Ready for the Challenge

The new mayor faces a lot of old problems in Wilmington. Here, Mike Purzycki tells Out & About how his administration will address them.

After leading the redevelopment of the Christina Riverfront for more than two decades, on Jan. 3 Mike Purzycki will take on a much broader challenge—serving as mayor of Wilmington for the next four years.

Purzycki, a lawyer, former New Castle County councilman and onetime pro football prospect whose career ended when he injured his knee during the New York Giants’ preseason 49 years ago, scored a resounding victory in the November election, securing 82 percent of the vote while topping Republican Robert Martin and Independent Steven Washington.

Despite that overwhelming number, Purzycki takes over what is in many ways a fractured city. He got less than 24 percent of the vote in an eight-way Democratic primary in September that, in this heavily Democratic city, is tantamount to winning the general election.

Contributing to Purzycki’s victory were about 1,250 city voters who heeded a suggestion from Jane Castle, wife of former Republican Gov. Mike Castle, that they change their affiliation from Republican to Democrat so they could vote in the primary. Those switches likely provided Purzycki with the edge he needed to top youthful runner-up Eugene Young by 234 votes and former City Councilman Kevin F. Kelley by 415 as he ended the controversial Dennis P. Williams’ bid for a second term. (Williams finished fourth.)

Purzycki becomes the first white mayor in this majority black city since the late Daniel Frawley concluded his second term in January 1993.

Williams’ term was marked by repeated debates over policing strategies, an ongoing struggle to reduce shootings and violent crime, staffing battles between firefighters and their chief, and the move of the headquarters of the DuPont Co., the city’s most prominent business for more than a century, into suburban New Castle County.

Those episodes overshadowed some of the positives of the last four years, including the first steps toward development of a Creative District downtown, forward movement in community revitalization efforts called West Side Grows Together and Eastside Rising, and the launch of co-working spaces downtown that offer the promise of filling the void created by the departure or downsizing of larger business entities.

As Purzycki puts it in the following interview, “One minute we’re the Chemical Capital and the next minute we’re Murder Town,” a label pinned on the city by a highly critical December 2014 article in Newsweek.

As he prepared to take office, Purzycki sat down with Out & About to discuss key issues facing the city and how he plans to address them.

(This interview has been edited for clarity and space considerations.)

What will the first year of the Purzycki administration look like? What are the key priorities?

I think I’d like to change the aspirations and the culture of the city and city government. I think we have a fine workforce that just needs direction, and I’d like to get them focused on a mission that’s a lot bigger than all of us and go to work every day excited about reaching it.

Are you suggesting that there has been complacency within city government?

I don’t know if there is complacency as much as it is a lack of direction. I hear there are morale issues. I’m not sure where that comes from. If you have direction, if you have goals, everybody doesn’t have the time to indulge every little irritation.

Who will be on your team?

I can’t say right now. I know 60-70 percent of it. I want to bring in people who are genuinely committed to seeing the city turn around.

(Since this article was originally published, members of the new administration have been announced.)

Will any members of the Williams administration stay?

There are people there who have talent. It’s irresponsible to change personnel just to change them.
You have a new council president (Hanifa Shabazz) and major turnover on city council. There’s going to be a lot of “new” in city hall. What are your expectations for getting started right away?

Hanifa and I have been friends for a long time. We share a mutual respect. I know a number of people on council and I have met every single one of them. I don’t expect to agree with them all the time. What is important is how we disagree. Respectful disagreement is good. We’re going to work together. Everybody shares a deep concern for the wellbeing of the city.

Why did you decide to run for mayor? You had the Riverfront, you had plans mapped out. It was a safe position for you.

The concern is that if the Riverfront thrives and the city falters, the Riverfront can only go so far by itself. Watching the city fail while the Riverfront was progressing would not have been very satisfying.

The second thing is the Riverfront, like everywhere, was suffering from the reputation the city had to deal with. One minute we’re the Chemical Capital and the next minute we’re Murder Town. This restrained economic growth. We had to create a cause for optimism. I believe in my abilities to lead the city. I think my skills are right for being mayor at this time.

Since November, the Fire Department has been using brownouts and staffing changes to cut overtime spending. The union says this impacts response time and public safety. What are you going to do about it?

Today there is absolutely no confidence between the rank and file and the chief. There have been a lot of hard feelings that have not been productive for the smooth operation of the fire department. I don’t have to ascribe blame. For me to weigh in (before taking office) would be counterproductive. I intend to have a new chief one of these days. I’m going to select a chief in whom I believe in his or her judgment and that chief will tell me what we should be doing.

By “one of these days,” do you mean soon?

Yes, I expect to have a new fire chief.

The police department has taken its share of criticism over crime problems and varying approaches to community policing. Do you have any preferences on deployments and strategies, and what will your relationship be with the police department?

I have no interest in telling my police chief how to run the department. My sense is, it’s your department. If the department succeeds, you succeed. If it fails, you fail. I intend to hire the best police chief that I can.

I have no particular expertise on how to evaluate the department. Some of the problems have to do with administration, and some of them are structural. We are not competitive with other departments. We have acquiesced to our financial realities and have not acknowledged the impact that has on the performance of our officers. Every time we have negotiations we say “we can’t afford to pay you.” The state and county and University of Delaware continue to outstrip our officers by something on the order of 20 percent. Morale is poor. The pay scale is corrosive and really hurts the functioning of our department. It’s hard for me to make a judgment on leadership. Everyone weighs in on community policing. I believe the job of the mayor is to hire the very best individual to run the department and to be guided by his or her judgment.

I’m going to find the finest police chief around. It could be the incumbent. I’m not going to make that selection on my own. I’m going to be guided by professionals and get recommendations.

The fire and police departments have significant impact on city budget, which has been stressed by the loss of the DuPont headquarters, uncertainty over Chemours and vacancies in downtown office space. Where do we go next? Are we going to have a property tax increase?

The mayor hasn’t raised taxes in four years. We keep getting farther and farther behind. Our deficits aren’t just financial deficits. Our baseline can’t be what it’s going to take to pay this year’s bills; it has to be what it’s going to take to run the city properly in the future. We will put everything on the table. I’ll be as transparent as possible. There are things that are costing us money. We can’t have $45 parking tickets, we can’t have $110 red light fines … everything can’t be directed at raising revenue. My ideal budget is going to be scaling back on some of those punitive revenue measures.

The situation is not dire, but it is daunting. But the variable is the ability of the administration to create such optimism in the minds of the business community and in the residential community that they believe that the people who are running the city can really bring it back and make it something terrific.

The Creative District is aiming to bring cultural entrepreneurs into town. You’ve had experience at the riverfront. How do you see the Creative District having an impact? How big a deal is it?

I think it’s potentially a very big deal, or potentially a lot of noise and nothing much else. If we can support the Creative District, it can be a very big help to redevelopment of that part of the city. If we ignore it, if we just do one or two houses at a time, it will collapse of its own weight. What’s been missing with every little redevelopment in the city has been a coordinated plan to buttress the efforts of the people who have been working hard on it.

You have to concentrate resources. We’re going to identify a very small number of parts of the city that we believe are receptive to concentrated effort by virtually all of our agencies, that can help create some progress, and focus our efforts in those areas. Licensing and Inspections, Parks and Recreation, Public Works—if those resources are concentrated in specific areas, and we take advantage of the land bank that’s being established, we can have an impact.

You have community-based planning initiatives under way—West Side Grows Together, Eastside Rising, Blueprint Communities and others—but there is no strong coordination at the top. Do you need that coordination?

If you don’t have coordination at the top you’re going to wind up achieving very little. If we try to do everything, we’ll get nothing done. Too often we spread out our assets in a way that nothing really meaningful gets achieved.

The Riverfront had four different development areas on the original plan. There were four places we could have gone. We concentrated on one area, to the chagrin of those on the Brandywine, on the Seventh Street peninsula. You’ve got to take an area and work hard and bring your assets together.

Will all these community plans underway go forward, or will they be cut back?

They can all go forward, but everybody has to manage expectations.

There’s a police chief in Charleston, S.C., a former military guy, who says it’s just like the military. You have to take one hill, and hold it, and then you go on to the next one. If you try to take every hill, you’ll get beaten every time. We’re going to take one hill at a time, and right now we’ve got too many hills.
We have to take one or two neighborhoods where we have the best chance of succeeding. I haven’t made up my mind which ones. There are pluses and minuses in a lot of these neighborhoods.

But if you look at what which ones have it most together now … doesn’t that put others who need more help farther behind?

The question is not who needs it more, the question is who is closer to success. We have to go to areas that will be most receptive to our work. Do they have community organizations, nonprofits and private developers working together? Is it a community that wants to support the police? There are a lot of factors. I have no emotional preference for one neighborhood over another.

A racial divide impacts the city. You’re the first white mayor since Dan Frawley left office in 1993. This is a majority black city. How will you address this issue?

I’ll do it head on. I think I understand race in America as well as most people. I have remarkable sympathies with people who have to deal with the wrong side of racial issues all the time. When people get to know me, I think (they’ll see) I can be trusted.

I got a letter from a 17-year-old Howard High student who was worried that I would gentrify her neighborhood. She is genuinely concerned. I’m impressed. I wrote back to her. I want to meet with her and her parents.

Race is a deeply felt division in our society. I don’t expect to walk in the door and change that anytime soon. Over time, you’ve got to prove to people by your actions how you feel about things.
Wilmington cannot be immune to those very powerful national currents about race. If something happens in Missouri, it reverberates throughout the entire country. Wilmington is subject to that. We have to keep the frustration level low enough—by providing jobs and opportunities, by respecting communities, by building community centers and paying attention to people—so when something national happens people aren’t inclined to take it out on local government and on their own neighborhoods.

You’ve worked with Hope Commission, helping ex-offenders when they are released from prison. You’re familiar with the problems of recidivism and structural unemployment. Does that give you more credibility on the East Side?

It does with some people. With some people I don’t think it means much at all.

In a city like this, I think race can be dealt with at a very personal level. You can get out every day to where people live. You can pay attention to people’s concerns in their neighborhoods. You can get licensing and inspections and police out to neighborhoods where people are having problems. You can show up at their homes and talk to them. In a city this small, in a year you can touch a whole lot of people.

You know University of Delaware professor Yasser Payne pretty well. He drew much attention with “The People’s Report,” studying structural unemployment in Southbridge and on the East Side. How will you address this issue?

At the local level we can be so much more effective at incentivizing people to provide jobs (than at the state and national levels). I intend to have an executive to do high-level job creation for people who are generally unemployable. I think you have to be very aggressive about it.

