Creative Energy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gov. Markell will also speak at the event.

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

Silicon Valley East

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Passion for Ice Cream

The Mitchells: Jim, Janet and Jim’s father, Joe, at Woodside Farm. Joe, 85, milks cows every day. Photos Joe del Tufo

Wild and crazy flavors make Woodside Farm’s product a favorite with area restaurants, while thousands of people flock to the farm stand from March through October

As a seventh-generation farmer, Jim Mitchell knows a lot about tradition.

He can talk about how his great-great-great-great-grandparents, Thomas and Lucy Mitchell, bought the family farm in 1796, when George Washington was president, making it the fourth-oldest farm in New Castle County.

He can talk about what the traffic was like on Little Baltimore Road west of Hockessin in the 1880s, when his great-grandfather moved part of the 1804 farmhouse farther back from the roadway. He can tell you how his grandfather, in the 1920s, drove a horse and wagon every Friday from the farm into Wilmington to deliver milk, sausage, eggs and other products to his regular customers.

But though he knows his history, Jim Mitchell is anything but a hide-bound traditionalist—at least not in the opinion of his friend, Chip Hearn. When Hearn talks about Mitchell, that sense of tradition vanishes. Indeed, Hearn tosses around phrases like “cutting edge,” “never ceases to amaze,” “spectacular” and “wild and crazy.”

Hearn, owner of the Ice Cream Store in Rehoboth, shares with Mitchell a passion for ice cream, especially for flavors never before known to mankind. Hearn’s store boasts some 70 flavors, all made at the Mitchell family’s Woodside Farm Creamery.

“They don’t mess around,” says Hearn of the Woodside operation. “They’ve got their own herd of Jersey cows, and they’re bred to make ice cream. They have special hay. They have special barns. These cows are having a great winter,” he exclaims … on a day when seven inches of snow is falling in frigid northern New Castle County.

Hearn was speaking in early March. By now the snow has melted, and Woodside Farm is open for the season, selling bowls and cones of ice cream by the ounce at the stand on North Star Road, just south of Little Baltimore Road. For those who prefer to take their ice cream home, quarts and pints are available, as well as ice cream cakes, ice cream pies, ice cream cookies and fudge. (The Mitchells keep a flock of hens on the farm, so fresh eggs are also on sale.)

“At any one time, we’ve got 30 to 35 flavors. We don’t have the capacity [at the stand] to carry more than that,” says Janet Mitchell, Jim’s wife, who runs the retail side of the operation while Jim supervises production and the herd of 30-plus dairy cows.

The inventory varies, so customers are in for a surprise at every visit. There are standard flavors, of course, like chocolate and vanilla, and seasonal offerings, like pumpkin in the fall.

Woodside has a herd of 32 Jersey cows.
Woodside has a herd of 32 Jersey cows.

“We’ve also got our ‘flip-flop flavors,’” says Janet, explaining that these are old favorites that have returned after being cycled out of the rotation for a year or two. And, she adds, there are the “one and done” specials—quirky flavors made in larger quantities for Hearn’s store, with just a couple of two-and-a-half-gallon boxes held back for sale at the farm stand.

Neither the Mitchells nor Hearn are telling what this year’s special flavors will be, since Hearn will unveil them at a one-day tasteathon in mid-May that attracts about 3,000 visitors.

Like many people, Hearn and Jim Mitchell have a fondness for bacon. That predilection results in special blended flavors like Chocolate-Covered Bacon and “Breakfast in Bed,” whose ingredients include vanilla, pasteurized egg yolks, maple syrup and bacon.

As “Breakfast in Bed” indicates, plenty of word play goes into Woodside Farm’s flavors. Examples: “Motor Oil”—coffee ice cream with a swirl of fudge and green-colored caramel, and “Dirt”—a chewy, kid-friendly concoction filled with Gummi Worms and crushed Oreo cookies. The creations made for Hearn’s store tend to have even wilder names, including “Better Than Sex,” “Lick Me, I’m Delicious” and “Looks Like Viagra.”

And bacon is hardly the most unusual ingredient. Don’t be surprised to find flavors on the menu that include spinach, corn, figs, mango, Red Bull or even pepper sauces.
“I give them ideas, and out comes spectacular ice cream,” Hearn says.

Megan McBride and A.J. Smith work in Woodside’s ice cream lab.
Megan McBride and A.J. Smith work in Woodside’s ice cream lab.

While The Ice Cream Store is among the largest of the 40 restaurants and ice cream stores that carry Woodside Farm products, all the ideas don’t come from Hearn, according to Janet Mitchell.

“When you get ideas, it’s a group effort,” she says, noting that their team—three year-round employees and 30 to 35 seasonal workers, mostly high school and college students, regularly brainstorm ideas.

While Jim’s favorite flavor is chocolate, he and his wife are hard-pressed to say what’s number one with customers. Perhaps because many flavors are rotated regularly, “people always seem to want what we don’t have,” he says.

