The More the Merrier: New Eateries on the Horizon for Market Street

Restaurants are springing up all over Market Street, giving redevelopment a boost

In 2013, when Bryan and Andrea Sikora opened La Fia on the 400 block of Market Street, they had no intention of creating a restaurant group focused on LOMA, the nickname for the lower end of Wilmington’s main commercial corridor. La Fia was so well received, however, that the Sikoras decided to expand.

In 2015, they opened Cocina Lolo at 405 N. King St., which has been a hit with the lunch and happy hour crowd. Also that year, Merchant Bar, which opened at 426 N. Market St., quickly debunked the complaint that there’s nothing to do after 9 p.m. on Market Street.

The Sikoras appreciate Market Street’s diverse scene. “There’s a nice representation of various arts groups—arts, theater—we thought that was a good match for the customer base that we are trying to reach,” says Andrea Sikora, whose restaurants are just steps from World Cafe Live at the Queen. And there are enough office workers to sustain the lunch hour.

That’s also the case at the upper end of Market, where the Grand Opera House holds court. For a pre- or post-show pint, the Grand’s customers often make a pit stop at Chelsea Tavern, located at 821 N. Market.

While diners still drive in from the suburbs, particularly if they are going to a show, a growing number live just around the block. “We see many more residential regulars than we have in the past,” says Joe Van Horn, owner of Chelsea Tavern.

In the past six months, Sikora has also seen more local traffic. She largely credits The Buccini/Pollin Group, or BPG, whose Market Street corridor project includes 114 existing apartments, liberally sprinkled from the 400 to the 800 blocks—and more are on the way.

BPG in June broke ground on the Residences at Midtown Park, a $75 million complex that will include 200 apartments, 12,000 square feet of retail space, and a 500-space underground parking garage. In September, BPG announced the acquisition of three properties with more than 60,000 square feet that will include apartments above retail/restaurant space.

“When we bring new apartments to the area—and they get filled—then there’s the next wave of restaurant-retail activity,” says Sarah Lamb, director of design and marketing for BPG. “And we’re in that next wave right now.”

In short, the Sikoras and Van Horn are about to get some more culinary company.

Breaking the Barriers

For decades, Market Street restaurants have been dependent on office workers and theatergoers. But even when the DuPont Co. and MBNA were in full swing, it was an inconsistent customer base that exacerbated the challenges of restaurant ownership.

A short walk from Market Street, the Washington Street Ale House, Mikimotos, and Domaine Hudson persevered. Dan Butler’s Deep Blue, which he’s recently reinvented as Tonic, also displayed longevity on 10th Street. These restaurants benefit from proximity to the Wilmington Hospital and the Midtown Brandywine residential, as well as corporate offices.

Market Street, however, witnessed a series of high-profile casualties in the early 2000s. Remember 821, The Maine Course and National? Stalwarts such as Cavanaugh’s at 703 N. Market and Govato’s at 800 N. Market are open only for lunch. If the theaters were dark and the offices were closed, you could chase tumbleweeds down Market Street.

BPG’s approach puts an emphasis on residential as well as commercial development. The developer has a range of options along the Market Street corridor, from 76 studios and one-bedroom units at 6 E. Third St. to The Residences at Rodney Square, an office-to-residential conversion with 280 apartments.

Marketing materials for the 200-unit Residences at the Midtown Park, which is under development where the Shipley Street parking garage once stood, show hip urbanites riding bikes and standing on corners checking their phones.

If that rendering becomes a reality, these are the folks who want a bite, a beer, and conversation, preferably with some live music nearby.

From Top to Bottom

The northern end of Market Street has traditionally seen the bulk of restaurant activity. In 2010, Chelsea Tavern took over space formerly occupied by Restaurant 821, a fine-dining establishment that rode in on the coattails of MBNA. Chelsea took the opposite approach by espousing an alehouse concept. Owner Scott Morrison also opened Ernest & Scott Taproom, at 902 N. Market. Van Horn manages both.

Morrison planned to open a brewpub three doors down from Chelsea Tavern. Then, in February, he suffered a fatal heart attack. Van Horn has since purchased Chelsea Tavern and is in negotiations to acquire Ernest & Scott.

Joe Van Horn, owner of Chelsea Tavern. (Photo by Joe del Tufo/Moonloop Photography)
Joe Van Horn, owner of Chelsea Tavern. (Photo by Joe del Tufo/Moonloop Photography)

Van Horn is planning an expansion for Chelsea that will include indoor and outdoor seating in what is now a thruway linking Market and Shipley streets. The building at 815 N. Market is coming down, allowing the tavern to open a small beer garden in the future plaza. “We hope to be up and running in early spring,” Van Horn says.

If all goes as planned with the Ernest & Scott deal, he will renovate the space and partner with a local chef to reopen with a new concept.

Meanwhile, Daniel Sheridan has picked up the baton and is running forward with a brewpub concept for 829 N. Market St.: Stitch House Brewery.