Private employers always have a reason not to hire people with poor employment records but now people are beginning to understand that the only way to restore our city’s health is to get people working. Every restaurant is a potential service job provider. The hospitality business needs to hire. We can talk to our large employers and ask them for their support, to either provide jobs or to fund jobs. We have to go to the state as well, and say you have to help provide some energy around the job situation. I look at this as a very important function of our government. I think Yasser Payne will be very happy with it.

As for the business community, DuPont is largely gone and we don’t know where Chemours will be in a couple of years. You have a lot of things in transition. What are you expecting?

We want to be competing for our young entrepreneurs. We want to build that infrastructure.

I have not given up on large employers. If we build an attractive enough environment, we can attract strong employers. We have lost large employers to the county. People made the easy decision to move to the county. I think we can get them back in time.

We are much more business friendly in many ways than Pennsylvania. If you create an environment that people are drawn to, we can get businesses to come here.

You mentioned the change in labeling from Chemical Capital to Murder Town. The last two years the city has taken a tremendous PR hit. What are your thoughts on changing that story line?

I think there are two sides of it. One, you have to improve the fundamentals, and then you tell your story. The people who say it’s the News Journal’s fault, I think they’ve got it wrong. The newspaper has a responsibility to tell the truth. If someone is getting shot, that’s a story.

People are very afraid to come to the city. All you need is an occasional incident to occur and it reawakens every bad story that people have heard about.

I believe leadership is very infectious. If people believe the people in charge can really manage the city and that there’s a bright future, they will be positive. If people see that there’s a problem solver in charge, with energy, I think there will be optimism about what we can do.

A divided school system has harmed the city. Although the mayor has no control over education, can you offer suggestions and solutions?

Except for the governor, I don’t think anybody has a bigger platform to effect change on any issue that impacts the city than the mayor. You have to advocate.

Part of the dissolution of our city has been because of busing; they have taken all of our kids and scattered them to a dozen high schools all around the county. They’ve lost the stability and the identity that a community school brings. It’s a devastating problem. I hope that we can bring a high school back to within the city.

But we do have the Charter School of Wilmington.


You’ve got several charters in the Community Education building.

They’re not public high schools.

So charters are not public schools?

For my purposes, no. To me, a public high school is when all the kids in the area can go to the same school. The Charter School of Wilmington has its purpose, and that’s fine. But we’ve got kids getting on the bus at 6 in the morning. Instead of getting an additional hour of sleep, they’re getting up an hour early to take a bus to the suburbs. That’s just wrong.

For the Purzycki administration, what are the yardsticks you will use to determine whether your administration is successful?

One of those measures has to be the incidence of violent crime, not necessarily the number of fatal shootings, but the number of incidents. We’ve got to reduce the violence. We have to build communities so violence is not normalized.

If you start to look at your community, and you reduce blight, you reduce the poverty rate. It would have a tremendous effect to start getting people off the poverty rolls, to build good housing stock.
Objective measures are difficult. I’m not afraid of being accountable, but it’s sometimes difficult to quantify things that are qualitative in nature.

Is a Charter School Right for Your Child?

If so, you’d better make your selection soon—deadline is Jan. 11. Here’s a summary.

If you went to a public high school a generation ago, the choice was easy.

Or, more accurately, there wasn’t any choice at all. Unless you opted for a vocational-technical high school, predetermined attendance zones controlled your assignment.

Then along came choice, and along came charters, and the options have seemed to increase almost every year.

So, if your child will be entering high school next year —or if you’re an eighth grader reading this article—now is the time to figure out your next step.

Delaware’s public school choice window is officially open, and you have until Jan. 11 to make your selection.

If you’re not excited about the school that serves your community, the choice program lets parents and students pick the school whose curriculum, special programs or teaching methods appear to make it the best fit for a student’s interests and learning style.

“There are great opportunities in all choices, including charter, traditional, vo-tech and independent schools,” says Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network.

Charter schools are independent, tuition-free public schools. They get their name from the “charter” or contract granted to them, which states the school’s mission, program and goals. Most of these schools in Delaware have charters granted by the state Department of Education. Several, including the Charter School of Wilmington and the Delaware Military Academy, have charters granted by the Red Clay Consolidated School District. Charter schools are run by their own boards of directors and they do not have to follow all the rules the state has established for traditional public schools. Authorizers can revoke charters if schools do not live up to contract terms.

Different from “Magnets”

The relative independence charters possess under their contracts makes them different from so-called “magnet schools,” which offer a special-interest curriculum but are operated by a traditional school district. The best-known magnets in New Castle County are both in Red Clay—the Cab Calloway School of the Arts and the Conrad Schools of Science.

Charters must offer all the classes required for high school students in Delaware—English/language arts, math, science, social studies, world languages—but subjects may be taught in nontraditional ways or may be wrapped with a special package of electives.

“A charter by virtue of being a charter is not necessarily a better choice,” Massett says. “But a school’s model, its method of teaching, or a smaller school size might be a reason to choose a charter for your child.”

And, she adds, in the case of eighth graders, “they have a better idea of how they learn. They can articulate that, and make choices themselves.”

And charters give students in New Castle County plenty of choices.

Interested in a career as a paramedic or police officer? There’s a school for that.

Care to experiment in science and math? You’ve got three choices.

Are you into the arts? Good to go.

Factors to Consider

Want to straighten up with some military discipline? Are you a Greek geek? Have you fallen behind and need some extra attention to catch up with your peers? Check, check, and check.

The list accompanying this story will help sort out your choices. It’s also a good idea to call the school, check out its website and make a visit, either during the school day or at an open house event before you fill out the application form at the website Note that you can apply to more than one school, and that some schools have supplemental application forms.

In exploring charters, there are some important factors to consider—so be sure to ask as you do your investigating.

Since charters tend to be smaller than most traditional high schools, they might not offer as many elective classes or as many extracurricular activities. There might not be a football team or a marching band, and you might be assessed a participation fee for team sports or certain extracurriculars.

Transportation can be an issue too. Because charters tend to draw smaller numbers of students from larger geographic areas, the nearest bus stop might be more than a block or two from home. You might have to drive a couple of miles to a “bus hub” in the morning and afternoon.

It’s also important to understand the enrollment process. If there are enough seats available, charters are required to accept every student who applies. However, if there are 120 applicants for 100 seats in next year’s freshman class, a lottery is used to determine who gets in.

But it’s not purely random. Under guidelines spelled out in state law, schools may set their own “enrollment preferences.” These preferences, depending on the school, can give preference to children of members of the school’s board of directors, children of full-time staff and siblings of current students. Geography can be a factor too. Newark Charter uses a five-mile radius from the school as a preference; MOT Charter gives priority to residents of the Appoquinimink School District, and the schools chartered by Red Clay give preference to district residents.

Also, some schools give a preference to students who can demonstrate a “specific interest” in a school’s focus or methods, and they may use a “placement test” to measure a student’s level of interest.

Once the preferences are sorted out, the remaining applicants are placed in a lottery. While the mechanics may vary by school, each applicant is assigned a number and the numbers are drawn.

Accepted students receive notification in early February but must fill out more paperwork to complete the process. Other applicants are placed on a waiting list, usually based on their lottery number.

Finally, after a child makes his or her selection, a parent needs to keep on top of what’s going on at the school. While some of Delaware’s charters have earned national recognition and others are part of larger successful charter organizations, the state has cited poor academic performance and administrative or financial mismanagement to shut down three charter high schools in the last four years: the Delaware MET, the Maurice J. Moyer Academic Institute and the Pencader Business & Finance Charter High School.

NCCo Charter High Schools

Here is summary information on all charter high schools in New Castle County. Unless otherwise noted, all serve grades 9-12. For more details, call the school or visit its website.

Delaware Academy for Public Safety and Security: Located in the former Our Lady of Fatima School on DuPont Highway in New Castle, the school’s curriculum includes training for careers as firefighters, paramedics, police officers and in the military.
322-6050 •

Delaware Design-Lab High School (See story, pg. 16): Located in the Faith City Church complex near Christiana Mall, the school’s instructional model focuses on problem solving through “design thinking”—in essence, seeking answers by following the same steps that designers use to solve problems in their professional lives. It currently serves grades 9-11 and will add a 12th grade class in 2017-18.
292-5450 •

Delaware Military Academy: Located near Banning Park, southwest of Wilmington, it refers to students as “cadets” and they participate in a Navy Junior ROTC program. Nearly all of its graduates go on to higher education. The school is currently running a $7.5 million capital campaign to finance a new athletics/academic building and athletics fields.
998-0745 •

Freire Charter School: Located in downtown Wilmington, Freire is a replication of a successful charter model in Philadelphia. It offers double sessions of English and math classes to help students performing below grade level to catch up and prepare for college. Freire currently serves grades 8-11 and will add a 12th grade class in 2017-18.
407-4800 •

Great Oaks Charter School: Housed in the Community Education Building in downtown Wilmington, Great Oaks has sister charter schools in New York City, Newark, N.J., and Bridgeport, Conn. Its model relies on intensive tutoring on top of classroom instruction to bring students up to grade level and prepare them for college. Great Oaks Wilmington currently serves grades 6 and 7. It will add a grade a year, becoming a full 6-12 program by the 2021-22 school year.
660-4790 •

MOT Charter High School: Located in Middletown, the school is an outgrowth of a K-8 charter and is modeled after the pairing of the Charter School of Wilmington and the Cab Calloway School of the Arts in the same building, giving students the choice of focusing on the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math) or the arts. Its first class will graduate in 2018.
696-2000 •

Newark Charter High School: On a 21-acre campus west of Newark near the Maryland state line, Newark Charter has a junior high (grades 7-8) and senior high (grades 9-12) in a single building. Many of its students began their school careers in Newark Charter’s K-6 program. Students choose from two academies, one focusing on STEM disciplines and the other on global studies and leadership. Newark Charter is the only high school in the state to implement the College Board’s rigorous Advanced Placement Capstone Diploma Program.
369-2001 •

Odyssey Charter School: Located in a former office building in the Barley Mill Plaza complex west of Wilmington, the school currently serves kindergarten through ninth grade, and will be adding a grade a year, so its first high school class will graduate in 2020. It’s a dual-language immersion school, with students receiving instruction in core subjects in both English and Greek.
994-6490 •

The Charter School of Wilmington: Delaware’s first charter school, CSW shares space in the old Wilmington High School building with a magnet school, the Cab Calloway School of the Arts. The school has developed a national reputation for its excellence in the STEM disciplines—science, technology, engineering and math.
651-2727 •

Super School

In a national competition, the two-year-old Delaware Design Lab is one of 10 schools that have been awarded $10 million each over the next five years

Sometimes dreams don’t work out as planned.