For customers who can’t find their favorite, and those who just can’t make up their minds, Woodside offers an easy solution, Jim says. Just give the “Wheel of Indecision”—located behind the counter—a good turn and buy a scoop of the flavor indicated when the wheel stops spinning.

To make great ice cream, the Mitchells say, you must start with the cows.
Woodside had long been a dairy farm, but in 1961 Jim’s father and grandfather chose to sell off their herd of cows rather than make expensive upgrades to their equipment.

But Jim missed the cows, so when he took over operations of the farm from his father, he and Janet decided to bring back the dairy herd in the mid-1990s. The ice cream stand opened in 1998. (Jim’s dad, Joe Mitchell, now 85, still milks the cows twice a day.)

This year there are 32 cows, and each produces five to six gallons of milk a day, Janet says.

About 30 percent of the milk is hauled to a dairy in Pennsylvania, which adds extra cream, sugar and other ingredients to create an ice cream mix, which then comes back to the farm in sealed five-gallon plastic bags. The remainder of the milk is sold to the Land o’ Lakes cooperative. “Nothing goes to waste,” she says.

With the added ingredients, the 170 gallons of milk typically hauled to the dairy results in about 400 gallons of ice cream mix, which, with the air and flavorings introduced in production, results in about 600 gallons of ice cream.

The production process is easy to explain. Woodside has three batch freezers, two capable of making five gallons at a time, and one 10-gallon freezer. The ice cream mix is poured into the top of the freezer and the flavorings go into a chute on the side. (Some bulkier ingredients, like cake dough used for some flavors, are poured in after the ice cream is processed because its thickness could gum up the inside of the machines.) Everything is blended for eight to 10 minutes, then a nozzle on the front of the machine is opened and the ice cream dispenses into a carton. Most of the ice cream goes into two-and-a-half-gallon boxes. Some popular flavors are packed into quart and pint containers for retail sale. The containers are frozen overnight at 15 degrees below zero before they’re ready to be sold.

Last year Woodside Farm made 45,000 gallons of ice cream. About 25 to 30 percent is sold wholesale to dozens of restaurants and ice cream shops in Delaware and nearby Pennsylvania and Maryland. The rest is sold at the farm’s ice cream stand. The stand, open from March 21 until late October (it’s closed on Easter Sunday), serves 130,000 to 140,000 people a year, Janet says.

Each cow produces five to six gallons of milk a day.
Each cow produces five to six gallons of milk a day.

“I’m not too concerned about counting customers,” Jim says, “only that they keep coming back.”

Exact numbers are hard to come by because transactions are counted by sales check, with families and groups typically ordering on a single check, she says. On weekdays, the stand processes more than 300 checks; on weekends, the daily tally is between 400 and 500.
Last year, the stand used 110 cases of spoons, with 1,000 spoons per case, which translates into 110,000 cups of ice cream.

Woodside sells bowls and cones by weight, not by the scoop. That method, says Janet, “is fair to us; it’s fair to everybody. A family with a 2-year-old might want just a little dollop for him, and then we’ve got one kid who comes in and always wants five scoops of chocolate.”

A typical single purchase goes for $3.25 to $3.50. At 55 cents per ounce, that’s about a six-ounce serving.

In addition to the stand and selling to restaurants and ice cream shops, Woodside Farm has expanded into catering, serving multiple flavors from a trailer at corporate events, picnics, barbecues, graduation parties and weddings.

By carefully managing their herd of 1,200-pound Jerseys, the Mitchells can keep their wholesale operation going year-round. As demand at the stand tapers off in the fall, ice cream mix made from milk produced in October through December is frozen for use in January and February, when the cows are artificially inseminated, giving birth to calves in February and March.

Cows give birth to their first calf when they are 2 years old. To keep producing milk, they must calve every year. Jersey cows usually are productive for three years. After that, they are literally put out to pasture, grazing leisurely on the 80 acres that remain from the 1,000-acre farm of more than two centuries ago.

“The Mitchells treat their cows well,” Hearn says.

As a rule, Jim Mitchell says, Jersey cows are great milk producers for their size, and they’re relatively easy to manage. If any health problems develop, the Mitchells call on the large-animal specialists at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center in Kennett Square.

But they don’t have to do that often, because Janet Mitchell is the farm’s first line of defense. Besides running the retail operation, she also happens to be a veterinarian.

I Robot

Alex Broadbent with Big Dog, a rough-terrain robot that can carry a 340-pound load.

A.I. duPont graduate Alex Broadbent finds himself on cutting edge of robotics field

When Alex Broadbent was a student at Alexis I. du Pont High School, the thought of a career working with robots was the furthest thing from his mind.

After all, he graduated in 1989, when there were no robotics organizations for high school students and well before schools in Delaware and throughout the nation began to intensify instruction in the fields known today as STEM—science, technology, engineering and math.

“I thought of myself as an artist. I took a lot of art and pottery classes,” he says.
But that artistic background has helped Broadbent get where he is today, as DI-Guy director for VT MAK, a Cambridge, Mass.-based company that makes modeling and simulation software for the medical, aerospace, defense and transportation industries. DI-Guy is a line of products that places human characters into computerized combat simulations and other types of training exercises.