Sheridan’s name is fairly familiar around town—he’s an owner of Locale BBQ Post and Wilmington Pickling Company. And he’s no stranger to Market Street, having worked with chef Bryan Sikora at La Fia for nearly two years while planning Locale.

“It put me at ease about being on Market Street because I saw that he could bring in clients after downtown [office workers] cleared out,” Sheridan says. “We’re confident that with a nice brewery and a nice menu we can bring people downtown. Plus, with the Midtown Park project, we’ll have a parking garage right behind us and more apartments right behind us.”

A rendering of Stitch House Brewery at 829 N. Market St. It's expected to open next spring. (Photo courtesy of Buccini/Pollin Group)
A rendering of Stitch House Brewery at 829 N. Market St. It’s expected to open next spring. (Photo courtesy of Buccini/Pollin Group)

Stitch House Brewery, which will have 90 to 100 seats, is named for the building’s former occupants, a tailor and a linen shop. (It’s also been a coal house and an icehouse.)

Sheridan, who hopes to open next spring, says to expect some barbecue; there will be a smoker on the premises. But barbecue isn’t the star. To cater to the lunchtime crowd, the menu will include paninis and sandwiches. Sheridan is also incorporating a fun factor: dishes prepared and served in mini cast iron skillets, such as dips, lasagna and warm vegetable salads with goat cheese.

LOMA, at the lower end of Market Street, got its boost from La Fia’s opening. The restaurant and its siblings have created a bustling couple of blocks in the evenings.

Last summer, Twisted Soul Restaurant & Bar joined the trio. Steve and Khim Taylor, who received assistance from the Market Street Corridor Revitalization Fund, own the 80-seat restaurant, located at 413 N. Market.

Filling in the Gaps

Now BPG and city stakeholders, including Downtown Visions, are turning their attention to the blocks between Fourth and Eighth streets. Not only will this appease those who live in those areas, but it will create more activity from one end of the street to another instead of at either end, making it more inviting for those who wish to walk the corridor at night.

Starbucks is scheduled to open a location early this month at 629 N. Market. The restaurant, which sports a high-level design similar to the décor in the Riverfront site, will be open seven days a week. “It’s something our residents are demanding,” says BPG’s Lamb.

A rendering of Arde Osteria at 629 N. Market St., also expected to open this spring. (Photo courtesy of the Buccini/Pollin Group)
A rendering of Arde Osteria at 629 N. Market St., also expected to open this spring. (Photo courtesy of the Buccini/Pollin Group)

Across the street, Ardé Osteria, an Italian concept, is in the works. The restaurant is owned by Pino DiMeo, Scott Stein and Antimo DiMeo, whose first Wilmington venture, DiMeo’s Pizzaiuoli Napulitani, is a destination for pizza-lovers at 831 N. Market.

To offer an enhanced menu, the partners first looked at the space now occupied by Merchant Bar. Meanwhile, a location in Wayne, Pa., became available, and they opened Ardé Osteria as a BYO.

“Always the vision—the next evolution—was to have a wine bar, craft beer, and creative cocktails,” Stein says. “We always knew we would go back to Wilmington with this concept.” The buffalo mozzarella bar, a highlight of the Wayne location, will be available in Wilmington.

The Ardé Osteria on Market Street will reside in what some today know as the Kennedy Fried Chicken building, which is situated at the corner of Seventh and Market streets. But old-timers will recall it as Snellenburg’s Department Store. Atop the restaurant will be 15 one-bedroom and two-bedroom-den apartments. If all goes well, Ardé Osteria will open in spring 2017.

Moving Forward

The Italian concept joins a melting pot. The Market Street corridor and the surrounding area have a significant number of small ethnic restaurants featuring sushi, Chinese, and Indian cuisine. More than a few, though, close around 6 p.m.

Sheridan wants the corridor to become better known for diverse dining during all hours, including happy hour and late night. “There’s not one restaurant that will carry the whole street,” he says. “It needs to be a collective.”

But the pie is only so big, Sikora says. Some might say that’s especially true in the 800 block, where craft beer is already big. Van Horn of Chelsea Tavern isn’t worried about Sheridan’s new brewery. “It was going to be great for business when we were going to do it, and it will be great for business when Dan does it,” he says.

On Market Street, the adage proves true: the more the merrier.

New Castle: History, Volunteers…and Dogs

Its link to Billy Penn is just part of the appeal of this quaint city on the banks of the Delaware River

Before he ever got to Philadelphia, William Penn slept in New Castle.

According to local legend, he spent his first night in the Americas on Oct. 27, 1682 in front of the fireplace on the second floor of what is now the Penn’s Place artisans’ collaborative.

Living in New Castle “fills your soul,” says Esther Lovlie, who owns Penn’s Place and sometimes acts as a barista at the Traders’ Cove café in the back. “To know that you get to be part of this story which is 300-plus years old is just amazing.”