And sometimes real life can turn out better than anyone could have imagined.

Just ask Cristina Alvarez and Martin Rayala, cofounders of the Delaware Design Lab High School.
Alvarez, a former principal of Philadelphia’s Charter High School for Architecture and Design, turned up in Delaware in the fall of 2012, with the dream of creating a new school in downtown Wilmington. She had teamed with Rayala, a veteran educator and consultant, to write her proposal and, on the recommendation of a friend, recruited Matt Urban, president of Mobius New Media, a graphics and design firm with offices in the Grand Opera House, to head its board of directors.

The State Board of Education approved Design Lab’s charter application in early 2013, but the school opening was delayed until the fall of 2015. Alvarez was unable to find a suitable downtown Wilmington site and wound up settling in Christiana, in a building in the Faith City Church complex that had previously been used by another charter, the Delaware Academy for Public Safety and Security. It started with 233 students, about half of them African-American, in grades 9 and 10. With 11th grade added this year, enrollment is now pushing 300, Rayala says.

But Alvarez and Rayala won’t be surprised to see the demand for seats soar by the Jan. 11 deadline for choice and charter applications for the 2017-18 school year.

After all, who wouldn’t want their child to attend a school that had just won a $10 million grant in a national competition to create a next-generation “super school”?

That’s right—$10 million, a cool $2 million a year for the next five years. Considering that the school’s budget is currently $4.2 million, having the ability to tap into another $2 million gives Design Lab the potential to do more—a lot more.

“It’s a huge amount of money, and we were shocked to get it,” Alvarez says.

Re-Imagining the American High School

The money is coming from XQ: The Super School Project, funded by the Emerson Collective, an education and immigration advocacy group run by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Computers. XQ put out a call for proposals that would re-imagine the American high school for the 21st century, and Design Lab submitted one based on its academic plan.

The competition was fierce. More than 1,400 schools expressed interest in the competition, 700 applied, and that number was whittled down to 350, then 50 semifinalists and ultimately the 10 winners.

Other winners in the competition included charter schools and traditional public schools with plans to focus on high-needs students, academically successful self-directed students, homeless students and one that would operate out of a museum.

“It’s not like anything else we have in our state. The award validates that we brought an innovative model to Delaware,” says Kendall Massett, executive director of the Delaware Charter Schools Network.

Massett, however, offers a cautionary note. “It’s still a second- year school. Infusing money into a school does not make it perfect. I hope nobody thinks they’re not going to have challenges. Every school has challenges. But now they have a cushion to have a failure here or there.”

The next steps for Design Lab, Alvarez says, are to prove that the model works and to create opportunities to replicate the model in other settings—one of the key objectives of charter schools.

Cristina Alvarez (in red) and the Delaware Design Lab team receiving the XQ Super School award for educational innovation and excellence from famed rapper MC Hammer. (Photo courtesy of The Design Lab High School)
Cristina Alvarez (in red) and the Delaware Design Lab team receiving the XQ Super School award for educational innovation and excellence from famed rapper MC Hammer. (Photo courtesy of The Design Lab High School)

Core Educational Philosophy

At the core of the school’s educational philosophy is a concept called “design thinking,” which, Rayala explains, means “taking the ideas and processes that designers use to solve a problem, learning those processes and applying them to any aspect of your life.”

Design Lab students take the same subjects that other high school students do—English/language arts, math, science, social studies, foreign language—but they learn the material differently.

Teachers don’t stand in front of the class and lecture, and students don’t memorize facts.

Instead, teachers present a problem and students use the design process to find a solution. First, they discover, examining the issue to ensure they are attempting to solve the right problem. Then they visualize, considering all the possible solutions. Next comes prototype, testing the most promising solutions. Then they present, describing their idea or solution in a clear and compelling way to their teacher and the rest of the class—much like the presenters at TED talks or entrepreneurial hopefuls on the Shark Tank television series.

“In traditional education, the teacher is the holder of the information, the all-knowing person,” Alvarez says. But today, she says, “we’re living in a world where kids have access to information through their phones. Technological development has pointed us toward realizing that schools must change their learning model away from the teacher as the source of all information and power into something else … into students taking more control of their learning.”

Students entering Design Lab aren’t always ready for this new approach, Alvarez says, because “traditional schools are based on socialization and compliance and they spend a lot of time taking the curiosity of a child and tamping it down for them to fit this model.”

The Design Lab staff encourages curiosity. The freshman social studies class, for example, doesn’t include traditional civics lessons. It’s called “regional planning,” and students start out by learning about New Castle County and all of Delaware, its culture, geography, economics and politics. “Students have to reach out into the community, to discover what mayors do, what urban planners do,” Alvarez says.

Students do a lot of their work as teams, not only as partners but also in critiquing each other’s work—developing skills that Rayala says will be essential within a 21st-century workforce.

“Businesses are decentralizing, working toward smaller units, so workers have to be more nimble, more problem-solving, more able to take on new challenges,” he says. “We all have to be creative. We all have to wear many hats.”

Design Lab doesn’t plan to pour its $10 million into a new building or into expanding its staff, Alvarez and Rayala say. Doing so, they explain, would defeat the purpose of the grant because it’s easy to make a model succeed when you equip it with more personnel and lots of bells and whistles.

“Our mindset is not going to be ‘how do we spend $10 million?’ It’s how we use the $10 million as leverage to get the money we really need,” Rayala says.

Design Lab students, he says, will see some improvements in the short term—things like another counselor a semester ahead of schedule and improvements in the science labs.

Over the next few years, the money will make it possible for the school to add more teachers than it would have on its regular budget, but the school’s leaders have no intention of building a staff that would have to be cut significantly when the grant money runs out.

Alvarez and Rayala anticipate using some of the prize as matching funds should they seek corporate or foundation grants to make long-term improvements, whether it’s for buying new computers or working toward construction of a new building for when their current lease at Faith City expires after the 2019-20 school year.

And some of the money will be used for testing new ways of putting “design thinking” to work, whether it be through more use of computers, getting students outside the classroom and into the community more often, or changing the way teachers and students interact.

New Partnerships

The outcomes of those learning experiments will help Design Lab leaders package a model curriculum and instructional process that it can replicate in Delaware and elsewhere in the country.

They won’t be doing it alone, Rayala says, because the award increases the probability of developing new partnerships to drive the school forward. “With $10 million and the validation of internationally known people, we can go to the business community and to universities and say ‘pay attention to what we’re doing.’”

No matter how Design Lab evolves, its development won’t go unnoticed.

In 2014 and 2015, when the school was recruiting its first students, “we didn’t have a campus, we had nothing you could touch, feel or see,” Urban says.

In January, Alvarez and Rayala won’t be surprised if they wind up with more applicants than available seats and have to use a lottery to determine which students will be admitted.

“We’ve gone from under the radar to way above the radar,” Urban says.

Walking the Walk

As director of West End Neighborhood House for the past 15 years, Paul Calistro has met community needs by building coalitions among groups that don’t normally interact

Unless he’s cornered for a meeting, Paul Calistro isn’t likely to be sitting at his desk.

Meetings may sometimes be necessary, but Calistro believes he spends his time best when he’s out in the neighborhood that has become his outdoor office for the last quarter-century.

“I always tell people, ‘let’s walk the neighborhood.’ It’s one of the keys to our success,” says Calistro, executive director of the West End Neighborhood House, the 130-year-old community center that serves residents of Wilmington’s Little Italy and many surrounding neighborhoods.

Walking the neighborhood constitutes what Calistro calls “forced engagement”—a practice that’s essential to finding out what’s on residents’ minds, what they need, what they care about.

“If we want to build communities, if we want to revitalize communities, if we want communities to stay intact, we have to find new mechanisms to keep people attached,” he says, even while using an old mechanism—walking the neighborhood—as an effective tool in building a more cohesive west side of the city.

“Some of the greatest things we’ve done here have come from listening to the people,” he says.

“Paul is an innovative guy, a progressive thinker, with great skills in identifying unmet needs and working to find solutions,” says Monica Alvarez, who started as a grant writer at West End while she was in graduate school and worked on and off with Calistro for 13 years. She is now director of development and marketing for Interfaith Community Housing of Delaware.

While his walks have helped Calistro identify needs, his greatest strength is his ability to build coalitions that have the resources to meet those needs. His “secret formula,” he says, is connecting “groups that don’t normally interact but have a common concern, a common need, a common interest.”

In Delaware, and especially in Wilmington, he finds that “you can connect ordinary people to the leaders of the hospitals and the big institutions.”

A Chicago Guy

The guy who grew up on the West Side of Chicago, living with his parents and two brothers “in the unlicensed, retrofitted basement of a bungalow” before they moved into a blue-collar Italian-Irish-Jewish neighborhood, quickly learned that “there aren’t great ivory towers in Delaware. You can pick up the telephone and talk to almost anyone.”

Calistro’s direct approach has yielded significant results at West End.

Since 2001, the community center has established numerous programs to serve youths who leave foster care when they turn 18. Its initiatives have created transitional and permanent housing, employment training and mentoring—all designed to promote self-sufficiency.

In 2005, West End developed a short-term loan program, Loans Plus, to provide consumers with an alternative to predatory payday loans.

In 2011, West End led the creation of West Side Grows Together, a community revitalization project that covers the area from Interstate 95, between Lancaster and Pennsylvania avenues, west to the B&O Railroad line just beyond Union Street. The 10-year, $35 million plan has brought together individuals and major institutions, including St. Francis Hospital, St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, the Latin American Community Center, Hilltop Lutheran Neighborhood Center, Westside Family Healthcare and the Woodlawn Trustees. “We’ve got 27 organizations, all listening to the people, trying to figure out how to do this correctly,” he says.

Two years ago, in collaboration with Sir Speedy Print and Marketing Services, West End launched Popdot, a sign-printing and installation business that employs disadvantaged youth and individuals aging out of foster care.

Last year, the General Assembly passed legislation enabling cities to create entities called “land banks” that could acquire vacant and deteriorating properties and package them for redevelopment. Calistro and his team at West End were advocating for the concept three years before the legislation was introduced. “It looked like it was somebody else’s idea, but we won,” he says.

“Go Talk to Paul”

“He likes to see communities that are well taken care of,” says Maria Matos, executive director of the Latin American Community Center and, like Calistro, a member of the West Side Grows Together steering committee. “This is one of his pet projects. He understands that children need a good home, and a neighborhood that is safe.”

When she moved to the West Side, Christian Willauer immediately recognized the area’s potential. As her interest in community development grew, she started talking with her neighbors and, when she wanted to learn more, “they all told me to go talk to Paul.”

