs, but all eyes are on the band as they channel the sounds of the 1960s.

But rather than being a band of Baby Boomers, it turns out that not one of the performers is old enough to be served a beer, several aren’t old enough to drive themselves to the gig, and a couple—if asked—would probably prefer to order off the kids’ menu. They’re all students at Wilmington’s School of Rock, and what the audience is hearing is the sound of them passing an exam with flying colors.

That crowd is heavy on supportive friends and family of the performers, but even the regulars, many of whom likely grew up on The Doors or were marinated in them when they were in heavy rotation on FM radio stations like WMMR or the old WYSP, are also impressed. Indeed, a casual listener would be hard-pressed to distinguish the vocals and guitar riffs of Greg McKinnon or Tyler Dill from Morrison himself.

School-of-Rock_Interior1
Tyler Dill, 18, channels Jim Morrison at JB McGinnes. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Three-quarters of the way through the show, Dill tears through “Twentieth Century Fox” while Eric Svalgard, the School of Rock music director, leans in to the sound board operator. “I’m so happy with this show!” he declares.

Just a day earlier and 125 miles north in New York City, auditions were taking place for another show—this one the Broadway version of the 2003 movie that everyone thinks of when they hear the words “School of Rock”—the one that Paul Green, who created the first School of Rock Music in a Race Street walkup in Philadelphia in 2002, says was inspired by his own school. It’s also the movie that’s the basis for a live-action series set to debut on Nickelodeon, the kid-centric cable network.

All of this might be called a School of Rock Renaissance. But don’t sarcastically ask these kids if their teacher will be Jack Black. This is the real world, man, and they’ve got far too much rockin’ to do.

The name Paul Green looms large in the history of the School of Rock for good reason. It was his manic, single-minded, often over-the-top teaching style as founder and supreme overlord of the Paul Green School of Rock Music (PGSORM) that was the focus of the documentary film Rock School. And, Green insisted at the time, it was his style that formed the basis for the Jack Black character Dewey Finn in the 2003 feature film.

Izzi Sneider, 16, plays the bass during a performance with School of Rock. (Photo by Tim Hawk)
Izzi Sneider, 16, plays the bass during a performance with School of Rock. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Since its inception, the purpose of the school has been to teach kids musicianship and performance using classic rock as the source material. Throughout the year, rotating groups of students perform theme shows based around a single artist, band, style of music or particular decade—David Bowie, all ’80s, “bad” music (where they reinterpret “bad” songs into new versions), and one show featuring any song with a heavy dose of cowbell percussion.

Green was bought out by an investor in 2009, and the school’s name was changed to simply School of Rock. There followed an explosive expansion beyond the first few schools in the Delaware Valley to places like San Francisco, New York City, Austin, and Utah, and eventually to more than 300 locations in the United States and Mexico.

Despite all the noise about Green, the documentary and the iconic movie, the dude did some fine work. An inordinate number of regional and national acts now feature grown-up players who honed their youthful chops under Green’s tutelage. One of them is Eric Svalgard’s daughter, singer-songwriter Madi Diaz. It was her time at the PGSORM that eventually drew Svalgard, a Berklee College of Music-trained keyboardist, into a role not just as rock parent, but as rock mentor.

When Svalgard saw his daughter perform in her first School of Rock show—featuring the paragons of punk rock—he realized what Green was creating.

“When I saw all these 14- and 15-year-old kids doing the Ramones and the Sex Pistols, I just fell in love with the idea [of the school],” he says. “And at that time, 2001, there was nothing like it. No one was doing anything like that.”

His father had recently passed away, and Svalgard was in the midst of a life reevaluation, wondering what he would end up doing for the next 20 years. At the time, he was earning six figures a year selling woodwork in New York for a Coatesville company. Then the school’s keyboard instructor abruptly resigned, and Svalgard’s love for Green’s mission led to a volunteer teaching gig at the school one day a week. That day became two, then eventually grew into an official $12-an-hour part-time job.