Yes, this 3.2-square-mile city with 5,300 residents is all about history, and that history predates William Penn, going back to 1654, when the first Dutch settlers built Fort Casimir on the west bank of the Delaware River.

Whether a resident or visitor, anyone who walks on New Castle’s cobblestoned streets or sits on a bench in the shade of The Green or Battery Park can easily imagine that he or she is about to strike up a conversation with William Penn, or John Dickinson, or Gunning Bedford, or George Read II.
Or they might wind up talking about their dogs.

“Almost everybody has a dog,” says Russ Smith, a New Castle native who returned to the city three years ago as the first superintendent of the new First State National Historical Park. “When I came back, I got to thinking that everybody was issued a dog when they moved into town.”

Those dogs contribute to a sense of neighborliness that pervades the community. “If you think you’re walking your dog for 10 minutes, forget about that notion,” Lovlie says. “You’ll run into three or four people on your way, and after you catch up with what’s going on, it turns into a 40-minute walk.”

The 207-year-old Arsenal, once a restaurant, is now home of the New Castle Historical Society. (Photo by Anthony Santoro)
The 207-year-old Arsenal, once a restaurant, is now home of the New Castle Historical Society. (Photo by Anthony Santoro)

That’s a far cry from what Lovlie grew accustomed to while living in the Bear area for 10 years. “I knew my neighbors on either side,” she says, “but I didn’t know the rest of the community.”

New Castle, says Lauren Spinelli, owner of Hedge Apple Antiques, “is like Cheers. Everybody knows your name.” And she doesn’t even live in town.

“I’ve lived in other places, where you feel like you’re a number,” says Spinelli, a resident of Kennett Square, Pa., who spent a lot of time in Battery Park when she visited her grandparents in New Castle as a child. “It’s very quaint here. You don’t get that close-knit community feel anywhere else.”

It’s no accident then that the developers of the Town of Whitehall, the new community being built just south of the C&D Canal, tout New Castle as an example of the atmosphere they’re trying to create.

If you’re in New Castle, you’ve already got that atmosphere. As Lovlie puts it, “New Castle harkens back to the communities of years ago. . . and I think it represents the future of self-contained communities.”

Ask 34-year resident Linda Ratchford why the community is so close-knit and she says, “It’s because we are run by volunteers.”

Ratchford, as president of city council for the past three years, may rank near the top of the volunteer pyramid, but she has plenty of company. Volunteers serve on the 11 boards and committees listed on the city’s website, and then there’s the Goodwill Fire Company and a multitude of service and social clubs that pull residents together.

In a city steeped in history, the New Castle Historical Society plays a significant role. It manages two homes that serve as museums, the Dutch House and the Amstel House, as well as the Old Library Museum (temporarily closed for repairs).

The society recently moved into the 207-year-old Arsenal, originally a weapons storehouse and later, among other things, a school and a restaurant. Executive Director Dan Citron is overseeing conversion of the building into a visitors center that would also serve the other tourism-related entities in the city – the national park, the state (which operates the Old Courthouse that is part of the national park), and the Delaware Historical Society (which operates the George Read II House and Gardens on The Strand).

“Right now we’re mostly a gift shop, but we’ll look much more like a visitor center by spring,” Citron says.

Two other organizations—one relatively new and the other having roots that extend to William Penn’s days—provide even more glue to unify the city; both are involved in significant initiatives aimed at securing the city’s future by strengthening the links to its past.

The New Castle Community Partnership, successor to the Historic New Castle Alliance as the city’s affiliate with the national Main Street small town economic development program, has assumed a more active role managing special events and promoting tourism.

oa-old-new-castle-shops-and-shop-owners-7621It has taken over operating the Wednesday night summer concerts in Battery Park and A Day in Old New Castle, the popular festival held on the third Saturday in May. The organization also has developed a sponsorship package that enables businesses to write one check a year to support multiple special events.

The partnership also took the lead in planning the installation of informative interpretive signage at 10 historic sites in the city. Smith, who retired from the National Park Service in December 2014, volunteered to prepare the text and find appropriate illustrations for the signs. The first three were erected this summer —at the site of Fort Casimir, near the ticket office for the New Castle and Frenchtown Railroad in Battery Park, and outside the Sheriff’s House, adjacent to the old Courthouse.

Final cost for the 10 signs will be $15,000 to $20,000, according to Laura Fontana, the Partnership president. The city will pay for two signs, the Trustees of the New Castle Common will pay for three, and sponsors are being solicited for the others, she says.

The Trustees, a nonprofit organization, were incorporated in 1764 and given the responsibility of preserving and protecting more than 1,000 acres of common lands in the city designated by a survey ordered by William Penn in 1704. Over the years, the Trustees have built and operated libraries, supported the fire company, purchased the land that makes up Battery Park and donated it to the city, and even operated New Castle’s public schools from the late 18th century until 1875. The organization now owns about 80 commercial, residential, agricultural and industrial properties in or near the city, including the New Castle Farmers Market, the Airport and Penn Mart shopping centers, the Centerpoint Industrial Park, and Historic Penn Farm. It uses its rent revenues on projects that benefit the city.