Those talks led to employment, part-time at first and now as director of the Cornerstone West Community Development Corporation, West End’s community development arm.

“Paul is an ideas man,” Willauer says. “He has a lot of understanding of what needs to be done, and how to do it. We get to be part of making it happen.”

But, she adds, the 60-year-old Calistro isn’t one to sit behind his desk and let others do the work. “Paul likes to roll up his sleeves and get involved. He knows all the details,” she says.

Calistro’s recognition of the importance of knowing the details began when he graduated from high school, and kept a promise to his father to work for a year at the printing plant where his father was the superintendent. He learned a bit about the business as he watched magazines like National Geographic and Playboy roll off the high-speed presses, along with the bulky color catalogs from Sears and other major retailers of the era. “I learned. I did all the things he asked me to do, and after a year, I told him I had kept my word and it was time to leave,” he says.

Then it was on to Minnesota, where his older brother lived, on what he thought would be the first stop on a hitchhiking journey through the western states. He stayed a while longer, picking up some credits at the University of Minnesota while becoming a grant writer for the owner of a small residential treatment center for adolescents and taking on other jobs to pay his tuition. And he fell in love with a girl from The First State.

“She got a job offer in Delaware and she said, ‘if you want to marry me, you’ll come to Delaware with me,’” he recalls. (They subsequently divorced. Calistro has three children from that marriage, two of them living in Delaware and the third in Philadelphia. He married Kim Martin, a ballet instructor, in 2009.)

It was 1979, jobs were scarce and interest rates were soaring, but there was an opening for a federally funded position at the Salvation Army in Wilmington. Calistro knew a little about bookkeeping, just enough to get the job. “I got a book about accounting,” he says, “and a year later I was the business administrator.”

He stayed there for 12 years, gradually taking on more significant roles in management.

In the mid-1980s, he developed a taste for politics, taking on the old guard in Newport, where he was living at the time. He started questioning the city council—about financial statements that didn’t make sense, about roads that weren’t being repaired—and decided that he could do better. “To run for mayor,” he says, “all you needed was a pair of good shoes and a copying machine.”

Four-Term Mayor

He won the election in 1987 and served four two-year terms. During his tenure, two Superfund sites in the town were cleaned up and the Ciba Geigy plant on its outskirts was annexed, bringing in enough additional property tax income to nearly double the town’s revenue. “We fixed the streets, the water and sewer systems, and stabilized the revenue stream,” he says.

After eight years, he told the town council he wouldn’t run again. “I held up this sheet of paper and said these were the things I said we were going to fix, and they’re all done,” he recalls.

Meanwhile, in 1991, the job at West End opened up, drawing more than 100 applicants. Calistro didn’t have a college degree, one of the credentials listed in the job posting, but he did his homework —researching the organization’s history, studying its tax returns and annual reports, talking to its employees, even drawing up a five-year plan.

He landed the job, rolled up his sleeves, and got to work. “Wilmington, it was a little town to me, a hamlet,” he says. “You could meet people in Wilmington pretty quickly, but there was a hierarchy in the city—the DuPont folks, the Wilmington Trust folks, Delmarva Power, and The News Journal. You had to learn the hierarchy,” he says.

He learned it well, building connections with bankers, DuPont executives and members of the du Pont family, and he listened to mentors who served on the West End board of directors, including construction executive Paul DiSabatino, academic and businessman Paul Andrisani, Wilmington Trust communications director Charlie King, and Kate Wilhere, managing partner at Cover & Rossiter, an accounting firm.

“I had all these mentors at the start, and the list has grown,” he says. “When I’m working on a project, they call me ‘Mr. Rolodex.’”

Having an extensive network is more important than ever now, with tight government budgets, the departure or declining influence of corporate donors like MBNA and DuPont, and the decentralization of du Pont family wealth with each succeeding generation. “Corporations have not only downsized, but they used to give grants to support a broad range of organizations in the arts, the environment and social services,” Calistro says. “Now, their giving is aligned with their business models.”

Those changes have forced community organizations not only to change the way they look at their own operations but also to work together more.

The West Side Grows Together effort is an example, with West End, the Latin American Community Center and Hilltop Lutheran Community Center joining forces to strengthen neighborhoods like Hilltop, Cool Spring and Little Italy. “It’s one of Paul’s pet projects, a super-duper plan for many community organizations,” Matos says.

Developing such coalitions isn’t easy, and Matos admits that she and Calistro don’t always see eye to eye. “He’s opinionated, and I’m opinionated,” she says, “but we both have the same goal in mind—a perfect community.”

That quest for perfection nearly propelled Calistro into the Wilmington mayoral race four years ago. He tested the waters for about six weeks, then did the math and concluded he couldn’t come out on top in what likely would have been a four-man Democratic primary. “It wasn’t worth it—to me, to West End, to my family,” he says, so he returned every campaign contribution he received.

By the time the 2016 campaign season rolled around, Calistro had moved out of the city, so he couldn’t be tempted to run. He threw his support behind Eugene Young, who finished second to Mike Purzycki in the Democratic primary in September. It was only natural for Calistro to back Young, who spent parts of his youth participating in programs at West End.

Calistro isn’t saying how much longer he’ll stay at West Side, but he still relishes the challenges.
“He works very hard, but he also likes to joke around,” Willauer says. “His expectations are very high, but working with him can be a lot of fun.”

“Community development is his life’s work,” Matos says. “It takes a lot to stay with it for as long as he has.”

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.”

Graphic Success in Riverside

In less than 10 years, Precision Color Graphics has built a client base that extends up and down the East Coast and as far west as California

The location—the Riverside section of northeast Wilmington —isn’t exactly picturesque, but Simon Cranny says it’s ideal for his business, Precision Color Graphics.

His shop, a converted warehouse originally built for a heating and air conditioning company, is tucked away on Todds Lane, a couple of blocks east of Northeast Boulevard, a few long home runs from the site of the old Wilmington Ballpark, where the original Blue Rocks played from 1940 to 1952.

“When we were renovating [in 2013], some people were telling us the area was dangerous, that we’d have to put in roll-down doors over our entrance,” Cranny says. “We ran out of money for the doors, but we put in lights and cameras for security.”

As Cranny points out, for a regional business, the location couldn’t be much better. With I-495 a mile away, it’s just a 20-minute drive to the Philadelphia Airport or downtown Newark.

Precision Color Graphics was founded in 2007 as a short-run digital print/copy, large format and banner production operation, with its shop at the foot of Wilmington’s Seventh Street Peninsula. The business survived a personal crisis—Cranny’s massive heart attack on July 1, 2008, suffered while he was jogging in Rockford Park—and the recession of 2008-09 before expanding into the larger production and custom display and installation operation housed on Todds Lane.

The defining moment—the project “that kind of gave me my street cred,” Cranny says—was production and installation of the 114- by 22-foot mural extolling Wilmington’s musical heritage. It wraps around the second and third floors of the former Delaware State University building at the corner of Sixth and Market streets.

Cranny, 50, a native of Ireland, moved to the United States when he was 24. He expected to stay in Wilmington with his brother for a couple of weeks before heading to Boston with some rugby-playing friends to do some asbestos-removal work. But he went to a party at O’Friel’s, where his brother worked, met the woman he would marry and, except for a six-month stay in London, has been here pretty much ever since.

Having studied accounting in Ireland, he landed a job handling the books for Color Repro, one of the many color print shops that served the city’s bustling advertising/marketing/graphics design community in the 1990s. It didn’t take long for him to find that the front end of the business—meeting customers, taking orders, making prints and beating the constant deadlines—was more exciting than crunching numbers.

A native of Ireland, Simon Cranny came to the U.S. 26 years ago. (Photo courtesy of Brett Schoen/One Light Imaging)
A native of Ireland, Simon Cranny came to the U.S. 26 years ago.
(Photo courtesy of Brett Schoen/One Light Imaging)

“It gave me a bit of a buzz doing that kind of stuff,” he says.

Cranny had been working at Color Repro for a couple of years when a colleague opened a new print shop, MetroColor, and he switched to the new business. In 2003, Parcels Inc., a larger printing and delivery operation, bought out MetroColor. Cranny stayed with Parcels for four years before striking out on his own.

Having worked downtown for nearly 20 years, he had hoped to locate Precision Color there because he would be closer to many of his clients. But the space he needed—both for the shop and to store his vehicles—just wasn’t available.

“We had 3,000 square feet [at our first location] and now we have 10,000,” he says. In addition, he has 6,000 square feet of parking space, enough to accommodate a bucket truck, two delivery vehicles, the installers’ van and dumpsters.

While the neighborhood has the somewhat grungy look you might expect in an industrial area that’s home to a traditional print shop, a commercial frame shop, a trucking company, a truck rental business and a stone veneer manufacturer, Cranny had the Precision Color Graphics workplace designed to be warm and inviting while paying homage to its earlier uses.

Wooden trusses, weighing 22,000 pounds each, support the roof, and the valves and piping for the sprinkler system stand to the right of the main entrance. Bright red and lime green paint brighten the concrete block walls in the work area and new windows high on the rear walls bring in more light.

“It’s a nicer way to spend your day,” Cranny says, adding that six of his eight fulltime employees have been with the business for at least five years.

Spread around the shop are examples of work for easily-recognized clients—the University of Delaware, Wilmington University, WSFS Bank and the Delaware Lottery. But those big local names are just a fraction of the company’s workload.

The convenient location, coupled with the contacts Cranny has made during his 20-plus years in the business, have enabled Precision Color to build a client base that extends up and down the East Coast—and as far west as California. (The company also has a satellite office in Chicago—one that focuses on trial board displays and audiovisual setups for law firms in the Windy City.)

How did that happen?

“There’s a price and trust advantage,” Cranny explains. “We had done signage, wall murals and displays for a commercial kitchen business in New Jersey. They were taking over a facility in California, and they called and said, ‘we know what you’ve done for us in New Jersey. Can you match that out here?’”

Light pole banners at Christiana Care's Wilmington campus, an example of banner stiching with Precision Color Graphics' industrial-grade Singer sewing machine. (Photo courtesy of Brett Schoen/One Light Imaging)
Light pole banners at Christiana Care’s Wilmington campus, an example of banner
stiching with Precision Color Graphics’ industrial-grade Singer sewing machine.
(Photo courtesy of Brett Schoen/One Light Imaging)

He could indeed. In fact, with the equipment in his shop, Cranny feels he can match almost any competitor.

A flatbed printer can handle pieces of up to 8 by 10 feet on just about any surface imaginable, including acrylic, vinyl, wood, blinds and foam core. Four 60-inch large-format printers produce images on a wide variety of media, from standard paper to backlit and eco-friendly materials.

