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State byways economic development partnership begins with Southbridge revitalization

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Karl Malgiero/Delaware Public Media
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Officials from the Delaware Small Business Administration, the state of Delaware and local business groups gathered today Tuesday at the Neighborhood House in Southbridge to announce efforts to the strengthen ties between First State’s scenic and historic byways and businesses along them.

The group will promote economic growth along the state’s six historic byways, beginning with Southbridge’s business corridor - a connector segment on Delaware’s historic 100 mile long Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway, the route used by the famous abolitionist to shepherd runaway slaves through the First State. And Delaware’s earliest black politicians elected to office  – most notably William Winchester, Herman Holloway and Henrietta Johnson – have called the neighborhood their home.

“This is truly a unique situation, not every day do you walk into a place that has this sort of significance,” said John Banks, SBA Delaware District Deputy Director.

“This is part of Harriet Tubman’s underground Railroad. Wow!” Banks exclaimed.

He says it’s an all-out effort to revitalize the community that begins with making use of the area’s rich history and a variety of financial incentives to attract entrepreneurs, residents and tourists in order to revitalize the business corridor and eventually the whole neighborhood.

“When we stumbled upon this particular significance and started working with more of our strategic partnerships, we said ‘Let’s try to make it happen. What can we do to generate more patronage to these business here and how can we get folks to come in to visit, tour and patronize the businesses?’ And this is the initiative that fell into our laps.

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Credit Karl Malgiero/Delaware Public Media
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South Bridge Connects' Travis Smith (left), and SBA's John Banks (right) surround Sepia Cleaners owner Tyrran Smith, seen displaying his Byway-affiliated Business plaque.

“By taking that [significance] and channeling it to economic development, why would you not take advantage of that?”

Banks said the SBA is also adhering to their traditional role as small business advocates - engaging with entrepreneurs and established small businesses along the route.

“We’re working with businesses who are here, who are struggling, but are looking to expand we’re giving them the tools necessary to make that happen. Whether it be financing, development of a business plan, or strategically trying to get other more established business to relocate here to take advantage of some of the federal programs as well.”

The pilot program will utilize coupons and signs that detail history along the byway to help attract tourists and send them to area businesses.

Wilmington Neighborhood Development Director Ivey Ibrahim says focusing on development of business corridors like byways has been shown to help energize revitalization.   

“You got more products and services by strengthening the businesses so that people’s  needs can be addressed,” he said.

“Taking care of the infrastructure - and addressing the crime -makes it a lot more desirable for people to want to live in Southbridge, to want to come in and open up a business in Southbridge, to take advantage of what’s happening.”

And South Bridge Connects plans to add a 21st century touch by incorporating modern technology to share Southbridge’s history with the world.

“That’s why we’re here, to start not just something that starts in Southbridge – but an excitement and an energy and something that’s just transparent and just carries across all of Wilmington and all of the world," said Travis Smith, Commercial District Affiliate Representative for South Bridge Connects.

“Why?” he asked. “Because we’re going to use technology to carry this message all across the land of what Harriet Tubman and some of the other great leaders meant in a small community like this.”

Tyrran Smith is the proprietor of Southbridge’s Sepia Cleaners, the oldest black-owned business in Delaware. He says spreading the message of historic significance isn’t just to benefit businesses along the byway corridor, but “to improve Southbridge as a whole.”

"There’s some parts of the city where people say ‘I’m scared to go to’, but hopefully we can bring some people to the city and say ‘You know what, I’m not scared to come to Southbridge. Southbridge is a good place to visit,’” said Smith.