Two current projects—costing about $500,000—are key to making New Castle more hospitable to residents and visitors alike.

Just completed was a major drainage upgrade in Battery Park, with new storm-water piping installed underground. According to Trustee Chris Castagno, who also serves on the city’s Battery Park Committee, for years the park has been buffeted on two sides —by storm water runoff from nearby neighborhoods and tidal flows from the river during storms, leaving the park soaked with standing water long after bad weather has passed.

With the drainage project completed, the Trustees are moving ahead with a paved parking lot, with spaces for about 50 cars, on the edge of Battery Park and south of Delaware Street, the main road in the historic district. That new lot, according to Castagno and Ratchford, will provide additional parking for park users, employees of downtown shops and visitors to the First State National Historical Park.

The lot should be ready by the end of the year, which is also the target for completion of the $1.2 million state-funded project to rebuild the 170-foot-long pier at the foot of Delaware Street that had been destroyed by Superstorm Sandy in October 2012.

The rebuilt pier will serve as a reminder of New Castle’s maritime history. The city was a bustling port from Colonial times until the 1840s, when the development of rail lines between Philadelphia and Baltimore minimized the importance of the New Castle and Frenchtown Railroad, which was used to haul goods from the north end of the Chesapeake Bay to New Castle, where they would be shipped north to Philadelphia or south to other coastal ports, or to Europe.

Contemporary uses of the pier will be more modest. Ratchford hopes, in a couple of years, that there would be interest in a ferry or water taxi service linking New Castle with Wilmington, Delaware City, Fort DuPont and perhaps Pennsville, N. J. But, she adds, the pier will not have docking space for dayboaters, a concession to residents concerned about the prospect of riverside revelry akin to Canal Days in Chesapeake City, Md.

Reconstruction of the pier also will mean the return of the Kalmar Nyckel, the replica of the tall ship that brought the first European settlers to Wilmington in 1638.

Homeported in Wilmington, the sailing ship will likely make several visits to New Castle each year, for festivals, public sails and education programs, says Cathy Parsells, executive director of the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation.

Jan Henion, Rodney Pratt, Michelle Quaranta and Gene Dempsey of 2nd Act Antiques.
Jan Henion, Rodney Pratt, Michelle Quaranta and Gene Dempsey of 2nd Act Antiques.

“It’s a real positive for them,” Fontana says. “They’re excited to dock here. They can’t put their full sails up when they’re coming out of Wilmington. They’re too tall to go under the Delaware Memorial Bridge.”

It’s also a positive for tourism and one-day visitors.

“The ship’s education programs will bring people down here, and we’ll have more people coming to town to see it,” Fontana says.

Those visitors will see what Ratchford calls “a solid, stable downtown,” one that blends historic sites with a mix of antique and craft shops, art galleries and dining options but is a bit short on traditional neighborhood retail fare. There’s no pharmacy or hardware store on Delaware Street (but there is a Walgreen’s within walking distance) and residents are awaiting the expected opening this month of Mrs. Snyder’s Market Café, which will sell daily essentials like milk, bread and eggs in a setting that promises to be half coffee shop, half country market.

“I remember we used to go to the doctor in New Castle, but you don’t see any doctor’s offices anymore,” says Smith, a 1967 graduate of William Penn High School. “There was a movie theater too, but we’re not going to get a multiplex on Delaware Street. That’s a part of the town that’s gone.”

Among downtown businesses, at least one retailer from the 19th century endures. Bridgewater Jewelers, founded by James Bridgewater in 1883, is now in its fifth generation of family ownership.

“My father [Clay Bridgewater] learned hand-engraving, watch, jewelry and clock repairs, and was a silversmith too,” says owner Mary Lenhoff, the first woman to head the business. “When my father ran the store, I was everywhere, fixing things. I don’t have the patience to repair a watch, but I can size rings and repair jewelry.”

Lenhoff, who has run the business for 12 years, provides concierge service for her loyal customers, bringing jewelry and gifts for them to select at their home or office “if they can’t come to me,” she says.

She has a few ideas for new retail in the area. “I wouldn’t mind seeing resale shops. Vintage clothing might draw,” she says. “And my mother, who lives over the store, would like to see a little bake shop.”

There’s plenty of vintage material at 2nd Act Antiques, a collaborative of nine vendors, seven of them New Castle residents, in what was originally an opera house and, much later, a Wassam’s 5&10. Michelle Quaranta, who owns and operates the business, is a New Castle native who lives next door in the 196-year-old Van Dyke House.
“I brought my husband here on our first date. We went to Battery Park and Jessop’s Tavern,” she says. “We like it. It’s walkable, bikeable, and the arts are coming back.” They were married in the old Courthouse, conveniently located across the street.

