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The changing landscape of North Wilmington’s 'Main Street'

Delaware Public Media
Open retail space along Concord Pike is a sign of the changing landscape along Route 202

Concord Pike is a natural draw for shoppers and diners in North Wilmington.

But anyone driving this stretch of the Route 202 corridor recently knows it’s seeing its fair share of changes.

Contributor Eileen Dallabrida takes a closer look at these changes and what they tell us about the state of retail shopping these days. 

The Route 202 corridor, long a destination for tax-free shopping, is a microcosm of sweeping changes on the retail front, with merchants increasingly focusing on goods and services that consumers need to buy in person rather than order online.

On a recent afternoon, a worker on a lift at Fairfax Shopping Center took down the sign on a boutique jewelry store that recently closed its doors. The new tenant is SuperCuts, a unisex hair salon franchise. 

Elsewhere in the plaza, patients roll up their sleeves at LabCorp, pick a color for a pedicure at Bella Nails, and get nuts-and-bolts advice from sales clerks neatly attired in shirts and ties at Fairfax Hardware. At the Pet Supplies Plus store, the busiest location in the chain’s Delaware-South Jersey market, animal lovers bring in their dogs and cats for low-cost routine care at the visiting veterinary clinic.

Credit Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
Three neighboring stores are all closing at Fairfax Shopping Center, leaving a large block of space to fill.

On the other side of the plaza, there are several dark storefronts created by the exits of a gift store, a sewing machine center and Payless Shoes, which went out of business and closed all 2,500 of its stores. Across the board, store closures are expected to set a record this year, with analysts forecasting 12,000 spaces will go dark.

“For a retail center to succeed today you need more personal services and restaurants because those are things you can’t buy on the internet,” says Pat Gioffre, of Gioffre Commercial Realty, a brokerage and management firm.

Demi Kollias, a longtime restaurateur, bought the property for her Claymont Steaks location on Route 202 to insulate her business from future increases in rental rates. She says the corridor is a sizzling location, with more than 55,000 cars passing each day.

“It’s the Main Street of North Wilmington,” she says. “Location is the most important thing and our location on 202 has exceeded our expectations.”

In 1950, when developer Alfred J. Vilone built the Fairfax center, 202 was a quiet route, four miles from King Street in Wilmington, then the predominant retail destination. Today, most of the verdant piedmont the byway bisects has been paved over for gas stations, storefronts, strip shopping centers and parking lots. There’s a cluster of chain restaurants, including TGIFriday's, Olive Garden, Red Lobster and The Greene Turtle Sports Bar & Grille.

Route 202 is not the prettiest stretch of road in northern New Castle County but it offers three attractive elements that have retailers seeing green: lots of traffic, abundant red lights and Delaware’s heralded tax-free shopping, an easy ride from Pennsylvania, where the sales tax is 6 percent.

“It’s the corridor to tax-free shopping, with population density with a good income,” Gioffre says.

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Delaware Public Media
The new Campus Commons next to Wilmington Univ.'s new campus features a Wawa and WSFS Bank branch

Here are a few changes in the retail landscape on this critical corridor:

  • Concord Pets, opened by Larry Mutschler in 1981, relocated from its longtime home on 202 North to a larger location on the southbound side. The new store is significantly larger, meaning Concord can lure patrons with such services as pet grooming.
  • Two new restaurants, El Camino Mexican Kitchen and Taverna, both operated by Platinum Dining Group, opened in The Concord, a new mixed-use complex on Silverside Road just off Route 202. Plans also call for 40,000 square feet of retail, office space and more than 340 one- and two-bedroom apartments that rent monthly for $1,400-$2,505. The landlord is currently offering an incentive to new tenants, $3,000 credit on select two-bedroom apartments and $1,500 on select one-bedroom units.
  • Wawa and a branch of WSFS are the first tenants in Campus Commons, a center with ready access to Wilmington University’s new Brandywine campus.

The 41-acre parcel developed by WilmU was the largest remaining open land on Route 202. A 2017 study prepared by the development advisory firm W-ZHA for the Wilmington Area Planning Council says a land pinch makes the corridor ripe for a makeover.
“Land scarcity may prove to be advantageous for the evolution of U.S. 202. Without the option of leapfrogging to a greenfield site, U.S. 202’s location makes it a prime redevelopment opportunity,” the reports says, noting opportunities for furniture stores, building materials, bars and restaurants.

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Delaware Public Media
Barnes and Noble traded its larger space near Concord Mall for this smaller, more intimate store down the street in Concord Square.

Concord Mall, the second-largest shopping mall in the state, announced plans for a massive transformation in 2017 but has yet to begin work. Meanwhile, Barnes & Noble relocated its 12,600-square-foot store to Concord Square and Sprouts organic grocer is taking over former Barnes & Noble site, continuing trend of growth in food-based businesses.

Jim Oeste, vice president of real estate for Allied Properties, the mall’s owner, says he has no update to share at this time on the mall's makeover or new tenants.

On a recent evening, the Bonefish Grill location at Concord is bustling. Foot traffic is brisk at Fast Feet Shoe Repair, an indie cobbler. There are fewer shoppers in the mall’s main corridor, populated mostly by stores selling apparel, accessories and mobile phones.

