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Residents find ways to have a say in Claymont changes

Tom Byrne/Delaware Public Media

At a community meeting next week, Claymont residents will get their first look at a Missouri developer’s proposal to transform the 425-acre site of the now-closed steel mill that has dominated the community in Delaware’s northeast corner since it was opened by the Worth Steel Co. in 1917.

The proposal, says longtime resident Carolyn Mercadante, a coordinator of the Claymont Historical Society, “is the biggest thing here in 100 years.”

The approval process for the plan, created by the St. Louis-based Commercial Development Company (CDC), could take several years, and will likely involve the New Castle County Department of Land Use, the state departments of Transportation and Natural Resources and Environmental Control, and perhaps the Army Corps of Engineers. As pieces of the redevelopment plan fall into place, the Delaware Economic Development Office might well wind up considering requests for grants and loans to businesses seeking to locate at the site.

As the planning process moves forward, the 14,471 residents of Claymont’s 19703 ZIP Code will have numerous opportunities to voice their opinions. But, when the final decisions are made, not a single Claymonter will be able to vote for or against.

The reason: although its population would make it the state’s fifth largest municipality, Claymont is merely an unincorporated area within New Castle County that has no government of its own. And all the lawmakers residents have selected to act on their behalf – a county councilman, a state senator and two state representatives – live outside Claymont.

The incorporation issue comes up periodically, most recently about a decade ago when former state Rep. Wayne Smith held a community meeting to discuss the concept with residents, and before that, around the start of school desegregation in northern New Castle County, when community pride was damaged by the closure of Claymont High School.

“I don’t think there’s a desire in the community to have it incorporated,” Mercadante says. When Smith held his meeting, she recalled, “the overwhelming cry was ‘I don’t want my taxes raised.’”

“There’s not a lot of enthusiasm for incorporation,” adds John DeCostanza, chairman of the Claymont Design Review Advisory Committee, a panel created to advise the county government on certain land-use issues and the closest thing Claymont has to a local government. Interestingly, DeCostanza, appointed to the committee through his standing as owner since 1974 of Joe & Tony’s Service, a car repair shop on Philadelphia Pike, Claymont’s main street, doesn’t live there either. He’s a resident of Talleyville, an unincorporated area about seven miles to the west.

“We’re fairly close to our county councilmen and state representatives. There’s not a great hue and cry for more representation,” DeCostanza says. “I don’t know if that’s a sign of satisfaction as much as it is a desire for less intrusion.”

An amalgam of organizations, some with quasi-governmental responsibilities, helps hold Claymont together. County Councilman John Cartier, whose eastern Brandywine Hundred district includes Claymont, cites civic associations, church groups, the Claymont Fire Company and the Claymont Lions Club as key examples.

Carol Lecates, president of the 85-member Lions Club, easily enumerates her group’s community involvement. To raise money, there are three pancake breakfasts and a Christmas tree sale each year. And the proceeds from those activities and others are used to provide area residents with medical equipment and eye exams, support for Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, assistance to the Claymont Community Center and scholarships for high school students.

But the club stays out of politics and Lecates does her best to do so too. “Are people satisfied with Claymont? In my opinion, yes, but I’m not a very political person,” she says. “I haven’t heard anybody say they aren’t happy with the way it is.”

Two organizations in Claymont do exert some limited political clout: the Design Review Advisory Committee (DRAC) and the Claymont Renaissance Development Corporation (CRDC).

The DRAC, created by a county ordinance, is responsible for reviewing land development applications for properties within Claymont’s “hometown overlay” area, a designation established by the county in certain unincorporated communities that includes, for Claymont, the business district along Philadelphia Pike and Darley Road and most adjoining areas. It also makes recommendations on possible updates and revisions to the community redevelopment plan and design guidelines.

“We’re just an advisory board,” says Mercadante, who is one of the nine DRAC members. The committee’s recommendations have to comply with county regulations but it can make suggestions to ensure that new ventures are compatible with the community’s character. “If someone comes in and says they want to open up a restaurant, we might suggest that they plant some greenery outside or put up a sign that’s somewhat like the one next door,” she says.

“Mostly we’re involved with the outdoor streetscape, making it look nice and not be a hodgepodge,” she says.

Claymont Renaissance, established in 2004 to coordinate economic development initiatives and advocate for the community as the area’s revitalization efforts gathered steam, has a broad mission to develop and implement strategies to increase Claymont’s economic vitality, enhance its reputation as an attractive and desirable place to live, and build on its history and character to strengthen cultural and social activities.

Cartier, DeCostanza and Mercadante all point to Claymont Renaissance’s executive director, Brett Saddler, as the de facto “go-to guy” for all things related to the community’s governance and economic development.

“He’s at the forefront of what’s going on. He’s the clearinghouse for people who are concerned, and he’s got the ties to county and state government,” DeCostanza says.

“A lot of people don’t realize how much Brett does,” Mercandante says. “He’s at a lot of the meetings, and he always has updates on what’s going on.”

“The whole idea of CRDC was to create an effective organization to facilitate the interests of the community. As executive director, [Saddler] has been that person. He’s endured a lot of difficulties and never walked away from any of it,” says Cartier, who describes Claymont Renaissance as “my nonprofit partner.”

Saddler, whose role seems more like a town manager than a mayor, operates out of the historic Darley House, once the home of renowned 19th-century illustrator Felix O.C. Darley. For Saddler’s work, the Darley House is perfectly located, fronting on Philadelphia Pike with the community’s historic Old Stone School across Darley Road to the south and Archmere Academy, once the estate of legendary financier John Jacob Raskob across the street. To the west and south, the Darley Green townhouse-apartment-retail revitalization project continues to advance. To the north, on either side of Philadelphia Pike, is the steel mill complex, the site of future redevelopment.

Saddler carefully deflects any notion that he’s the one in charge. “It’s no one person” who makes decisions for Claymont, he says. “It would be our elected officials,” Cartier, Reps. Sean Matthews and Bryon Short and Sen. Harris B. McDowell III.

“The key is engaging, making an effort to engage the community at every level,” Saddler says. To achieve that goal, he says he works with neighborhood groups, giving them the resources to grow and helping to start civic associations in areas that have none or where they have become defunct. “It’s block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood.”

Week after week, Saddler and Cartier are regular attendees at meetings all over the Claymont area, with both providing updates on their work.

Through their presence, both say they can speak Claymont’s residents, even if members of the community don’t have a direct vote on issues affecting their future.

“People in Claymont are concerned that [incorporation] would be more costly than the current arrangements,” Cartier says. “I can adequately represent for the health and well-being of the Claymont community.”

“Incorporation is not necessary in Claymont. Many of the things that could be achieved by incorporation can be achieved through enhancing the Claymont hometown overlay,” Saddler says. “As long as Claymont residents have a say through DRAC and the hometown overlay, I believe that would be our best past forward.”

Larry Nagengast, a contributor to Delaware First Media since 2011, has been writing and editing news stories in Delaware for more than five decades.
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