Esther Lovlie, Sani Sarver and Jean Norvell in front of the fireplace where William Penn spent his first night in New Castle.
Esther Lovlie, Sani Sarver and Jean Norvell in front of the fireplace where William Penn spent his first night in New Castle.

A couple of doors down from 2nd Act is Penn’s Place, a collaborative where artisans sell purses, trays, trunks, equine art, jewelry and candles. Appropriately enough, Jean Norvell’s Bit of History gift shop occupies the second-floor space where William Penn is said to have spent his first night in New Castle.

Behind the artisans’ shops is the Trader’s Cove Café, a popular meeting place for locals, and behind that is The Muse @ Penn’s Place, a 25-seat cabaret where Lovlie serves up an eclectic mix of entertainment from 6 to 8 most Saturday nights.

“People come for a light dinner, beer and wine,” Lovlie says. “It’s great for couples with young kids who want to get home and get the kids to bed, or for older folks who want some entertainment but don’t want to be out all ours of the night.”

On Fridays, Lovlie serves wine, beer and cheese at 5 p.m., an informal happy hour warmup for people headed for a meal at the colonial-themed Jessop’s or Nora Lee’s French Quarter Bistro.

When it opens in October, Mrs. Snyder’s Market Café will be a complement to Trader’s Cove, not a competitor, proprietor Cathy Snyder says. “I’ll be doing more hot cooking” than at Trader’s Cove, she says.

Snyder, a veteran caterer who has operated several bakery and cookie shops in New Castle County since the 1980s, said she began visiting New Castle “years ago,” when she moved to Delaware from California.
“I love the place, the feel, the ambiance,” she says. Residents and business owners alike have been quite encouraging as she gets the café in shape. “They’re so helpful, so friendly, it’s ridiculous.”

Like many residents, Smith admits that “New Castle really has a hold on me. It’s a place sort of caught in time.”

And people like Castagno, from the Trustees of the New Castle Common, want that hold to endure.

“We’re only here for so many years,” he says. “Our job is to preserve it for the next round.”

The ‘Upcycle’ Entrepreneur

Celebrating one year at her Market Street shop, Cherné Bishop specializes in accessories for the ‘everyday fashion icon’

Class of 2012 University of Delaware fashion merchandising major Cherné Altovise Bishop, owner of the 316 N. Market St. accessories shop Cherné Altovise, is enthusiastic about her store’s approaching one-year anniversary on Oct. 17.

The milestone is just one check on the 26-year-old entrepreneur’s list of career goals, which includes future locations in Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York City – all of them based on her slogan of creating options for the “everyday fashion icon.”

Bishop’s approach to designing accessories—for women as well as men and children—is actually a form of redesigning. She artistically interprets the reuse method of “upcycling” by transforming an existing product into something better.

Upcycled products provide the base for most of her accessories and window displays.

For example, Bishop may begin by shopping for vintage items that will ultimately be altered into one-of-a-kind pieces, or a customer will bring in a piece he or she wants redesigned.

“You’ll bring in your grandmother’s pearls, and I’ll change them into something else entirely,” Bishop says. “Or someone may walk in and say, ‘I bought this charm in South America, can you make me something with it?’”

Customized jewelry is just one segment of Bishop’s product line—not all products are used or from recycled materials. She’ll also work on trend and bulk pieces and, additionally, present collection items that are debuted on regional runways and through private events at the shop for customers to get a first look. Items start at around $18.

Not surprisingly, Bishop is passionate about sustainability. She incorporated it into her lifestyle in her high school and college years by being selective about where she shopped, recreating items and recycling. Her store reflects that continuing passion.

“Now that I have a storefront, I also have a great window space to portray sustainability’s importance in my life,” Bishop says.

Inspired by the staged window displays of fashion retailers like Anthropologie and Urban Outfitters, Bishop says her displays always create foot traffic. They often feature donated recycled goods from other local businesses—Parcels, Inc., Downtown Visions, Bobbi Rhian’s Executive Lounge, local bars and restaurants, to name a few —which Bishop then transforms into whatever theme she wants to feature.

“Even if you’re not coming in, you may want to stop and take a picture,” says Bishop.

One of the recent displays had a backdrop covered with 279 soda cans in the form of the American flag. Bishop gathered the cans by offering discounts to customers who brought in cans, and she collected additional empty cans from nearby bars and lounges. Another display for a back-to-school theme included life-size pencils made from recycled shipping tubes from Parcels. Another segment utilized old fencing from what would have gone into Downtown Visions’ trash.

“Now that I’m known for it, people bring things in for me to work with instead of throwing them away,” Bishop says. “And my customers let me know they look forward to it.”

Bishop, who started designing jewelry at the age of 10, has run the business online and in boutiques since 2008, adding the storefront last year. She worked at Nordstrom as a stylist and men’s department manager before leaving to devote herself to Cherné Altovise fulltime. The shop—modestly-sized with a clean, black-and-white aesthetic—is open Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.