A CNC router (the letters stand for “computer numerical control”) enables custom cutting of signage and display pieces into virtually any shape the client desires.

Not every piece of equipment is of recent vintage. Printing and installing banners makes up a significant portion of the company’s work, and the stitching for many of those banners is accomplished with an industrial-grade Singer sewing machine, made in Germany in 1947, the same year the shop was built.

Another of Precision Color’s relatively new services is printing and installing car wraps. In addition to wrapping vehicles owned by local businesses, Precision Color makes wraps for Carvertise, the three-year-old Wilmington business that recruits commuters to have their cars wrapped for several months at a time as part of marketing campaigns for regional businesses.

“Simon is great. His shop is high quality and always delivers on time,” says Greg Star, Carvertise co-founder.

As part of their arrangement, Cranny lets Carvertise’s wrap team use his shop’s heated car bay for weekend installations. “We’re getting really good at it,” Star says. “We’ve gone from taking an hour and a half to complete a wrap down to half an hour.”

When Carvertise is working on a campaign outside the region, Precision Color prints the wraps and ships them to the destination, where Carvertise uses its employees or subcontractors to complete the installation.

Star also praises Cranny as a mentor. “He’s been super helpful, not only in providing services but also in talking to us about how the printing industry works,” he says.

Now firmly established in his new location, Cranny says Precision Color has plenty of opportunity to grow. Right now, he’s operating with a single shift, and he’d love to hear that printing equipment humming for twice as long each day.

“The goal is to go to two shifts,” he says. “To spend a lot on machinery and turn it off at 6 o’clock, it just breaks your heart.”

Hockessin: Affluence and Activism

The unincorporated community near the Pennsylvania border thrives through a sense of harmony, maintaining an ‘old town feel’

OUR TOWN SERIES: This is the third in a series of profiles about communities throughout Delaware

Joe Lake has a pretty good memory, which is what you’d expect for the president of the Hockessin Historical Society, but he can’t remember which national magazine, way back in the 1960s, labeled Hockessin as one of the “10 best places to live” in the nation.

Chances are that a good number of the community’s 13,000-plus residents would accord Hockessin that same honor today.

Hockessin, if it were incorporated, would be the fifth most populous city or town in Delaware—ahead of Smyrna and behind Middletown, Newark, Dover and Wilmington.

It would be ranked number one in terms of affluence. According to figures posted on, Hockessin’s median income is more than double the state’s median, and median home value is 79 percent above the state median. And, save for the ubiquitous Walgreen’s and Wawa logos, it can boast a business community that is almost entirely locally owned and operated.

“It’s close to Wilmington. It’s close to Kirkwood Highway. But it’s not Kirkwood Highway. It’s very suburban without being far away from the city,” says Kenny Wynn, who has lived in Hockessin for 48 of his 54 years and has spent a good part of the last 25 years organizing the community’s signature event, the Fourth of July parade, fireworks and community relay races.

“It’s great to see everyone come together. Sometimes I think you see 16,000 people,” says Wynn. Overcast skies and the threat of thunderstorms kept the crowd down this year, but the parade attracted at least one resident of nearby Greenville, Vice President Joe Biden.

Seventh-generation farmer Jim Mitchell, with Woodside Creamery’s Jersey cows. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Agriculture – and Aromas

Longtime residents like Lake and Wynn remember a different Hockessin, an agricultural community occasionally susceptible to the overpowering aroma emanating from the mushroom farms along Valley Road and north to the Pennsylvania line.

“In the summer, a lot of high school kids got jobs on the farms, baling hay and picking corn,” Lake recalls. “We’d work all day in the fields, then after dinner go for a nice cool swim” at the pool the NVF Co. built at its plant in nearby Yorklyn. The pool’s operations were underwritten by NVF and the Hockessin-Yorklyn Lions Club—and a pass good for the entire summer cost only a dollar, he remembers.

Plans to develop the area’s last remaining mushroom farm—a 20-acre property on the north side of Valley Road—were filed with New Castle County last month, says Fran Swift, president of the Greater Hockessin Area Development Association (GHADA), an umbrella group that comprises representatives from 40 or so civic associations in the area, many of them constructed since 1967, when Swift’s father, Francis, became GHADA’s first president.

The development boom in the last quarter of the 20th century filled in most of the prime acreage in Hockessin – bordered roughly by Barley Mill Road on the east, Limestone Road on the west, the Pennsylvania border to the north and plenty of zigs and zags on the south.

For much of that time, GHADA was a reactive organization—one that battled developers as they sought to put more homes and shops in the area, says Ken Murphy, the group’s president from 1998 to 2006.

But, as development subsided, civic leaders adjusted their focus and helped create an informal governance system that well serves an unincorporated community that has no elected officials of its own.

Murphy is the head of the Hockessin Planning Partnership, whose members include Swift, representing GHADA; Lake, as head of the historical society; and Peg Castorani, president of the Hockessin Business Association, a hyperlocal version of a chamber of commerce. They meet periodically to discuss community needs, and to keep each other up to date on their activities.

John Sherman, owner of Creations Gallery, sits on a hammock chair outside his shop. (Photo courtesy of Creations Gallery)
John Sherman, owner of Creations Gallery, sits on a hammock chair outside his shop. (Photo courtesy of Creations Gallery)

“Strength in Individual Units”

The Partnership itself tends to keep a low profile. “If we do anything, the mother hen cannot take the credit,” Murphy says. “It’s better to do things through the member organizations. Our strength lies in the strength of those individual units.”

In addition, Murphy, Swift and Lake serve  on the Hockessin Design Review Advisory Committee, an arm of the New Castle County government responsible for reviewing land development applications to make sure they comply with Hockessin’s master plan.

This collaborative approach has helped Hockessin develop two thriving business districts—the old village core along Old Lancaster Pike and the Lantana Square Shopping Center, a mile to the west at the intersection of Limestone and Valley roads.

“The population is very conducive to the business we have,” says Brody Glenn, manager of the Harvest Market, a natural foods retailer that opened on Lancaster Pike in 1995.

“We tend to have people who care about their health, and Hockessin and Greenville are among the wealthier parts of Delaware,” he says. On top of that, “the Hockessin Athletic Club is down the street, the Kennett YMCA isn’t far, and we catch a lot of traffic from commuters between Pennsylvania and Wilmington.”

One of Hockessin’s biggest business boosters is John Sherman, owner of Creations Gallery in Hockessin Corner, a rustic shopping area off Old Lancaster Pike. He has come and gone twice—and regrets both departures. In 1992, he opened his shop, which features American-made handcrafted gifts, furnishings and accessories in wood, metal, glass and ceramics, in the old Garrett Snuff Mill in Yorklyn. After three years, he moved to Powder Mill Square in Greenville, staying there until 1999, when he left after a dispute with his landlord. Dan Lickle, owner of both the Snuff Mill and Hockessin Corner, convinced Sherman to relocate to Hockessin. After 10 successful years, he says, “I had a brain fart” and decided to move to the Shoppes at Louviers in Newark. “It turned out to be a disastrous decision.”

The Hockessin-Newark “Wall”

It didn’t take him long to discover that “there might as well be a concrete wall between Hockessin and Newark.” Hockessin residents seldom go to Newark to shop, and Newark residents seldom shop in Hockessin. Sherman estimates that the move cost him 80 percent of his customers.

“Dan [Lickle] made me a great offer to come back” three years ago, and Sherman didn’t hesitate. “I love Hockessin. It’s a great community. It’s definitely my customer base,” he says.

However, he admits, somewhat sheepishly, that while the Newark-Hockessin route may not work for shoppers, he makes that jaunt every day between home and work.

Rebecca Dowling, owner of the Hockessin Book Shelf, also on Lancaster Pike, finds the area’s demographic ideal for her shop, and she broadens her reach by hosting reading groups and partnering with other businesses.

Dowling, one of the first employees when Paul and Maureen Piper opened the shop in 2001, bought the business when the Pipers retired to Hawaii in 2008. “We have spectacular readership,” she says, citing two major demographics: the abundance of families who buy board books for toddlers and summer reading assignments for teenagers and the senior citizens living comfortably in the area’s retirement communities.

She organizes book groups for fans of mysteries, romance novels and contemporary fiction, and regularly hosts book signings for local and nationally published authors.

Through the Hockessin Business Association, she partners with other retailers and nonprofits, often by featuring books tied to the interests of whomever she is partnering with. One of her most popular activities is a summer story hour for children at the Woodside Farm Creamery. “We’ve been doing that for five years,” she says. One session in early July drew more than 100 people.

William Hoffman, head chef of the House of William & Merry.
William Hoffman, head chef of the House of William & Merry.

Fun for the Kids

While some of the business association’s greatest contributions to the community have come through its collaboration with other groups and participation with the New Castle County government and the state Department of Transportation in planning safety and beautification projects along Lancaster Pike and Old Lancaster Pike, Castorani happily talks about activities that put smiles on the faces of local residents, especially the children.

Before Halloween, the association sponsors a three-day weekend of activities. Then, in December, at the Hockessin Library, they present an interactive version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. With the animated film playing on a large screen, business owners take on some of the roles themselves, and they invite the audience to join in.

“It’s ‘the Grinch meets the Rocky Horror Picture Show,’”says Greg Vogeley, owner of the Drip Café, a breakfast and lunch destination in Lantana Square that has grown so popular in three years that he is now doubling his seating space.

He made the decision to expand because his family-dominated Saturday and Sunday morning breakfast crowd kept coming in earlier and earlier “to beat the rush” and it has gotten to the point that the waits have become too long for parents with fidgety kids.

“We’re confident in our growth,” says Vogeley, even though he faces competition from nearby Starbucks and Brew HaHa! coffee shops and two eateries somewhat similar to his, the Perfect Cup and Quinn’s Cafe.

“We want to make this the best it can be. That’s the most important thing right now,” he says. “We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.”

While Drip Café has become one of Hockessin’s popular destinations for those who eat out early in the day, the community has plenty of options for fine dining in the evening.

The Back Burner has long been a popular destination, and newer additions include the Redfire Grill, Six Paupers and Two Stones Pub. Down Lancaster Pike to the south is Capers and Lemons.

After three years of looking for a building where they could live and operate a restaurant, William Hoffman and Merry Catanuto homed in on an old farmhouse on Old Lancaster Pike that had most recently been used as a hair salon and rental property.

It was just what they wanted—an upscale community ideal for raising a family with a location that could attract local residents but also diners from Greenville, Centreville, Wilmington and Kennett Square. So, in 2011, they opened the House of William and Merry.