Broadbent’s journey into robotics started in Atlanta, where he earned an associate’s degree from the Art Institute of Atlanta and a bachelor’s from the American College for the Applied Arts. While in school, he interned at CNN, and found he had a knack for technology, working with the hardware and software used for audio and video special effects.

After seven years with CNN in Atlanta, Broadbent headed to Boston, where he got involved in several virtual reality projects, creating three-dimensional environments for a variety of clients. He further strengthened his resume by taking computer science classes at Harvard.

That led him to Boston Dynamics, an engineering and robotics design company best known for creating robots with potential military uses, usually through grants and contracts with the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA). Working as part of a team that included designers, mechanical engineers and programmers, Broadbent produced computer simulations of how the experimental robots should operate.
His simulations had a role in the development of robots similar to Big Dog and WildCat, whose exploits have been popularized on YouTube videos. Big Dog, a rough-terrain robot, runs at 4 mph, climbs slopes up to 35 degrees, walks across rubble, climbs muddy hiking trails, walks in snow and water, and carries a 340-pound load. In test runs, WildCat has achieved speeds of up to 16 mph.

Broadbent, 44, who attributes his success in the industry to a unique combination of talents—“to be an engineer who can think like an artist”—shifted gears last year after Google purchased Boston Dynamics.

Google wasn’t interested in keeping the DI-Guy portion of the Boston Dynamics portfolio and sold that segment of the business to VT MAK, which had previously collaborated with Boston Dynamics on multiple projects, Broadbent says.

Broadbent, who lives in Cumberland, R.I., with his wife, Resa, and two children, still has family in Delaware—his parents, Carol and Dick Broadbent, and two sisters, Lisa and Kim.

Robotics Competition Produces FaMOEly

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

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

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

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

game this season.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Business Is Picking Up

Engineer and guitarist Scott Lawing hopes to grow his Zexcoil brand—with the help of some well-known musical friends

Listen to Scott Lawing for a while and you’ll soon know more than you’ll ever need to know about the arcane world of electric guitar pickups.

It doesn’t take much to get him started on pole pieces, wire coils, magnetic pulses and polarity.

But what else would you expect from a 51-year-old engineer with a Ph.D. from MIT who has been playing guitar for 35 years?

Lawing, however, does much more than talk about pickups. He makes them too, in a spacious workroom in the rear of his Newark home—and he thinks that his products, marketed under the Zexcoil brand—are better than many others on the market.


Well, Lawing isn’t about to spill all the details. Coca Cola’s formula is still a secret, isn’t it? But a quick explanation of how pickups work and how they’re put together can help make the differences as clear as a Stratocaster blasting clearly without a hint of annoying hum.

To produce sound, an electric guitar senses the vibrations of the strings magnetically and routes an electronic signal to an amplifier and speaker. The sensing occurs in a magnetic pickup mounted under the strings on the guitar’s body. The pickup consists of a coil wrapped with thousands of turns of fine wire around a magnet or pole piece. Many electric guitars have two or three different pickups located on the body. Each pickup will have a distinctive sound, and multiple pickups can be paired, and wired in various combinations, to produce additional variations. There are many types of pickups. For example, some pickups extend a single magnetic bar or pole piece under all six strings. Others have a separate pole piece for each string. Most often, an iron alloy called alnico V, a mix of aluminum, nickel, cobalt and other metals, is used to make the magnet.

Since the pickup is a magnetic sensor, it “picks up” not only the vibration of the string, but it can also be susceptible to external magnetic noise, mostly emanating from AC power lines — what is commonly referred to as “60-cycle hum.” Pickups can be made to cancel 60-cycle hum by utilizing multiple coils that capture the external noise signal at opposite polarities.

Lawing’s Zexcoil pickups use six coils, whereas most conventional pickups use one or at most two. (The name Zexcoil, he explains, is a play on the German word sechs, for the number six, which is pronounced “zex.”)

awing playing a Fender Telecaster with Zexcoil Pickups.
Lawing playing a Fender Telecaster with Zexcoil Pickups.

But he doesn’t align the coils as in conventional pickups, arrayed directly underneath each string and perpendicular to each one. Rather, he arranges six coils so they run in a diagonal fashion across the body of the guitar, slightly overlapping so each magnet rests underneath two strings.

This alignment, Lawing says, enables the pickup to cancel 60-cycle hum effectively and also to capture more precisely the sounds made by each string.

Lawing makes a variety of pickups, primarily for Stratocaster and Telecaster guitars. The pickups typically found in these guitars only have one coil, so they tend to exhibit a lot of 60-cycle hum. One of the holy grails for guitarists is a hum-canceling pickup that captures the tone of these vintage pickups, and this tone is largely a result of their alnico pole pieces. “I can do something that has the response characteristics of alnico V, but by using different materials. We have something else in the core of the coil,” he says, being careful not to give away his secret.