And while Bishop is ambitious, she’s not in a rush to expand to those other cities on her checklist. “Because I hand-make my own pieces, I believe in going at my own pace because I don’t want to sacrifice the quality of my work just because I want to have more products or to expand too quickly,” she says.

In the meantime, the store is a regular stop on the Wilmington Art Loop—Friday, Oct. 7, this month. Also, every third Friday (this month, Oct. 21), Bishop’s store takes part in a multicultural-entrepreneur-in-business initiative, Melanin on Market. This month’s Melanin on Market will be even bigger in celebration of Bishop’s one-year anniversary, and the store will offer sales and giveaways throughout the day on Oct. 17.

For more information, visit chernealtovise.com.

Five Questions for County Executive Candidates

Three of the four candidates address major issues facing New Castle County

The Sept. 13 primary election is almost upon us. Two of the more important offices on the ballot are mayor of Wilmington and New Castle County executive. Whoever wins the Democratic primary election for mayor will be the winner in the November general election, since no Republican has registered for the primary. It’s a slightly different picture in the race for county executive, where two Democrats and two Republicans are contending.

Last month, as a service to our readers, Out & About posed five questions to the eight Democratic mayoral candidates. In the same spirit, this month we submitted five questions to the candidates for county executive.

Three candidates responded. Republican Barry Nahe declined to submit answers. Below are the questions, followed by the candidates’ answers, in the order in which they responded. Candidates were asked to limit each answer to 200 words or fewer. Where they did not comply, space limitations required us to edit the answers.

1. What is the most important issue facing the next New Castle County executive?
2. What is your philosophy on county land development, and please provide specific strategies you have for
preserving open space/land?
3. How, specifically, do you plan to create more jobs in New Castle County?
4. Under your leadership, how can NCC become a safer walkable and bike-able county?
5. The City of Wilmington has significant challenges. As chief executive, how do you plan to help?

Mark_pic_front_view_croppedMark Blake (R)

1. What is the most important issue facing the next New Castle County Executive?

One of the most important issues the next County Executive will face will be a dwindling tax base coupled with the ever-increasing pension fund costs and health care expenses. The County Pension fund is growing faster than the revenue sources the County has and these increased costs will eventually exceed the County’s ability to fully fund these critical obligations if something isn’t done soon. I would propose that we freeze the current pension fund so that those already in the system are protected and will be guaranteed to receive the benefits they were promised and expect. We would then implement a new pension or retirement (401k) plan for all new hires that would include more employee participation and various contribution levels and options, as is done in the private sector. To accomplish this, I would work with the existing pension fund panel and outside pension fund experts to ensure that any plan presented would be effective and fair, while making certain that the new fund would provide adequate returns for new County employees and be sustainable for generations of future County employees.

2. What is your philosophy on county land development, and please provide specific strategies you have for preserving open space/land?

The current County Executive’s “Farmland Preservation” debacle/sweetheart deal underscores the necessity for NCC to work more closely with the successful State Farmland Preservation program. First, NCC does NOT even have a Farmland or Open Space Preservation program, and spending in excess of $27,000 per acre of taxpayers’ money to “purchase development rights only” does not preserve those farms from future development. I would work with the state to earmark County funds that would go to the state preservation program specifically for the purchase of NCC Farmlands that could continue to operate as a productive farm, while being protected from development. For sensitive areas, the County can work with developers to provide more open space offsets for development projects and utilize federal programs and grants to obtain funds for purchasing other land as natural open spaces. During my 13 years with the Greater Hockessin Area Development Association, we have preserved more historic buildings and far exceeded the NCC open space requirements for developments by working with developers and builders in an open manner. County Council and the Land Use Department have commented that “this is how land use projects should be done, by working with the local civic groups.” The County should not be picking lands based on politics and friendships; it should provide County Preservation Funds to the state and let the state administer the program for the benefit of all. The price being offered to two influential farmers is more than six times what other similar size farms have been paid for true preservation.

3. How, specifically, do you plan to create more jobs in New Castle County?

County government can’t “create jobs,” especially private sector jobs. Rather, the County government must create the right environment to attract companies here. Only the expansion of existing companies and new companies locating here can create more jobs. I’ll work with experts, bring ideas that foster a balanced approach for new and existing companies. The Uniform Development Code (UDC) has been in place for almost 20 years with less than 100 minor changes to the process. Antiquated land use policies have adversely affected our economy; we need to update the UDC to represent ALL stake holders while protecting the environment. By implementing Targeted Development Zones (TDZs) we can have growth while making sure special waivers aren’t given to political insiders that will worsen existing traffic or environmental issues. TDZs will ensure that new or redevelopment takes place at locations where infrastructure already exists. We need to revamp the current UDC to address the Commercial Regional (CR) zoning classification. Using time-proven “Best Practices” from the business world, we’ll identify all the available vacant, abandoned, and “brown-field” parcels and combine that with the latest traffic studies to determine what areas could support a project. By doing that, we could react more quickly to attract projects and jobs. Simply put, our County government hasn’t been responsive to the needs of our residents or our businesses. I’ll develop a comprehensive plan for economic development that will seek new businesses and bring them to the County by streamlining the UDC. My 25 years of experience in the business community positions me to help make the County attractive to businesses.