Allied is privately held and is no longer listing vacancy rates for the mall on its website. In 2018, Allied reported that 50,899 of the center’s 892,574 square feet was available for lease. Among the mall’s anchors is Delaware’s sole surviving Sears, a chain that is struggling and has shuttered hundreds of stores nationwide.

A record number of stores are expected to close in 2019, with retailers announcing more than 8,000 closures by mid-year. Gymboree filed bankruptcy and is shuttering more than 800 locations. Charlotte Russe, also in bankruptcy, is liquidating more than 500 stores. Gap is lopping 320 stores from its rolls. Dress Barn, which has a location on Route 202, will close all 650 of its stores. CFO Steven Taylor cited slim profits, saying “the Dressbarn chain has not been operating at an acceptable level of profitability in today's retail environment."

Even as bricks and mortar stores shift from goods to food, beverage and services, space will be hard to fill at shopping centers and strip malls. That’s because services such as salons require less square footage.

“SuperCuts needs 1,000 square feet. Dress Barn is 8,000 square feet,” Gioffre says. “That means it takes eight SuperCuts to fill one Dress Barn.”

In her latest survey, Rose Penny, an analyst for Colliers International, calculated the retail vacancy rate in New Castle County at 7.7 percent, slightly higher than the 6.5 percent rate in neighboring southeastern Pennsylvania, but lower than the 10.5 percent vacancy rate logged in South Jersey. The survey includes strip retail centers, lifestyle centers, neighborhood stores and malls over 25,000 square feet.

“The outlook for the second half of 2019 is cautiously optimistic, but largely dependent upon the stability of struggling retailers,” she reports. “For the short term, demand is keeping pace with supply.”

As consumer tastes evolve, so will landlords’ recipes for the right blend of tenants. Restaurants, now on the A list, were further down the food chain in the past because they require significant parking and generate lots of trash. Proprietors of dry cleaners hoped to pick up patrons shopping at neighboring stores. Today, merchants are hoping customers will visit their shops after they drop off their laundry.

Penny sees grow in burger and barbecue joints, brew pubs, and pizzerias, as well as global grocers.

That’s good news for local businesses, Gioffre says.

“Even if you order it online, someone has to produce it here.

Tracking other retail changes in the First State

There are lots of changes on the retail front as a number of marquee retailers announce closures and other players tee up to evolve or expand.

Credit Delaware Public Media
Delaware Public Media
A variety of changes are coming to the Prices Corner Shopping Center in the wake of the Sears location closing there.

Prices Corner, which hasn’t had an update since the center debuted in 1964, is upgrading with new signage with LED lighting on Kirkwood Highway, fresh paint and landscaping. A vacant Sears is getting a gut job in hopes to attracting a large new tenant or several smaller occupants.

Once Upon a Child closed its Limestone Road location on July 27 and set up shop at Prices Corner. Meanwhile, Avenue, a plus-size women’s clothing chain, is closing its doors at the center and two other Delaware locations, University Plaza in Newark and Rehoboth Beach.

Here are a few other retail developments in the First State:

  • In Newark, College Square shopping center, once anchored by Kmart, has been approved for a massive redevelopment that will include apartments in addition to retail. Following that trend, The Park N Shop Center, also in Newark, is adding apartment units.
  • Three new opportunities to shop are appearing at Christiana Mall. Caspar’s, a trendy concept in which mattresses are shipped to their destination in boxes the sign of a mini-fridge, recently opened its first brick-and-mortar presence. Previously, mattresses were sold online only. The North Face, a destination for the outdoorsy set, is selling performance apparel and hiking equipment. And shoppers who need a pick-me-up will be able to buy coffee and sugary goods at Dunkin’ Donuts.
  • Crooked Hammock Brewery is coming to Middletown, with a 4,000-square-foot restaurant, craft brewery and beer garden slated to open this fall. Crooked Hammock opened its first location in Lewes in 2015. In addition to barbecue and burgers, expect a few games, including bocce and corn hole.
  • Costco’s shopping warehouse near Christiana Mall is about to get even bigger. The retailer will add another 2,000 square feet of retail space. Costco also will fuel sales by adding gas pumps to the members-only warehouse shopping club.
  • Wegman’s, a grocer with a cult-like following, will open its first location in Delaware in the planned Barley Mill Plaza redevelopment at the intersection of Lancaster Pike and Route 141. The development by Newport-based Pettinaro also will include housing, retail and office buildings. A 2022 opening is planned.
  • In Dover, a shuttered Value City site is getting a new tenant. Part of the store is being renovated for a Dollar Tree, the chain’s fourth location in Dover. No tenant has been announced for the rest of the store.
  • Chuck Lager America’s Tavern is open at the new Linden Hill Station development in Pike Creek. A concept featuring dishes by Top Chef Fabio Viviani, the restaurant and sports bar offers rustic Italian and casual fare, with a selection of 25 draft beers, wines and hand-crafted cocktails. The tavern recently added a Sunday brunch service. A mixed-use development, Linden Hill also includes a 1,000-Degree Pizza franchise, a kitchen center, a salon, office space and residential housing.

Eileen Smith Dallabrida has written for Delaware Public Media since 2010. She's also written for USA Today, National Geographic Traveler, the Christian Science Monitor and many other news outlets.
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