“The pickup is a sensor, but it’s also a filter. It picks up the tone, and it alters it, it colors it. One of the things I’ve learned is that the main driver of that coloration is the properties of these pole pieces,” he says. “By manipulating the properties of the pole piece, you can change your tonal coloration all over the map.”

Most of Lawing’s sales are to musicians who want to retrofit their guitars with a new set of pickups. “They change them just because they can,” he says.

However, given the wide range of musical genres that can be played on an electric guitar, it’s not always easy to determine which style of pickup would be best for a particular musician. To help guitarists make their selections, Lawing offers advice on the frequently-asked-questions page of his website,, and responds promptly to those that are emailed to him.

He started making pickups in 2007, when he and his wife, Claire, were living in Phoenix, where he worked for Dow Chemical. He was still “early in the process” of trying to design a better pickup when Dow transferred him to Delaware in April 2008 and the couple settled in Newark.

“Claire believed in it the whole time. Sometimes she believed in it more than I did,” he says. “I wouldn’t have been able to do this if she wasn’t as supportive as she has been.”
Business has been growing steadily, he says, “but we’re really just a mom and pop shop with a good idea.”
As of now, virtually all Zexcoil sales are made online. He currently sells about 50 pickups a month (most electric guitars require a set of two or three pickups, depending on the model). Basic pickups cost about $100 each; sets of three range from $285 to about $420, depending on their features.

Lawing is exploring the idea of creating a pickup that he can place in retail distribution, through music shops and guitar dealers, but he says he will have to find a way to streamline the production process so he can sell them at a lower price.

He has hired a subcontractor to wind the wire for the coils of the pickup. The rest of the process involves mounting six coils on a circuit board, inserting spacers for positioning, removing the spacers and replacing them with pole pieces and, finally, mounting magnets on the bottom of the unit. It takes about an hour to make a single pickup, he says, but the gluing and drying time between each step spreads the process over four or five days.

As the business grows, Lawing has continued working part-time in his professional specialty, chemical mechanical polishing, while also playing lead guitar in a tribute band, In The Light, which usually creates and performs one show a year. This year it was The Who, performed at World Cafe Live at the Queen in June. Previous ventures included Queen and one based on Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti album.

While he’s working at home, Lawing admits he is “waiting for the phone to ring” with a huge order or an endorsement that could propel him into the major leagues of pickup manufacturing.

The pickup consists of a coil wrapped with thousands of turns of fine wire around a magnet or pole piece.
The pickup consists of a coil wrapped with thousands of turns of fine wire around a magnet or pole piece.

Actually, he says, the phone has rung “a couple of times” with something big, but some of his better customers are reticent about using their names in endorsements.
One of his better customers, Lawing says, is Walter Becker, half of the songwriting team at the core of the rock band Steely Dan. “I think he’s got at least one of just about everything we make,” he says.

Another big booster is blues guitarist Anthony Stauffer, who operates the Texas Blues Alley, a website that offers guitarists lessons and a place to talk about their passions and their gear. Take a close look at the videos on the site, Lawing says, and Zexcoil pickups will be visible on almost every guitar Stauffer is playing.

That sort of visibility, he says, is helpful in building the business.

“We’re in the black, but not hugely in the black. It’s sustaining,” he says. Pausing briefly, he adds, “now, if one of these big guys calls…”

Bringing Back Main Streets

In Wilmington, Downtown Visions has created a Façade Improvement Program. (Photo by Matt Urban)

Several New Castle County communities are taking an organized approach to making their downtowns vibrant and economically successful

If you grew up a generation ago in a small town, or if you’ve seen It’s a Wonderful Life a dozen times, you have a good idea of what Main Street is supposed to look like: a broad street with wide sidewalks, a red brick colonial town hall on one corner, an imposing bank with a clock tower on another, a clothing store, a grocery, a bakery, a drug store, an ice cream parlor, a movie theater, the post office, a church or two, and perhaps the offices of the local doctor, lawyer and insurance agent.

Back when strip malls and megamalls were still developers’ dreams, Main Street was the focal point of town, the place you went to shop, to work, or maybe just relax—to see and be seen.

Thankfully, the Main Street ideal—the belief that historic downtowns and neighborhood commercial districts represent the core of our communities—still endures, even if those cores don’t look quite like we (or our parents) remember them.

Following the blueprint of the National Main Street Center, a subsidiary of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, communities as large as Wilmington and as small as Delaware City and New Castle are revitalizing their downtown business districts, strengthening these commercial cores while preserving their heritage.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all,” says Diane Laird, state coordinator for Downtown Delaware, a resource center housed in the Delaware Economic Development Office to provide oversight and technical assistance for Main Street programs.

“[The] Main Street [program] provides a proven model that can be tweaked to the individual town’s needs. We’re following it in Newark’s own way,” says Ricky Nietubicz, administrator of the Downtown Newark Partnership, the city’s Main Street affiliate.

Newark is one of four New Castle County communities with active Main Street programs. The others are Wilmington, Middletown and Delaware City. In addition, New Castle and Wilmington’s Southbridge community and the Lincoln/Union Business District on the city’s West Side have established units known as “commercial district affiliates,” something Laird likes to call “Main Street Lite.”