“I found Rock School. So I started weaning myself from my high-paying job and started working there three days a week,” he says. “And then [Green] sold his first franchise to one of the students’ parents, and that was Downingtown.”

Eric Svalgard (back row) and some of his students. Unlike traditional bands, School of Rock students have to learn how to play with everyone. (Photo by Tim Hawk)
Eric Svalgard (back row) and some of his students. Unlike traditional bands, School of Rock students have to learn how to play with everyone. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Svalgard would go on to serve as music director at the Downingtown location, eventually moving on to open the Wilmington school after being invited to play keyboards with a Frank Zappa tribute band Project Object. That gig not only helped him further refine his keyboard skills, but also reinforced his commitment to keeping things true to the rock spirit. That led him to striking out on his own by opening a new branch of the School of Rock at Wilmington’s Grand Opera House.

“The opportunity to be at the Grand was unique and awesome, and I loved being there—just being surrounded by the opera at the time, an experimental theater group and the First State Ballet,” he says. “I recognized that there were going to be roadblocks. Rock is not ballet. Rock is not classical music. And although many classical musicians understand rock, they still don’t want to have to hear it in the background. And so it was a difficult marriage for us.”

In 2009, the Wilmington School of Rock relocated out of the city to Prices Corner, where it makes its home in an unassuming office park adjacent to Wal-Mart. “Moving was the best thing to ever happen to the business,” Svalgard says.

Inside, the space couldn’t be more different from that of the Grand Opera House. Rather than being surrounded by classic opera house architecture, students instead work among posters of rock gods and goddesses, with the walls of one room in the midst of being covered with vinyl LPs.

It’s here that the students at the School of Rock have found their home away from home, a place that has taken nascent—or perhaps totally undiscovered—musical skill and turned it to the cause of rock.

The core members of the band Zymology are a perfect example. Twins Bill and Josh Sweren (bass and drums, respectively) and guitarist Brendan Moriak are all School of Rock students who credit Svalgard and his wife, owner and General Manager Carol Forsyth, with opening their eyes to the foundations of rock while significantly boosting their musical skills.

“I had been playing violin, so I’d already been in music and I wanted to play guitar, and my cousin’s friend in Virginia was talking about School of Rock, and I remember I was so confused,” Moriak says. “I was like, ‘You’re in a band? Who’s your lead singer?’ And he said, ‘Well, it changes.’”

That constantly rotating team of musicians and vocalists is part of what makes the School of Rock curriculum special, because rather than settling in with three or four players as in a traditional band, students have to learn how to play with everyone. It results not just in bands like Zymology being formed outside the school, but in the perpetuation of music in kids’ lives long after they might have given it up.

“If School of Rock wasn’t here, I probably would have just dropped violin and given up music in general,” Moriak says. “I may have continued drums, because I did drums in the eighth grade, but the whole guitar thing and recording music wouldn’t have been there.”
His bandmates agree, pointing out that for many, pursuit of a classical instrument is often considered an end unto itself by parents and music instructors. Even with those who take up guitar—the cornerstone rock instrument—there’s little emphasis on learning how to play in a band.

“[Guitar instructor] Chris [Gordon] and Eric both have a lot of experience, which can help with the performance side,” says Bill Sweren.

Drum student Maddie Sneider, who performed in the Doors show, says the School of Rock made all the difference in her continuing with her instrument and improving her performance.

“It’s gotten a lot better,” she says. “I was just taking lessons. I wasn’t doing anything like this. And then I got kind of bored with that because I wanted to play music and rock out and have fun.”

With traditional lessons, little emphasis, too, is put on the mechanics of actually running a band, and it’s another thing that School of Rock students learn. Josh Sweren has stepped up as his band’s manager.

“I’m the only reason we’ve gotten this far,” he deadpans, and in agreeing, Moriak emphasizes that everyone has his or her own role in the group, whether it’s songwriting, management or tech.

“It’s kind of frustrating at this age when they’re trying to do a band,” says Beth Sneider, mom to Maddie, her twin brother Jacob (bass and guitar) and their sister Izzi (bass), all School of Rock students. “Everyone has different schedules, so if you’re missing a singer for an hour practice then nothing gets done. Here, people will fill in. You can still get so much done.”