Bridget Sullivan with Vice President Joe Biden at the 2016 Hockessin Fourth of July parade. (Photo by Ryan Alexander)
Bridget Sullivan with Vice President Joe Biden at the 2016 Hockessin Fourth of July parade. (Photo by Ryan Alexander)

Carving Their Own Niche

“Every year we’re growing more and more,” says Catanuto, who runs the front of the house while her husband is in charge of the kitchen. Her only lament is that the community isn’t busy enough in the middle of the day to generate thriving lunch traffic.

Offering seasonal new American cuisine prepared by French-trained chefs—“fine dining but not in a pretentious way”—Catanuto says “we’ve carved out our own niche” in a competitive dining environment.

And she relishes the competition. “It’s good for everybody’s game,” she says, “and it brings more people to the area.”

In addition to diversity in retail and dining, some of Hockessin’s appeal comes from its recreational options—notably its library, the county-owned Swift Park, the Hockessin Athletic Club, the PAL Center and a series of bicycling and walking trails developed in the past 10 years.

The community’s significant contributions to Delaware and national history also cannot be overlooked.

For history buffs, Lake says, “this town is a pot of gold, with so many nuggets in it that it’s unbelievable.”

In September 1775, British troops marched up what is now Limestone Road from Cooch’s Bridge south of Newark to Chadds Ford for the Battle of the Brandywine. British officers commandeered the use of the David Brown farmhouse just over the state line for use as a temporary headquarters.

Fifteen years later, priests from Maryland established the Coffee Run Mission, later known as St. Mary’s Church, the first Catholic church in the state, on Lancaster Pike. The old church was gutted by arson in 2010, but Trinity Church, an independent Christian denomination, hopes to preserve the structure as it builds on the site.

Tweed’s Tavern, an 18th-century inn where George Washington once dined, was threatened with demolition in the 1990s by a state plan to widen the intersection of Limestone and Valley roads. Hearings before New Castle County’s Historic Review Board slowed the demolition process. Eventually, the tavern was moved twice, and it now sits in a park on Valley Road, a short distance east of Limestone Road. The Hockessin Historical Society owns the building and broke ground last winter on a meeting and exhibit center next door.

Hockessin also played a significant role in the historic Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 that found racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional.

Not far from the original Tweeds Tavern site once stood the home of Shirley Bulah, an African-American child who had to travel past white schools in order to reach Hockessin School 107C, on Millcreek Road, the site of a state historic marker. Shirley Bulah was identified as the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that started in Delaware’s Court of Chancery and eventually became part of the Brown decision.

More recently, Lake notes, two of the first subdivisions in suburban New Castle County, North Star and Horseshoe Hills, were built in the early 1950s near Hockessin to meet the demand for convenient housing for DuPont Co. engineers working at the Louviers facility in Newark.

Hockessin may have many more residents than it did a generation ago, Castorani says, “when you could literally pull out of Sanford School onto Lancaster Pike without looking left or right.”

But, through all its changes, its essence hasn’t changed. As Catanuto puts it, “it still has the old town feel.”

Resurgence in Smyrna

Our Town Series: This is the third in a series of profiles about communities throughout Delaware.

The state’s fifth largest town is walkable, friendly, inexpensive, accessible, filled with entertainment options and business-friendly

As a manager for Hercules Inc. for 41 years, Joanne Masten traveled the world, but she has lived in the same house since she was 18 months old—on West South Street in Smyrna.

In her childhood, the location was convenient. “I went to school for six years across the street and for six years up the street,” she recalls.

And it’s just as convenient now, since it’s only four blocks from Town Hall, where Masten, now Smyrna’s mayor, spends much of her time.

“She’s the best unpaid ambassador I could get my hands on,” says David Hugg, the town’s manager since 2002.

For proof, just ask Carol Forsythe.

Earlier this year, Forsythe and her husband, Eric Svalgard, decided to relocate and rename their Wilmington-based music education business. Forsythe and her daughter hopped in a car and headed south toward Dover. Only they decided to stop at Smyrna.

“There’s a very big net that we like to throw up on Route 1,” Forsythe jokes.

They dropped in at the Drunk’n Baker, the year-old downtown bakery and coffee shop, where co-owner Janet Straughn Forrest extolled the virtues of the rapidly growing town that straddles Duck Creek, the Kent-New Castle county boundary. She ended the chat with an offer to put Forsythe in touch with the mayor.

Masten called Forsythe, invited her back and gave her a guided tour of the town. Forsythe was sold. The new business, called That Performance Place, is opening in a temporary site downtown and, by the end of the year, expects to be offering music and theater lessons to preteens and teens in the former Thomas England House, a long-closed restaurant on Route 13.

“I spent a day taking them around town. We’re excited that they’re coming,” Masten says.
“I’m pleased to be working with people who put community and children first,” Forsythe says.

Forrest, whom Forsythe calls “my new best friend,” isn’t bashful about promoting the town either. She grew up in nearby Townsend, then spent the last 25 years or so in southern New Jersey, where her late husband was a police officer. Following her husband’s death, she wanted to move back home, and her daughter, Breanne Blair, was looking for work as a pastry chef.

Investing in the Town

They came upon a renovated building at the corner of Main and Commerce streets, decided it was an ideal location, and instantly received a warm reception for the alcohol-infused pastries that are the house specialty.

“I’m investing in the town, I’m investing in my daughter, and the shop gives me something to apply my time to,” Forrest says.

Owners of other businesses in Smyrna express similar sentiments—and that helps explain how the town is expected to triple its turn-of-the-century population of 5,679 by 2020 and how an area first settled in 1716 is becoming a popular dining and entertainment destination, drawing visitors from Wilmington and Bethany.

“You can find industrial space anywhere, but it was a really neat opportunity to locate downtown,” says Mike Rasmussen, co-owner of the Painted Stave Distillery, housed in the former Smyrna Theater on Commerce Street.

Hugg, Masten and other town officials persuaded Rasmussen and his partner, Ron Gomes, to consider locating in Smyrna and, Rasmussen says, “really rolled out the red carpet for us,” even throwing a party so they could meet other business owners and residents.

Ron Gomes and Mike Rasmussen, co-owners of Painted Stave Distillery.
Ron Gomes and Mike Rasmussen, co-owners of Painted Stave Distillery.

Painted Stave’s opening in late 2013 launched an alcoholic-beverage-making boomlet, with Ron Price opening Blue Earl Brewing last year in the Smyrna Business Park and the Brick Works Brewing and Eats brewpub, a partnership between Kevin Reading of Abbott’s Grill and Eric Williams of Mispillion River Brewing, both in Milford, almost ready to open on Route 13.

Smyrna’s resurgence started slowly, beginning in 2003 when Joe and Shirley Sheridan decided to sell their pub in Ogletown and head south. They came to Smyrna looking to buy a house, Shirley says, “and then I saw a big For Sale sign in the window of a building that had been a bar or a liquor store for about 100 years.” The location was good, the price was right, and Sheridan’s Irish Pub soon became a popular gathering place in town.

Focus on Dining, Entertainment

“When we first moved here, there wasn’t much of anything,” she says, but “people with vision, people who have the means to take a chance” are remaking the town.

The first stages of the revitalization have focused on dining and entertainment. Howard Johnson opened the Odd Fellows Café three years ago, then sold it after a year-and-half when Masten approached him about another project. He formed a partnership with Smyrna businesswoman Donna Ignasz and, with the help of some economic development incentives made available by the town from a $300,000 U.S. Department of Agriculture grant, opened the Inn at Duck Creek last December in an 18th-century building at the corner of East Commerce and North Main streets.

“We say it’s the perfect spot,” says Johnson. The restaurant features upscale dining with a farm-to-table approach, beverages from Delaware brewers, distilleries and wineries, and live music on Friday and Saturday nights.

To give the entertainment vibe more momentum, the town has enlisted Strongpoint Marketing and Wilmington-based Gable Music Ventures to produce events like Smyrna at Night 2016, set for June 10. The program will feature 25 performers at 12 locations around town, with four indoor and outdoor stages at the Smyrna Opera House, two stages each at Painted Stave, Sheridan’s and the Inn at Duck Creek, and Blue Earl running a beer garden in the center of town. Children’s activities, vendors and food trucks will round out the program, says Gable Music’s Gayle Dillman.

Poster child for the hoped-for retail resurgence is Karen Gill, who, along with her husband, Woody, runs Smyrna Cards and Gifts.
Poster child for the hoped-for retail resurgence is Karen Gill, who, along with her
husband, Woody, runs Smyrna Cards and Gifts.

With about a dozen bands, the event drew about 2,000 last year, Dillman says. This year, with good weather, a crowd of 3,000 to 4,000 is possible.

“It’ll be mostly American, rock, country, singer-songwriters; nothing too edgy,” Dillman says. “We’re helping Smyrna establish itself as an entertainment destination. From Wilmington, it’s an easier drive than to Center City Philadelphia.”

While dining and entertainment may be Smyrna’s meal ticket to prosperity, there’s near-unanimous agreement that there’s much more to be done, especially in re-establishing a retail core downtown.

“You can have a drink at Painted Stave and a dinner at Sheridan’s, but you can’t walk downtown to get a loaf of bread and a newspaper,” Hugg laments.

Need for More Retail

Yes, there is some retail—Sayers Jewelers and Gemologists has been around since 1950, and Smyrna Sporting Goods, known to the locals as “the gun shop,” for nearly as long. And there’s a hardware store too.

“We need fresh new businesses in town. Same old, same old doesn’t cut it for me,” Masten says.

She would like to see more boutiques, “like a miniature Berlin, Maryland,” she says, as well as a mid-sized department store that would cater to shoppers at a broad range of income levels.

While she’s a strong supporter of locally-owned businesses, Masten believes that “we will need some chains and, when one company comes, another will follow.”

The poster child for the hoped-for retail resurgence, Hugg says, is Karen Gill, owner of the adjoining Smyrna Cards and Gifts and Royal Treatments home décor shops.

After running a home-based window treatment business for years, Gill opened Royal Treatments on South Main Street in October 2013. The business took off rapidly, and Gill’s husband, Woody, joined the operation fulltime in June 2014. Four months later, they rented the space next door and opened the gift shop.

“Smyrna is really hopping right now. There’s a lot of excitement and enthusiasm for being downtown,” Gill says. “People who have lived here all their lives are surprised at what’s going on.”

Sheridan, whose pub weathered the economic downturn eight years ago and came back strong, can see the progress. “We’re a step further along than we were. You can see that there’s pride in downtown again,” she says.