“I do my work in black and white and they bring it to life in color” is how Laird likes to describe her work.

The activities in participating communities are adding varied splashes of color, most of them bright.

Downtown Visions

In Wilmington, for example, Downtown Visions has created a Façade Improvement Program that, through October, had given facelifts and new signage to 38 buildings in the city’s business improvement district, with seven more projects in progress or about to begin. Those projects have resulted in removal of ominous security gates that had been installed in the wake of the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“The security gate removals and renovated facades have made a remarkable difference on Market Street,” Laird says. “The gates were not only looking bad but they were telling us we have a reason to be afraid. Removing them not only makes the street more beautiful, it also conveys a stronger sense of safety.”

In Delaware City, the Main Street effort is emphasizing a commitment to promoting ecotourism. Newark takes pride in infill development projects whose design complements existing architecture. Middletown, meanwhile, is promoting its arts scene, especially the Everett Theatre and the Gilbert W. Perry Jr. Center for the Arts. The rapidly growing community is striving to establish a mix of retail and dining options to enhance its downtown’s stature as a destination for residents.

“Retail and dining are what you want to get the pedestrian traffic going,” says Tracy Skrobot, program manager for Middletown Main Street.

A Four-Pronged Approach

Main Street programs take a four-pronged approach to community revitalization: organization and partnerships; promotions that create a positive image; design that creates a pleasing, positive atmosphere and economic restructuring.
Organizations typically take the form of a public-private partnership with a board of directors made up of business and government representatives and residents. Although the groups rely significantly on volunteers, they should have a paid executive director. In the most stable organizations, most or all of the director’s salary is underwritten by the local government, Laird says.

For example, in Newark, Nietubicz is a city employee, and in Middletown, the town government provides office space for the Main Street program while funding Skrobot’s salary.

Main Street programs employ a variety of financing mechanisms. Businesses in the area served by the Downtown Newark Partnership pay a higher annual fee for their business licenses, while Wilmington’s Downtown Visions levies a special assessment on all businesses in its service area. Delaware City’s organization relies on donations, memberships and fundraisers, with technical support but no financial assistance from the town, according to Mark Chura, the program’s part-time manager.

Promotions are a key to making downtown business districts attractive. Recurring events, including Winterfest, Community Day and Restaurant Week, are popular in Newark. Downtown Visions sponsors Wilmington’s Farmers’ Market on Rodney Square and promotes a host of other events.

The Traditional and the New

Design and economic restructuring often go hand in hand, so preserving a community’s traditional architectural features helps attract new businesses that are essential to making a downtown strong.

In Newark, Nietubicz says, “there’s a design culture, and developers take the process seriously.” The result, Laird says, has been a series of projects resulting in “buildings that are not historic but fit with the historic context even though the design might be more contemporary.”

The bottom line, of course, for all Main Street communities is economic restructuring.
Since its launch in 2007, Wilmington’s Downtown Visions program has become a vital force in street-level economic development, recruiting new businesses for the Market Street corridor, helping them cut through red tape at city hall, and providing training in marketing and social media, among other things.

Newark received the Great American Main Street Award in 2011. (Photo by Matt Urban)
Newark received the Great American Main Street Award in 2011. (Photo by Matt Urban)

Before the Main Street program began, downtown business owners were often at odds with each other, competing more often than collaborating. Now they see things differently.
“We need more people downtown, period,” says Julia Han, owner of the Sports Connection. “Whether you’re a restaurant, or selling sneakers, or fixing shoes, the number one issue for everybody is having more people. If I can bring five people to my business and you can bring five people to yours, and an office can bring five more, soon you’re talking about a great change,” she says. “The idea that you’re on your own is shattered. If people enjoy being on the street, there will be more traffic for your business.”
Middletown’s Skrobot describes her relationship to local businesses succinctly: “My job is to get feet on the street. Their job is to get them in the door and to keep them there.”

The need to strengthen their business districts is what has prompted New Castle and Wilmington’s Southbridge and Lincoln/Union areas to become Main Street “commercial district affiliates.”

The Historic New Castle Alliance received affiliate status in 2009, according to Valarie Windle, the group’s volunteer leader. The organization will soon rebrand itself as the New Castle Community Partnership, a name that she says better reflects collaboration among the city’s business, residential and cultural interests and removes the perception that it is officially tied to historic attractions in the downtown area.

Preserve and Promote

“We have to develop downtown as a more viable destination, with more shops and restaurants,” she says. “We have great history to offer, great cultural activities to offer, but a lot of people don’t know we’re here. We’ll fall by the wayside if we don’t preserve and promote our businesses.”

Delaware City has used recreational actitivies like the annual River Towns Ride to bring visitors to town. (Photo by Les Kipp)
Delaware City has used recreational activities like the annual River Towns Ride to bring visitors to town. (Photo by Les Kipp)

Like the larger Main Street groups, the New Castle organization has several special events and fundraisers, like the “Wine About What Ales You,” a festive beer and wine activity in January. It is taking a more active role in traditional New Castle events, including A Day in Old New Castle and Separation Day, and collaborates with Delaware City on the Route 9 Yard Crawl, a miles-long yard sale in late April, and the River Towns Ride, a bicycling activity on the first Saturday in October.