The school became so important that the Sneider family eventually chose to relocate from Pennsylvania to Wilmington to be closer to it. All of them—parent and kids—know that the school has made a major positive impact on their lives.

“When you play what you want to play, you feel like there are a lot more things you can play, and then you just get lost in it,” Jacob says.

Robotics Competition Produces FaMOEly

Acronyms abound as 50-member high school team prepares for national showdown in St. Louis

After spending the fall learning the needed skills and devoting January and February to building, testing and practicing, the members of the team called MOE 365 are ready for two months of competition, concluding at a national championship meet in St. Louis from April 22 to 25.

Trying to understand what these 50 high school kids are up to requires a bit of imagination—somewhat like a group of muggles playing quidditch for the first time against Harry Potter and his Hogwarts classmates.

MOE 365 (the letters are an acronym for Miracles of Engineering) is a Wilmington-based First State Robotics team in the FIRST Robotics Competition. (FIRST stands for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.) First State Robotics is a Delaware nonprofit fostering a love of science and technology. As the winner of the FIRST Robotics
Competition’s Chairman’s Award in 2007, MOE 365 is guaranteed a place in this year’s nationals, but that assurance hardly diminishes their drive for excellence in playing the

game this season.

Sam Stevenson, 17, a student at Sanford School and co-team president of Team "Miracle Workerz," remounts the air compressor on"ToMOEhawk." (Photo by Tim Hawk)
Sam Stevenson, 17, a student at Sanford School and co-team president of Team “Miracle Workerz,” remounts the air compressor on”ToMOEhawk.” (Photo by Tim Hawk)

This year’s game—there’s a new one every year—is called Recycle Rush and its goal is a little more complex than hitting a ball over a fence or kicking one into a net. The playing field, 27 by 54 feet, is filled with plastic buckets, 12 by 17 by 28 inches, and 32-gallon recycling bins, as well as those foam noodles more commonly found in swimming pools. The idea is to stack the plastic totes as high as possible, put a recycling bin on top of the totes, then stuff the bin with the pool noodles, which, for the sake of the game, are called “litter.” All in two-and-a-half minutes.

Here’s the catch: No hands allowed. All the stacking and stuffing has to be done by a robot, which the kids on the team have to build.

One more thing: for the first 15 seconds of the game, the robots move autonomously, following pre-programmed instructions with no human assistance. Then the students take control for the rest of the match.

And to make it a little more interesting, this isn’t a mere one-on-one competition. Instead, it’s what the FIRST organization likes to call a “coopertition.” Each side in the game is called an alliance, and it’s made up of three teams and their robots, which have to determine a strategy to work together on very short notice. MOE 365 competes in FIRST
Robotics’ Philadelphia region, which includes New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania.

Robotics competitions aren’t for everyone, but Haley Chambers, 16, a junior at A.I. du
Pont High School, knew it was what she wanted to do after she saw robots in action when
her father took her to Take Your Daughter to Work Days at the DuPont Co.’s Chestnut Run facility, where he is a consultant in the seed laboratory. “I fell in love with it, and then my older sister joined the team and I was hooked,” Chambers says.

Now she is spending three nights a week at Chestnut Run, where the MOE 365 team is
building and testing its robot, named ToMOEhawk. (Yes, this group understands branding,
so they make MOE part of the name of each of their robots, and the team is so close-knit
that it likes to say, with apologies to Sister Sledge, “We are FaMOEly.”)

The group began preparing in the fall, with evening training sessions in their areas of interest. MOE 365 cofounder John Larock, a DuPont recruiting manager, heads a team of volunteer mentors who oversee subgroups that have specific responsibilities. The computer-assisted-design (CAD) team designs the robot, the mechanical team builds it, the electrical team handles the circuitry, the programming team creates the commands that will make it move, and the web/public relations team chronicles and publicizes the entire effort.