Janet Forrest of Drunk'n Baker is impressed with the way retailers and restaurateurs cross-promote their businesses.
Janet Forrest of Drunk’n Baker is impressed with the way retailers and restaurateurs
cross-promote their businesses.

Winning with Cross-Promotions

Forrest, of the Drunk’n Baker, would like to see Smyrna evolve into an “artsy, eclectic community like Asheville, North Carolina.” She sees much potential in the town’s “mix of the old and the new” and has been impressed with the way retailers and restaurateurs work together to cross-promote each other’s businesses.

“When you partner with others, everyone wins,” Sheridan adds.

“When I was elected mayor three years ago, I wanted to reinvigorate downtown, but I had no idea how to do it,” Masten says.

“I am not a shy person. I am going to push and push to get it done,” she says, explaining how she quickly built collaborative relationships with residents, business owners and members of the town council. “I have a wonderful team on the council. We work as a team, we play as a team, and we communicate,” she says.

By 2014 the town had approved a new strategic plan, and is working aggressively to implement it. It had also created a redevelopment authority, a semiprivate spinoff from the town, with five directors who have business and finance experience, and gave it the power to make loans and grants to small businesses.

“We recognize the importance and value of the downtown core,” Hugg says. “We’re not going to sit back and wait. We’re going to make things happen.”

Some of Smyrna’s initiatives resemble initiatives under way for nearly a decade on Wilmington’s Market Street.

The town has funneled $50,000 or so a year in penalties assessed against owners of vacant properties into grants to help store owners improve their facades, Hugg says. The $300,000 federal grant serves as a sort of revolving fund; initial loans jumpstart redevelopment projects and loan repayments are used to get new projects up and running.

Rick Ferrell, a Wilmington-based consultant, helps identify businesses that would be a good fit downtown and offers helpful advice.

“Our approach is to work with property owners to find a way to say ‘yes,’ not to say ‘no,’” Hugg says. “It’s more than saying ‘Smyrna is open for business.’ We’re committing the town to being ‘business-ready.’”

As a longtime Smyrna resident, Masten has made revitalizing the town her personal mission. “I’m having fun doing it. It’s not work yet,” she says. “It’s the lowest-paying job in the world and the best group of people to work with.”

Smyrna’s population has nearly doubled since the year 2000, reaching an estimated 11,170 in 2014. The state predicts that the number of residents will reach 18,000 to 20,000 by 2020.

“We will probably meet or exceed that. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing, but it will come whether we want it or not,” Masten says.

“We talk to a lot of young couples who come into the distillery,” Rasmussen says. “This is a more affordable place to buy a house and it certainly doesn’t hurt that there are neat things going on in town to attract them.”

Much of the actual and projected increase, Masten says, has been from the development of 55-plus communities that have attracted retirees (and soon-to-be retirees) from higher-tax states like Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Hugg says approvals granted before the housing crash in 2008 authorized construction on about 2,000 lots. Permits will have to be reactivated before any work begins.

In addition, he says, many downtown buildings have second-floor apartments, and some of them are currently vacant.

Ron Price opened Blue Earl Brewing last year in the Smyrna Business Park.
Ron Price opened Blue Earl Brewing last year in the Smyrna Business Park.

Happy Being No. Five

While the town’s population is growing, Smyrna has no interest in catching up to Wilmington, Dover, Newark or even Middletown.

“We don’t have any desire to be Delaware’s second- or third-largest town. We’re comfortable being number five,” Hugg says.

While no one is chanting “We’re number five” (around Smyrna High School, it’s more appropriate to shout “We’re number one” in recognition of its state championship football team) many residents are quite happy with where they are.

The Sheridans enjoy walking to work, having bought a home across the street from the pub.

While Painted Stave was under construction, Rasmussen and his wife looked around and bought an old house downtown. “We’re two blocks from just about everything. In the morning, we walk to the Drunk’n Baker for bagels and cupcakes. On Sunday afternoon, we can walk to Sheridan’s porch for dinner. A couple nights ago we walked down the street and had a nice dinner at the Inn at Duck Creek,” he says.

Walkable, friendly, inexpensive, accessible, filled with entertainment options and the promise of more retail—it’s a combination that’s making Smyrna an increasingly popular place to call home.

“I just love it,” Masten says. “There’s no place I’d rather be.”

Our Town Series: Middletown

OUR TOWN SERIES: This is the second in a series of profiles about communities throughout Delaware

Its population has already tripled in this century

Some folks think Middletown got its name because it’s roughly halfway between Wilmington and Dover. Wrong.

The real story behind the name is that Middletown is about halfway between Bohemia Landing on the Chesapeake Bay and Cantwell’s Bridge, east of Odessa. Nineteenth-century farmers from Maryland’s Eastern Shore would drive their carts, laden with fruits and vegetables, to the river port, from which their produce could be shipped north to Wilmington and Philadelphia or south to ports on the East Coast.

Ask a contemporary resident or shop owner about their community’s name, and they just might tell you it’s because Middletown is, figuratively and sometimes literally, right in the middle of everything.

After all, what better way is there to explain how a town could more than triple its population in 13 years—from 6,290 at the turn of the century to 19,910 in 2014. And there’s no sign of the population boom slowing down. With multiple new subdivisions approved by town officials but not yet built, it’s easy to anticipate a population of 25,000 or so within 10 years, Mayor Ken Branner says.

It’s a boomtown with a small town feel, a Main Street reminiscent of Mayberry flanked by strip mall shopping and big box stores, with McMansions, townhomes and apartments sprouting where peach orchards thrived more than a century ago.

Patrick D'Amico, left, and Adam Cofield in their new gastropub, Metro Pub, a block north of Main Street.
Patrick D’Amico, left, and Adam Cofield in their new gastropub, Metro Pub, a block north of Main Street.

“There’s a lot of opportunity here,” says Dawn Graney, a Middletown native who owns A Creative Edge, a graphics and design shop that’s been on Main Street for four years. “It’s a growing town. It’s exciting.”

Patrick D’Amico feels the same way. He moved to Middletown 16 years ago, after he and his wife decided they could get more house and more land for their money than they could in Hockessin. D’Amico, a veteran chef who has worked in the Wilmington area at Harry’s Savoy Grill, Eclipse and the Hotel du Pont, recently took advantage of an opportunity to end his commuting days and bring more fine dining to Middletown.

Over the winter he and his business partners, Rick Clark and Adam Cofield, opened the Metro Pub in a renovated lumber showroom in Peachtree Station, a block north of Main Street. While the gastropub has quickly become a go-to dining destination in town, D’Amico and partners have more on their plates. By the end of the summer they expect to open an Italian restaurant that he says will be “a step up from the gastropub” in the historic Middletown bank building on the square at Broad and Main. The tentative name: Cucina della Banca, which means “the kitchen of the bank.”

“Many people down here tend to travel north for work. Then they come home and they have to go north again to go out for dinner,” D’Amico says. “We want to give them a good reason to stay here when they go out.”

Although surrounded by growth, the venerable Main Street business district refuses to be squeezed by it.

Much of it has to do with having a variety of specialty retailers downtown.

“We’ve got a frame shop. You can’t get [custom framing] at Walmart,” Branner says. And, for many people, he adds, “it’s easier to get a couple of screws or a box of nails at Middletown Hardware than to drive out to Lowe’s or Home Depot.”

The Everett is the town's long-standing entertainment hub.
The Everett is the town’s long-standing entertainment hub.

“Collective Creativity”

More than that, says Nick Manerchia, executive director of Middletown Main Street, the nonprofit responsible for downtown revitalization, it’s the “collective creativity” and passion of merchants who are committed to working together. Besides such regular events as trick or treating on Main Street at Halloween and a Christmas parade, merchants organize two fashion shows a year and, on May 14, they’re sponsoring a Grapes and Grains event in the Metro Pub parking lot—all the wine and beer you can drink for $45 a person.

“Our events are successful because they’re based on ideas that come from the merchants,” Manerchia says.

In April, to promote a Grease singalong at the Everett Theatre, downtown’s long-standing entertainment hub, a group of retailers assembled outside the theater at lunch hour and did the hand jive to promote the event. “It was fun, and we got a couple of beeps” from passing motorists, says Elizabeth Barbato, owner of the Purple Sage boutique, a Main Street fixture for 11 years.

Barbato has some unique ideas of her own, too. She has learned that special events draw extra traffic, so she offers a free tea tasting on the first Saturday of the month—eight varieties plus a special coffee, and she brings in a tea leaf reader as well.

The Everett has tried to develop a consistent menu of events to build its audience, says Chris Everett, the theater’s executive director. The first weekend of the month usually features a film as a joint fundraiser for the theater and a local nonprofit organization. For the second and third weekends, there’s a stage production—Disney’s Alice in Wonderland Junior in May and Shrek the Musical in June—and occasional special events on the fourth weekend. (A Billy Joel tribute band performed in April.)

“We’re trying to make this a destination place, but it takes a while,” says Everett, who calls it “just a happy coincidence” that his surname is a perfect match for the theater.

Adjacent to the Everett is its annex, where theater classes and rehearsals are held, and the “Gibby Center”—the Gilbert W. Perry Center for the Arts—which offers art exhibitions, classes and camps.

“I’m glad we’re here,” Everett says. “What we do helps bring people downtown to the businesses, and what the businesses do helps make their customers more aware of the theater.”

While it’s reasonable to assume that the Main Street shops would rely primarily on local residents for patronage, shop owners say their customers come from both near and far.

Barbato says her tea tastings at Purple Sage regularly attract visitors from Chestertown, Md. Tammy Nichols, general manager of Half-Baked Patisserie, says she has regulars who drive from the New York metropolitan area for their cannoli and Italian cream cakes and rum cakes.

Main Street traffic jams in the morning and midafternoon as well as weekends often bring customers into nearby shops.
Main Street traffic jams in the morning and midafternoon as well as weekends often
bring customers into nearby shops.

Traffic Congestion a Plus?

Shop owners admit they can thank traffic congestion for bringing them some of those out-of-town customers. Main Street is notorious for half-hour traffic jams in the morning and mid-afternoon and often on weekends, and those jams worsen when travelers to and from Maryland’s Eastern Shore pass through Main Street on their way to or from Route 1 and points north and south – much as those Eastern Shore farmers passed through Middletown in the years before the C&D Canal.

“I could be anywhere,” says Graney, the graphic designer at A Creative Edge, “but people stuck in traffic see the name of the business on the front of the building.”

“The merchants sometimes complain about the traffic,” Branner says, “but people stop in traffic and they say, ‘There’s Purple Sage, there’s Charlie’s Barber Shop, there’s Immediato’s Bistro.’ You can look around and see what’s there, and sometimes they pull into the parking lot and stop.”