Southbridge’s program is in its infancy, says organizer Travis Smith. Key community needs, he says, are to promote businesses in the neighborhood, especially along New Castle Avenue, Heald Street and A Street, and to improve employment opportunities for residents. Once the volunteer group gets organized, its first project will be the creation of an online portal that will describe Southbridge’s history and provide a directory of the businesses located there. He hopes to involve adults in doing the research and teenagers in editing the portal’s video components.

“We’ve got a dry cleaner, a Christian bookstore, a market, and churches. We’re the connection to downtown Wilmington and to the riverfront,” Smith says.
“We want to show the sense of community that lives on here, that Southbridge is a place where we can live, share, grow and love,” he says.

The Lincoln/Union Business District became a Main Street affiliate last year, following completion of the West Side Grows redevelopment plan for the larger area that stretches from I-95 west to the B&O Railroad tracks and from Lancaster Avenue north to Pennsylvania Avenue.

“More Green”

“The plan recommended starting a ‘Main Street-type’ program, and our staff said, ‘Let’s not do “type,” let’s do the full program,’” says Aimee Lala-Milligan, program manager for West Side commercial district revitalization.

“People want a more walkable, more beautified, more green commercial district,” she says.
The first step in that direction was taken in August through a “better block” event, for which the 600 block of Union Street received a three-day makeover, featuring angled parking spaces and potted plants and outdoor seating on the sidewalks to show what the street would look like if made more pedestrian-friendly.

A larger event is being planned for the spring, followed by a “celebration of the flavors of the neighborhood” event next summer, Lala-Milligan says.

Main Street efforts are never complete, Laird says. They are a program, not a project, something that must endure and become sustainable.

It is essential that their managers remain optimistic. Delaware City’s Chura embodies that characteristic. “Delaware City is a work in progress. It has a lot of potential,” he says. “There are new businesses opening, but we’re not quite there yet.”

Delaware Programs Among 1,631 Nationwide

Since the National Trust for Historic Preservation created the Main Street program in 1977, the initiative has grown to include 1,631 local programs, according to the National Main Street Center. Seven are in Delaware: Wilmington, Newark, Middletown, Delaware City, Dover, Rehoboth Beach and Milford.

Rehoboth, in 2009, and Newark, in 2011, have been honored with the Great American Main Street Award for exceptional programming.

According to Diane Laird, state coordinator for Downtown Delaware, the state’s Main Street programs have been helpful in creating jobs in participating communities. A study of six communities (all those listed here except Delaware City) that had programs operating from 2005 to 2010 found that they averaged four new business starts and 14 new jobs per community per year, or 25 new businesses and 83 jobs statewide per year.
With Main Street programs typically having an annual budget of $120,000 to $150,000, Laird says “that’s a pretty low investment” for the number of jobs created and the overall increase in economic activity.


Santa Fe Restaurants Now Number Quatro

Under the savvy guidance of Javier Acuna, cinco and seis may soon be added

There’s a reason Javier Acuna named his business the Hakuna Hospitality Group. And, yes, it is a subtle play on his surname.

More important, the Swahili word, which means “no worries,” accurately describes the approach Acuna has taken to putting his Santa Fe restaurants on a steady growth track, and poising the business for another round of expansion.

Hakuna is a positive word, he says, “one that puts a smile on people’s faces.”

Acuna, 38, got a modest start in restaurant ownership, buying the old Picnic Mexitacos on Newark’s Main Street in 2003 when it was a four-table operation focusing mainly on takeout orders with a menu of both Mexican and Latin American dishes. He renamed it Santa Fe and built it into a 150-seat restaurant.

It was a logical first step for the native of Bogota, Colombia, who had come to the United States less than four years earlier, hoping to continue the study of industrial engineering he had begun in his homeland.

While taking classes at Delaware Technical Community College and Wesley College, Acuna, like many students, found the hospitality industry offered the opportunity to earn the money he needed to pay his tuition and other bills. Working in several restaurants, he gradually moved up the ranks, from waiting on tables, to expediter, to cocktail server, bartender and assistant manager. Along the way, he studied the trade carefully, deciding what features he liked, or didn’t like, about every place in which he worked.

Acuna, who grew up in a family whose members took great pride in their cooking, chose to emphasize Mexican food in his restaurants because of his love for that country’s history and culture. “The Mayans and the Aztecs, they were two of the most wonderful cultures that ever walked the earth,” he says.

And, he adds, Mexico’s geographical diversity, with its Gulf and Pacific coasts and plateaus and mountains in between, is reflected in regional variations in its cuisine. “Mexican food is one of the richest food [cultures] in the world, and every region has a different technique,” he says.

Besides, he adds with a smile, although he appreciates the cuisine of his native Colombia, “nobody knows what it is.”