4. Under your leadership, how can NCC become a safer walkable and bike-able county?

The UDC contains the framework for transforming NCC into a bike- and pedestrian-friendly County. The best way to provide for the necessary infrastructure such as sidewalks and bike paths is when a parcel of land is being proposed for development or redevelopment. With a revised UDC, we can change the available options that developers can select to include in their projects and require that multi-use pathways are part of the project, thus ensuring that new communities will have the amenities that residents are asking for and look for when purchasing homes. We would also extend these upgrades to include all commercial and office development projects, so that eventually the County could work with the state programs to “backfill” older communities with these same amenities that will eventually link entire swaths of communities with a bike-able, walkable path system. We would continue to work with WILMAPCO, DELDOT and Bike Delaware and the local community civic groups to form a master plan that would identify gaps in the existing pathways and work to connect those gaps over time.

5. The City of Wilmington has significant challenges. As Chief Executive, how do you plan to help?

We must address the problems keeping Wilmington from becoming an economic driver for the County and state. I will work with the city’s elected officials and the business community to address the lack of good paying jobs and work to attract new businesses to the city while helping businesses already there. There are many opportunities that haven’t been explored by city officials. The Riverfront is one example of success, but it could be an even bigger success if obstacles from present and past administrations were honestly addressed. Wilmington’s location adjacent to the I-95 corridor provides an opportunity to develop a massive, regional complex for both sports and entertainment events, providing hundreds of jobs. Reducing the serious crime in the city, without the need to appease egos, will foster interest from investors that are needed to back such ventures. County Police and City Police can better work together to implement the Predictive Policing model that has helped NCC reduce crime. There also exist ways to help reduce the cost of operating 911 service that would reduce the response time for serious crimes by allowing a state, County or city officer to respond. Of course this would require a more formalized vehicle dispatch tracking system and plan for all agencies. Volunteer fire companies have been using a similar concept for decades, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to work out such a system across NCC and the city.

FullSizeRenderMatt Meyer (D)

1. What is the most important issue facing the next New Castle County Executive?

Our County faces serious challenges: reducing violent crime, building an economy that works for everyone and getting our financial house in order. There is no reason why our County should not have a fair and functioning government that produces robust economic growth, sensible land use policies and safe streets. Our County’s leadership, through its cronyism and self-indulgence, has held us back from truly growing, prospering and achieving our true potential. We can do better. It starts with leadership, honesty, transparency and checks and balances. We must put an end to backroom dealing, the old insiders’ game of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.” Residents need to be able to trust our County government and believe that our tax dollars are being spent wisely and sensibly.

2. What is your philosophy on county land development, and please provide specific strategies you have for preserving open space/land?

Our land use process and department are broken, and both have lost the credibility of neighborhood associations and developers. The Planning and Land Use Departments must be re-invented and run by professionals with substantial training and experience. Neighbors must have a significant say in how projects proceed. While respecting private property rights, the richest developer in the room cannot dictate the futures of our communities. It is important that there are development projects moving forward in the county, and that they create quality jobs for moderate income people. In collaboration with the state, an effective planning and land use process will produce more reasonable outcomes and likely less contentious court battles. The solution is to find common ground on each specific project, emphasizing mediation and developer-neighborhood conversations early in the process, rather than later stage adversarial court battles. It is important that the public has input into how their neighborhoods grow and change.

3. How, specifically, do you plan to create more jobs in New Castle County?

There are three ways a government can facilitate the creation of private sector jobs. We can lure large companies here, usually with tax breaks or payments of taxpayer cash. We can grow the businesses that already exist. We can start new businesses. Studies show that collaborating with businesses that are here to grow here and developing ecosystems and geographic hubs to start new businesses are the most effective ways to invest taxpayer resources to create jobs. Having started two successful businesses of my own, I understand what entrepreneurs need to succeed. And I will make sure that entrepreneurs are given every opportunity to succeed in our County. In addition, I believe entrepreneurship is an innovative strategy to approach the barriers to employment of individuals previously convicted of felonies. Not everyone is wired to be an entrepreneur. But for many who are not given a second chance, startup companies can be one channel where those convicted of felonies make their own second chance. I would eagerly approach the federal government, the state government, city governments and private partners, for example, to create a Second Chance Innovation Fund that would provide a certain amount of funding and legal and accounting assistance to selected startup businesses created by those with prior police records.

4. Under your leadership, how can NCC become a safer walkable and bike-able county?

New Castle County currently makes its land use and planning decisions based on an automobile-oriented society. That is not appropriate for 2017. That is not appropriate for a County that needs to attract millennials to re-invent our economy. As someone who spent five years as a bike commuter, I believe strongly in multi-modal transportation systems. By integrating walkable and bikeable systems into our planning and land use governance, we will lay the foundations to build a transportation system that works for everyone. Furthermore, we need to sit down immediately with the state Department of Transportation and the cities of Wilmington, Newark, New Castle and Middletown to insure there are safe bikeable routes for commuters coming from each direction—north, south, east and west, into our largest cities and towns.