The mixed blessing the congestion brings may soon become a thing of the past. Construction began early this year on the Route 301 bypass, a toll road that will stretch from the Maryland state line to Route 1 north of Middletown. The bypass, while intended primarily to get heavy trucks off Route 896 on their way to and from Interstate 95, will also reduce the number of long-distance travelers through Middletown.

But the bypass will have little impact on local traffic, especially with about 3,000 more housing units approved for construction and at least 17 more retail and restaurant businesses coming to town.

Most of the new construction is on Middletown’s south and west sides, where the sprawling Westown Shopping Center includes stores like Kohl’s, Michaels, Marshalls, Dress Barn, Petco and Walmart.

“We’ve got Grotto pizza, Chipotle Grill, Panda Express, all kinds of commercial 5,000-to-10,000-square-foot buildings on the way,” Branner says.

The Westown Movies, with 12 screens, opened in December 2013 and in February 2015 became the first movie theater in the state to receive a license to serve alcoholic beverages. The theater attracts more than 300,000 moviegoers a year, says Rick Roman, owner of Roman Theatre Management.

Although it’s on the outskirts of town, the cinema respects the town’s heritage with a 65-by-17-foot mural in its lobby featuring images of Main Street, the Everett, the annual peach festival and the town logo. Its refreshment stand features “Middletown treats,” pizza and baked goods prepared by local merchants. The theater regularly opens one of its screens to local charities, showing classic films as fundraisers, with a $5 admission, Roman says.

The Purple Sage boutique has been a Main Street fixture since 2005.
The Purple Sage boutique has been a Main Street fixture
since 2005.

New Employers

While the massive distribution center dominates the west side of town, and contributes to traffic jams during its shift changes, it’s hardly Middletown’s only big—or new—employer. Johnson Controls, the auto battery maker, is working on a $55 million expansion, adding 200 jobs to its plant on North Broad Street. A Harley-Davidson showroom and restaurant is on its way and the town is negotiating with two manufacturers for new sites.

In addition, the town has approved, over protests by a group of residents, construction of the Middletown Technology Center, a 228,000-square-foot data center for companies to store massive amounts of electronic information, in an industrial area called MOT Park, near the Amazon warehouse. The data center would be powered by a 52.5 megawatt natural gas cogeneration plant. Construction of the $500 million facility would take about 10 months, Branner says, but cannot start until the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control issues required air quality permits.

The project would create 2,000 or more short-term construction jobs, and eventually 125 fulltime jobs, at salaries ranging from $75,000 to $125,000, Branner says.

Not all of Middletown’s growth is associated with big companies and national brands.
The Middletown Area Chamber of Commerce has grown from 165 members to more than 500 in five years, says Roxane Ferguson, its executive director. The chamber has created a Business Incubator and Collaborative Workspace within its new building on Cass Street, and it already houses 18 businesses, which pay anywhere from $150 a month for a cubicle to $500 for a private office. (Drop-in charges are lower.)

“It has helped tremendously,” says Kevin Flanagan, who runs his eight-employee Delaware Computer Mechanics business from an office at the incubator. “The mentoring, the workshops on putting your business together, meeting potential clients . . . you don’t get that running a business out of your home, and if you’re in a store, you’re often in there by yourself,” he says.

With all the growth, it can be a challenge to preserve the town’s heritage, says Don Matsen, president of the Middletown Historical Society.

“It seems kind of strange that people who move into new houses come down here because it’s agricultural and it has its rural aspects, and they’re the ones who are making it impossible to see that,” he says.

But he refuses to pin the blame on developers. “Middletown is extremely flat. It’s easy to build houses on flat land. Developers don’t put money in their expense accounts to preserve properties. It’s human nature,” he says.

Parts of the downtown area, especially on Broad and Cass streets, have large, colorful Victorian homes dating to the 1830s and 1840s, and a few even older, Matsen says.
But many others are long gone.

Attendees at a recent historical society meeting compared an 1868 map of the town, which had the locations of all the homes marked, with the current streetscape. Matsen says the group went through the map with a red pencil, crossing out homes that no longer existed. “When we were finished,” he says, “the paper looked like a school teacher’s correction of a poor student’s exam. There were Xs all over.”

Matsen, who lives just outside of town in a house built in the 1790s, admits that old homes aren’t for everyone. “They require continuing maintenance. It would be cheaper to live in a more modern house, but we love the history of it, and the architecture,” he says.

While the peach orchards are now part of the distant past, Middletown recalls its heritage on the third Saturday in August, when the Historical Society puts on the annual Peach Festival. With a parade, 350 vendors and entertainment inside the Everett and on three outdoor stages, the event usually attracts about 30,000 people. “It seems like it’s always the hottest day of the year and we pretty much shut everything [else in town] down,” says Brian Richards, who organizes the program for the society.

Then there is the Big Ball Marathon over Labor Day weekend, a 24-hour softball celebration that has been raising funds to support community organizations for nearly 20 years.

Next to the Peach Festival and the Big Ball Marathon, Middletown’s best-known special event may be the Hummers Parade, a loosely organized New Year’s Day celebration for which residents create floats and dress in costume to spoof political and cultural icons.
Also on this year’s amusement schedule will be a quirky chamber of commerce-sponsored competition: teams of beanbag pitchers will square off on Oct. 8 in the State Corn Hole Championship.

Events like these along with a thriving Main Street and expanding retail and employment options help explain why Middletown has become so popular.

“We’re a half-hour commute into Wilmington or down to Dover, and over the bridge into New Jersey isn’t a big deal,” Ferguson says. “And look what you get here: a beautiful home, a big yard and good schools for your children.”

The Mill: A New Business Lifestyle

The coworking space joins downtown’s growing reputation as a hub for business technology

Housed in a former DuPont Co. office building and bearing a name and logo saluting the legacy of that iconic gunpowder and chemicals manufacturer, Wilmington’s newest coworking space aims to become the first home for “the next generation of Delaware businesses.”

Dover-born Robert Herrera officially opens The Mill, on the fourth floor of the Nemours Building at 10th and Tatnall streets, on April 1.

Herrera installed this custom-made 28-foot-long table, made from American chestnut, and outfitted it with electrical and internet connections for 18 users. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)
Herrera installed this custom-made 28-foot-long table, made from American chestnut, and outfitted it with electrical and internet connections for 18 users. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)

The Mill joins the coIN Loft at 605 N. Market St. and 1313 Innovation in Hercules Plaza at 13th and Market. Herrera insists there is a place for all three as the first office space for startups and freelancers who hope to catch the initial entrepreneurial wave in a downtown that seems to be repurposing itself into a hub for small business technology.

Coworking hubs represent the future, “the newest type of space,” says Wilmington real estate consultant David J. Wilk. “Traditional office space is no longer worth the cost unless you’re a corporate user who needs to sardine everyone into place.”

Visitors entering The Mill via the elevator will face a reception area that features a television screen that can be programmed with a welcome message from clients using its conference rooms and a series of shelves that will display patent models from the Hagley Museum’s collection. Conference rooms, a kitchen and a library line the broad main hallway that acts as the spine of the operation. In the middle of the hallway, Herrera has installed a custom-made 28-foot-long table made from American chestnut, a species rendered virtually extinct by blight in the first half of the 20th century. The tabletop, fashioned from wood recovered from a mill in Pennsylvania, will be outfitted with electrical and internet connections for 18 users.

A kegerator and ping pong

The kitchen area will include a full bar, complete with a kegerator, and enough room for a catering crew, adding to The Mill’s appeal as a venue for after-hours tech meetups.

Participants in the Challenge Program, which trains at-risk youth in construction skills, are building four tables for the conference rooms. The tables will also give The Mill’s tenants a chance to unwind, Herrera says, “because they’re conveniently designed to ping-pong table dimensions.”

(At press time, Herrera was hoping Gov. Jack Markell, a notoriously competitive ping pong player, would display his skills at The Mill’s grand opening ceremony.)

Governor Markell Visits The Mill“Table tennis…it’s called table tennis.” See Governor Jack Markell in an epic ping pong showdown at The Mill Space, all thanks to the team at {the Kitchen}.

Posted by The Mill Space on Saturday, April 2, 2016

With a row of nine glass-walled and windowed offices along its west side (each one equipped with customized Bluetooth speakers concealed in the ceiling tiles), The Mill offers more privacy than coIN Loft, where most users work on tables and desks in an open central area or sink into plush sofas or chairs before firing up their laptops. And, unlike 1313 Innovation, The Mill won’t be promoting itself primarily as a destination for tech-oriented startups.

“Coworking is growing all over the country, and the successful ones don’t focus on any one type of business,” Herrera says. While he would like to have a small law firm set up shop at The Mill, “the market will dictate the types of businesses we get,” he says.

Even so, with credit card banks and corporate law firms now the dominant players in the city’s business scene, Herrera sees significant growth potential here for startups that focus on technology to support the financial and legal sectors.

Monthly fees: $45-$1,200

The founders of Counsl, an Austin, Texas, startup that fits that description, visited Delaware in late January to pitch a mobile app that streamlines the incorporation process. After meeting with key law firms, Markell and other state officials, they expressed their intention to move to Wilmington, and they met with Herrera to discuss leasing office space at The Mill.

Monthly fees at The Mill range from $45 for table-access only to $350 for an individual private office and $1,200 for an office that can accommodate up to four desks and chairs. The Mill will have space for about 55 users, Herrera says. As of early February, five of the nine private offices had been reserved.

All users will have access to the facility’s conference rooms, for fees ranging from free to $30, depending on membership level and demand.

Herrera, 30, studied architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and worked at two architectural firms in New York City, where he helped to design several coworking spaces.

“As a Delaware native, I’m happy to come back and do something here with what I’ve learned,” he says.

True to his own coworking roots, Herrera says he spends some time almost every day at the coIN Loft, and he has hired two small businesses housed there, First Ascent Design and The Barn, to build his website and develop his branding materials. “Everyone at the coIN Loft is my friend,” he says.

“Robert does everything right,” says Mona Parikh, managing director of Start It Up Delaware at the coIN Loft and community engagement liaison for the University of Delaware’s Horn Program in Entrepreneurship.

The Mill, she says, “will be the most sophisticated, provide the most resources, the most support and more high-end amenities” of any of the area’s coworking spaces.

“If a company or startup team is at a point where $1,200 per month for truly amazing office space is viable, The Mill is where they belong,” she says. “The other price points for desk rental are great as well, but the offices are going to be the true gems.”

“The Mill embraces a totally new lifestyle for businesses,” Herrera says. “This is our community. We’re trying to bring people together.”