Whatever he has learned, Acuna has applied successfully.

He opened a second Santa Fe grill in Wilmington in 2010, and then launched the La Bodega catering and events operation at the same location on Pennsylvania Avenue, just west of Union Street.

In July, Acuna added another restaurant on Main Street in Newark, Del Pez Sea Mex, focusing on fresh and sustainable caught seafood, local and organic produce, all served with a tropical Mexican flair.

The Wilmington grill is the largest in the group, with seating for 250, while Del Pez is the smallest, with 76 seats.

By early October, he will have opened La Taqueria Santa Fe at Wilmington’s Riverfront Market, giving the lunch hour crowd a chance to get a quick sample of the main courses offered at the Newark and Wilmington restaurants.

His next step, he says, is to try to open two new Santa Fe locations a year. He’s not sure where the expansion will take him, but says he is looking both north and south—at the Philadelphia area and Sussex County.

Rachael Richardson makes a diamond margarita at Santa Fe in Wilmington. (Photo by Tim Hawk)
Rachael Richardson makes a diamond margarita at Santa Fe in Wilmington. (Photo by Tim Hawk)

Acuna won’t discuss revenue figures for his privately owned company, but he says the three locations now open are serving about 9,000 customers a week.

His talk of expansion may sound as though he wants Hakuna Hospitality to build Santa Fe into a restaurant chain, but one of his most important tactics is to make each of his restaurants a little different from the others.

The restaurants’ logos use the same typeface, but each one is branded with the image of a different animal, drawn in a native Mexican style. The Newark logo features a jaguar—“aggressive and strong,” Acuna says—while Wilmington’s image is a fun-loving monkey. For Del Pez, the three brightly colored fish are a natural, while a frog—“small and quick-thinking,” he says—captures the vibe he’s seeking at La Taqueria.

When restaurant chains open new locations, “they are looking for a specific type of demographic,” Acuna says. “We don’t go for the demographic. We want to be part of the communities we go into, and we adapt to it.”

As an example, he describes the differences between the Santa Fe locations and clientele in Newark and Wilmington.

“Newark draws a younger crowd, and a little of everything—professionals, young people, University of Delaware students and faculty—while Wilmington has a more professional crowd,” he says.

Interestingly, the difference in the customer profile has not triggered a parallel variation in the menus. While about 90 percent of the menu is identical at both locations, where there are differences, the selections in Wilmington tend to be more diverse, more aggressive, than in Newark, and they often cost a dollar or two more.

In Newark, he explains, to satisfy a broader audience in an environment that is faster paced, the menu has to stay more middle of the road. In Wilmington, the pace is a little slower, the diners somewhat more adventurous.

While Acuna does not say Santa Fe patrons in Wilmington are more sophisticated than those in Newark, the implication is clear. “In Wilmington, we experiment with different types of ingredients. In Wilmington, we can add different dishes. In Wilmington, we have scallops. In Newark, it’s harder to sell scallops,” he says.

At each of his restaurants, Acuna makes a commitment to use locally grown produce as often as possible. Among his suppliers are Vincent Farms in Laurel and Fifer Orchards in Wyoming.

Running three restaurants, preparing to open a fourth and exploring two more sites is enough to keep Acuna running six days a week. He has been spending two days a week at each location, keeping Sundays as family time with his wife, Sarah, and his son, Mateo, who was born in March.

Having known success throughout his career, Acuna has learned that careful management is the best way to prevent failure.

“I don’t worry about failure,” he says. “I worry about not taking the right steps, about modifying things that aren’t working at the right moment.”

Failure, he says, “is the absence of doing the right thing. It is not something that happens overnight. It comes when you neglect to make the right changes over time.”

Adhering to that philosophy means that Hakuna Hospitality and its more than 130 employees must be innovative and flexible.

Acuna wants to keep his menus “edgy,” with meals prepared by “chefs who are willing to experiment.” Most important, he wants all his employees to be passionate about the company and to appreciate the meals they serve every day.

“We are about change,” he says. “We are about improving. We are about bringing people back day after day.”

In A Fine Pickle

That’s where Dan Sheridan finds himself, as his Wilmington Pickling Company picks up business

Anyone who knows his or her nursery rhymes has certainly heard of pickled peppers, but Dan Sheridan encourages you to try his pickled peaches too.

While you’re at it, take a bite of the pickled asparagus.

Sheridan, who cooks part-time at Bryan Sikora’s La Fia Bakery Market Bistro on Market Street, joined forces with two friends, Brian Crowley and Chris Huot, two years ago to create the Wilmington Pickling Company.

“We were looking for something that we could start part-time, generate some income and have fun,” Sheridan says.

The trio all had restaurant experience and had dabbled with pickle recipes on the job. Sheridan met Crowley when they worked at the old Bistro on the Brandywine, a restaurant in Chadds Ford, Pa. They met Huot when they began working at Cantwell’s Tavern in Odessa, where Huot was the manager.

The three got the pickling business off to a good start, but Sheridan is now running it by himself. There was no falling out, he explains; Crowley and Huot just decided they wanted to focus on their fulltime jobs.

