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Old New Castle doing work to make itself more visitor friendly

New Castle, Russ Smith says, “is a place sort of caught in time,” and that time was more than 200 years ago.

Today, with one key construction project nearly completed and two others getting under way, the city is hoping to secure a brighter future by strengthening links to its historic past.

Work has almost wrapped up on a major drainage upgrade in the city’s Battery Park, fronting on the Delaware River. The project, underwritten by the Trustees of the New Castle Common, the 252-year-old trust that maintains the park and owns and oversees common lands in the city, is intended to largely eliminate problems with standing water in the park. 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, according to Chris Castagno, the trustee overseeing the work.

When the drainage project is completed, the Trustees’ next step will be to create 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 city’s historic district. That new lot, according to Castagno and Linda Ratchford, president of the New Castle City Council, will provide additional parking for park users, employees of downtown shops and visitors to the First State National Historical Park.

The Trustees have budgeted about $500,000 for the drainage and parking improvements, Castagno says.

Meanwhile, work has begun on the rebuilding of a 170-foot pier at the foot of Delaware Street, replacing the popular landmark destroyed in October 2012 by Superstorm Sandy. The $1.2 million project, funded by the state, was delayed by about two years, first by community debates about its size and purpose and later by funding issues, but should be completed by the end of the year.

Taken together, Ratchford says, the three projects will enhance the day-to-day life of the city’s 5,300 residents and make the city more attractive to tourists and other visitors.  

Completion of the drainage work will lead to other improvements, she says, including trails to connect different sections of the park, a new playground and a permanent entertainment venue to replace the trailer that is now hauled in as a stage for summer music concerts.  

The new parking lot, she adds, “is going to make a difference.” By freeing up more spaces on Delaware Street, it should reduce the number of visitors who now park in residential areas where owners of homes that lack garages sometimes scramble to find on-street parking near their front doors.

The rebuilt pier presents the greatest opportunity for enhancing New Castle’s stature as a destination for tourists and history enthusiasts.

Having the dock and pier restored is going to be really positive. It gives the city yet another asset for tourism and visitation - Linda Parkowski, state tourism director.

“Having the dock and pier restored is going to be really positive,” says Linda Parkowski, state tourism director. “It gives the city yet another asset for tourism and visitation.”

The Kalmar Nyckel, Delaware’s tall ship, will dock there periodically during the year, says Cathy Parcells, executive director of the Kalmar Nyckel Foundation. The city hopes the pier will attract other tall ships to some of New Castle’s numerous festivals, Ratchford adds. Further down the road – or the stream – is the possibility of ferry or water taxi service linking New Castle with Wilmington, Delaware City, Fort DuPont and perhaps Pennsville, New Jersey, which is building a pier of its own, she says.

“We’ll sit down in December and make up our schedule,” Parcells says. The goal is to have the Kalmar Nyckel in New Castle “for a festival or two,” as well as for public sails in the summer and educational programs several times a year.

Kalmar Nyckel officials are also working on collaborations with the National Park Service, Parcells says, trying to partner on programs with First State National Historical Park sites in New Castle just as they have in Wilmington, where the Kalmar Nyckel shipyard adjoins Fort Christina Park, another piece of the national park. “We’re really excited about it,” Parcells says.

The pier, however, would not have docking space for recreational boaters and daytrippers, a prospect that worried some residents as far back as 2011, when the city held several public meetings to discuss ideas for riverfront development.

“Our first goal is to bring back the tall ships – to restore our waterfront connections,” Ratchford says.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, everybody turned their backs on the river. Now people want to be closer to it. - Russ Smith, Fmr. superintendent of First State National Historical Park

The Dutch built Fort Casimir on the riverfront in 1654 and William Penn, on his first sail to America, made his initial stop at New Castle on Oct. 27, 1682. Through the American Revolution and into the 1840s, New Castle remained a bustling port, only to decline with the development of rail lines linking Philadelphia and Baltimore.

“In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, everybody turned their backs on the river. Now people want to be closer to it,” says Smith, the New Castle native who was named the first superintendent of the national historical park three years ago. Smith, who retired at the end of 2014, now lives in the historic district and has become a key participant in the effort to make the city’s past understandable to today’s visitors.

The New Castle Community Partnership, an economic development group comprised of business owners, public officials and residents that grew out of the former Historic New Castle Alliance, is working with the Trustees of the New Castle Common and city officials to put up informational interpretive signage at 10 historic sites in the city. Smith has taken on the responsibility of writing the text and locating appropriate artwork. The first three signs have been erected – at the site of Fort Casimir, outside the old Sheriff’s House on The Green and near the old Frenchtown Railroad ticket station in Battery Park.

Also in the works are brochures and printed maps to guide pedestrians from sign to sign, says Laura Fontana, the partnership’s president.

Meanwhile, the New Castle Historical Society has moved into the Arsenal, a 207-year-old two-story structure that has had numerous public uses. Executive Director Dan Citron says the society is in the process of transforming part of the ground floor into a visitors center that will serve all the historic entities operating in the city – the society (which owns the Amstel House, the Dutch House and the Old Library Museum), the national park, the Delaware Historical Society (which owns the George Read II House on The Strand), and the state (which operates the Courthouse as part of the national park).

“Right now, we’re more gift shop than visitor center, but we’ll look a lot more like a visitor center next spring,” Citron says.

The historic district maintains an interesting mix of retailers – heavy on arts, crafts and antiques, with eateries ranging from the Traders Cove Coffee Shop at Penn’s Place to Nora Lee’s French Quarter Bistro and the colonial-themed Jessop’s Tavern. Veteran caterer and baker Cathy Snyder will open Mrs. Snyder’s Market Café next month, and a craft brewery is in the works too.

Although Ratchford and Parkowski say the city state don’t have any tallies on tourism numbers, Ratchford says more people are visiting the historic district. “It’s more of an observational thing,” she says.

Because of the traffic increase that Ratchford and others are seeing, the city council is going to take another serious look at parking issues, a perennial topic at its meetings, Ratchford says.

No timelines have been set, and no public meetings have been scheduled, but Ratchford says ideas under consideration will include paid parking in the business/historic district and parking permits for residents.

“Meters are sometimes unsightly, so we would look at some sort of pay stations. We’re researching how other cities do permits and pay stations,” she says.

Any plan the city develops should be visitor friendly and preserve the interests of its residents, Ratchford says. “We want to do it carefully and we want a lot of community input.”

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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