“We have a lot of interdependent parts; now we have to put them together,” Larock
tells team members as they finish dinner in the Chestnut Run cafeteria before starting
on the evening’s work. “Three weeks from now, you’ve got to put your robot in a bag [ready for competition].”

As each unit works on its assigned tasks, they are aware of the need for
collaboration. Hannah Ni, 16, a senior at the Charter School of Wilmington, explains that after she and other members of the CAD team design parts of the robot —its movable arms, for example—they hand off their work to the mechanical team to build it and see if it will work. If there are problems, it goes back to the CAD team, with suggested modifications.

“For everything the robot can do, if an arm moves or a wheel rolls forward, there’s a program behind it,” says Ben Hylak, 17, a senior at Salesianum School, who started out in electrical and is now in his third year on the programming team.

There’s a lot of trial and error involved in the process, he says. “You have to work out the bugs, and you’re constantly adapting as you see how the game plays out.”

When the whistle sounds and the match starts, a lot of the responsibility for the group’s success is in the hands of Mahesh Gouru, 17, a Charter School of Wilmington senior, who has been designated the driver. He won’t be behind the wheel of ToMOEhawk, because the robot has no steering wheel, but he will be controlling the computer that makes it go.

Members of the program team work on the autonomous program, which will allow the robot "ToMOEhawk" to run 15 seconds by itself. (Photo by Tim Hawk)
Members of the program team work on the autonomous program, which will allow the robot “ToMOEhawk” to run 15 seconds by itself. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

“We don’t want to reveal too much of our strategy,” Gouru says, “but we call it ‘jaywalking,’ making a pattern like the letter J around the field to sweep up as many totes as possible.”

Yes, there is a lot of strategy involved in the game. That’s why, at the meets, some members of the team are scouting future opponents competing elsewhere in the arena.

Because the game is new every year, Hylak says, “It’s not like basketball or football, where you can look at film of other teams to see what they’ve done before.”

“We have to scout every team that comes to the event—watch the matches and review the video,” Gouru adds.

During the meets, some members of MOE 365 fine-tune the robot between matches; others are detailed to the “mobile pit,” assisting members of other teams that might need support for their robots.

As in any competition, there is a need for referees, and Carol Perrotto, a retired DuPont chemist who is one of the group’s mentors, often gets that assignment.

“There are rules,” she says. “Your hands can’t touch the robot. You can’t deliberately destroy another robot, and you can’t use your robot to pin an opponent in a corner or against a wall.”

MOE 365 has been in operation for 16 years, Larock says, and it is different from many of its competitors in that it draws participants from 15 schools (including home-schooled teenagers). Participants don’t have to be Delaware residents. One member of this year’s team is from North East, Md., and several years ago a team member traveled three days a week from Harrisburg, Pa., to participate in training and robot-building sessions, according to John Wilkens, another cofounder and moderator of the MOE 365 media team.

As the daughter of the group’s founder, Nina Larock, 18, a senior at McKean High School, says she has been part of MOE 365 “since the beginning.”

“Look in the old team pictures and you’ll see me,” she says. This year she is working on the media team, updating the organization’s website and creating video footage that will be edited into a presentation to be shown at meets so other teams can see what went into putting ToMOEhawk together.

“It’s more than building robots,” Wilkens says. “We’re a cohesive unit.” Participating in the team “is a great opportunity to meet people. It wouldn’t happen if we didn’t build robots together,” Chambers say. “We spend so much time together that we are family.”

That sense of family extends even to graduates of the team. Ryan Quirk, 21, a University of Delaware senior majoring in mechanical engineering, participated in competitions with MOE 365 for two years while he was a student at Hodgson Vocational Technical High School. He credits that experience with helping him develop his creativity and his ability to work with others to solve problems.

“Every year at UD, we have a project that requires you to build something,” he says. “Here we learned how to cooperate, how to bounce ideas off each other.”

That experience prompted Quirk to return this year to serve as a volunteer advisor.

“I learned a lot from everyone who was a mentor,” Quirk says. “This is the first year I’ve come back. Why not give back, and help these kids learn some of the things I got to learn?”