So Sheridan is now pretty much a one-man show. He picks his produce (virtually all of it grown in Delaware), creates the brine, fills and seals the jars and handles the distribution to a select group of markets throughout the state.

“Everything,” he says, “is hand-cut, hand-packed, and hand-sealed.”

And when it comes to sales, Sheridan is pretty adept at putting those jars right in his customers’ hands. Through the fall, he will be easy to find on Wednesdays—offering samples under his tent at the Rodney Square Farmers Market.

At his table, Sheridan offers five varieties, starting with his “flagship recipe”—garlic, dill and Thai chili pickles.

“Delicious. Very fresh,” says a woman named Toni after a quick taste test that prompted her to hand Sheridan $8 for a jar to take home.

For those who prefer a hotter taste, Wilmington Pickling has bread and butter jalapeños, a concoction whose serious heat is sweetened and softened by its bread and butter brine.
Pickled peppers are, well, just that, but pickled peaches are most definitely in a league of their own.

Wilmington Pickling uses peaches picked fresh at Fifer Orchards in Wyoming and soaked in a solution of cinnamon, vanilla bean and lavender grown at the Lavender Fields farm in Milton. Sheridan recommends mixing the pickled peaches with yogurt, as a topping on a bowl of ice cream or in a salad.

The blue hen on the label makes clear Wilmington Pickling's Delaware connection. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)
The blue hen on the label makes clear Wilmington Pickling’s Delaware connection. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)

The asparagus in Wilmington Pickling’s jars are also local—grown at Willey Farms in Townsend.

The origin of the ingredients is definitely a key selling point —and the image of a blue hen on the label makes the Delaware connection clear.

“I like that it’s local, that I know where it’s coming from,” Wilmington resident Mike McDermott said as he purchased a jar from Sheridan at the Rodney Square market.
Using practically home-grown produce also resonates with Paul Smith, who lives on West Ninth Street near Little Italy. Sheridan expects to open a small take-out business there, to be called Locale BBQ Post, by the end of the year. The new eatery, as its name suggests, will emphasize barbecue, but will also give Sheridan a high-traffic area for marketing the Wilmington Pickling line.

“Barbecue and pickles are a natural,” he says.

He will also be able to make his pickles on site and have more room to build an inventory. Currently, he rents space by the day in a commercial kitchen in a New Castle industrial park whenever he has a batch of pickles to make.

Pickling, the process of preserving food in a seasoned brine or vinegar blend, has been used for generations, but the presence of homemade pickled products on restaurant menus is relatively new.

In the kitchen, Sheridan uses 8-gallon pots to boil the pickle brine, made from a recipe that includes apple cider and distilled white vinegars as well as sugar salt. He adds different ingredients according to what is being pickled. The vinegars act as a preservative, the salt draws juices from the cucumber, and the added spices give each item its distinct flavor.

Sheridan sells his wares at the Wilmington Farmers Market every Wednesday in the fall. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)
Sheridan sells his wares at the Wilmington Farmers Market every Wednesday in the fall. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)

While the brine boils, Sheridan slices the cucumbers—or peaches, or peppers, or whatever will be used in the day’s batch. He takes care to keep the size of the pieces uniform to ensure consistent quality.

After the raw vegetables or peaches are packed tightly into the jars, the hot brine is poured into the jars. After the cap is screwed on, the jars are processed in another pot of boiling water, creating the pressure that seals the lid tight.

The jars don’t have to be refrigerated until after they’re opened, and they have a shelf life of six to seven months, he says.

Sheridan wants his customers to know that his pickled produce receives personal attention. “Chances are I cut the spears, packed the jars and tasted the batch,” he says. “There’s an extra bit of care that goes into it.”

Sheridan, who grew up near Rockford Park in Wilmington, graduated from McKean High School in 2000, then took classes for a while at the University of Delaware and Widener University before deciding on a career as a cook. He literally traveled halfway around the world to get his education, enrolling at Le Cordon Bleu Australia in Sydney. After graduation, he returned to Wilmington and worked in the kitchen at the Hotel DuPont before moving on to Bistro on the Brandywine and Cantwell’s.

Since Sheridan is cooking at La Fia now, Sikora has placed jars of Wilmington Pickling products on the shelves of his market. That has led to some interesting experiences for Sheridan, when customers ask about the pickles and learn that the guy who made them is working in the kitchen.

Fifer Orchards, the source of the pickled peaches, also sells Wilmington Pickling products, as do Janssen’s Market and ProKitchen Gear in Greenville, Henretty’s Market in Hockessin and the Delaware Local Food Exchange in Elsmere. Sheridan is gradually building his distribution network. For additional sales locations, check listings at

Sheridan says he is also hearing from area farms, which have picked up on the buzz and are interested in having him pickle some of their produce. One intriguing possibility: pickled watermelon.

“I made it once at a restaurant. It didn’t turn out too bad,” he says. “Once we mess around with the recipe, we’ll be able to nail it.”