5. The City of Wilmington has significant challenges. As Chief Executive, how do you plan to help?

Wilmington’s struggles are our struggles. We are losing an entire generation of young people to crime, drugs and violence. County government must do much more to collaborate with city government to improve public safety and economic development. In 2012, Tom Gordon ran side-by-side with Dennis Williams, promising to fix the city’s crime problem. But once in office, Mr. Gordon forgot that promise. Crime in Wilmington is worse than ever, and the County’s efforts to stem the violence have been virtually non-existent. There are mothers and fathers losing their children on the streets of Wilmington and across our County nearly every week. That is not acceptable. I will ensure that the County provides much more support to Wilmington, so that we can end the horrific violence. We will use prior research, including the CDC Report, the Public Safety Strategy Commission Report, and the Criminal Justice Council’s Recidivism In Delaware report to address violence at its roots. There are numerous vacant housing and other issues in which collaboration should improve. To attract employers, we need to attract a talented workforce. The County should work with municipalities like Wilmington and Newark to encourage development that makes our County an appealing place for college graduates. This includes enhanced multimodal transportation, walkable communities, quality apartments and condos, green space, and new restaurants, bars and cafes in downtown areas.

gordon1Tom Gordon (D)

1. What is the most important issue facing the next New Castle County Executive?

Job creation and maintenance, a key to improving residents’ quality of life.

2. What is your philosophy on county land development, and please provide specific strategies you have for preserving open space/land?

Development must be handled in an orderly fashion, targeting established growth areas with adequate infrastructure as well as “brownfield” redevelopment or reuse of previously occupied sites. I spearheaded the first comprehensive overhaul of land-use laws since their first enactment in 1954, largely to prevent overdevelopment and preserve open space—and have led land use revisions ever since, also improving Department of Land Use operation especially to involve the community from the start of the process. We are doing our best to preserve farmland—despite political opposition—and provide excellent stewardship as well as expansion of county-owned open space/parkland. One of the top accomplishments of my administration is creation of Glasgow Park, serving an area with more than 140,000 residents who had no regional-scale outdoor recreation, in the process preventing development of the site, which was proposed for intense development with destruction of the historic barn we recently renovated. The park’s popularity provides dramatic proof that I am aware of and working to meet residents’ need for open space.

3. How, specifically, do you plan to create more jobs in New Castle County?

Our multi-faceted approach emphasizes retaining existing jobs—such as the county’s DuPont Co. incentive helping retain about 1,700 jobs—and acting as an incubator/advocate for small-medium start-ups such as the Delaware Board of Trade. We assist companies to locate here, such as Incyte. Its location process took about seven months and, in addition to the jobs it provides, the company revitalized the long-vacant John Wanamaker’s building at Augustine Cut-Off. Of course, our largest effort is to develop three port sites in partnership with the state and others, expected to create tens of thousands of jobs that will support the county’s middle class over generations to come. New Castle County also provides programs to retrain residents for new types of work and summer youth employment that gives valuable job experience to help our younger residents develop positive workplace habits and references for future jobs.

4. Under your leadership, how can NCC become a safer walkable and bike-able county?

Under my administration’s first two terms as well as this one, I have worked to ensure plans for new developments are both walkable and bikeable. We have installed uncounted miles of walking, jogging and bike paths throughout the county, while encouraging safety through community outreach that includes such programs as our annual summer Safety Town to educate children to be safe pedestrians, bicyclists and later, safer drivers. Our New Castle County Police also do considerable pedestrian, bicycle and driving safety outreach.

5. The City of Wilmington has significant challenges. As Chief Executive, how do you plan to help?

As we work to increase employment, I will continue the unprecedented level of law enforcement assistance already being provided under my leadership. We have shared new policies, procedures and technology along with our experience creating our Fusion Center and Targeted Analytical Policing System, cutting crime in the county by 16.4 percent. We gave computers when WPD fell behind technologically, provided vital backup/support on critical occasions Chief Bobby Cummings could detail and, more than once, lent a substantial number of officers for periods up to several months. We share information regularly and have conducted many joint operations on offenses from prostitution to violent crime, collaborated seeking grant funding, cooperated on joint efforts and conducted patrols in the city including mobile/mounted units. Our SWAT team assists with uncounted warrants, last week helping arrest many indicted suspects. The County—also providing paramedic service in the city—was the state’s first major agency to adopt overdose-reversing Narcan to save lives and recently began our revolutionary HERO HELP program offering treatment instead of arrest. That builds on our Heroin Alert outreach and my $500,000 grant last year for treatment-oriented heroin/opioid awareness, producing 3.3+ million online ads and still referring addicts and families for help.