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Enlighten Me: Riverfront businesses predict a lasting boost as Biden draws national spotlight

The Wilmington Riverfront has spent decades trying to find its identity and build its viability. 

Recently, it got an unlikely boost from Joe Biden. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Biden was forced to accept the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in the parking lot outside the Chase Center on the Riverfront.  Then just two weeks ago, he celebrated becoming President-elect in that same spot.

That helped put the Wilmington Riverfront, and specifically the Chase Center, on the national radar.  Contributor Jon Hurdle examines how much the attention could help them.

The national spotlight may never again shine as brightly on Wilmington as it did on the evening of Nov. 7 when Joe Biden claimed his title as President-elect at the Chase Center in the city’s Riverfront district.

But local businesses have already benefited from the intense media attention before and since Biden’s speech, and are expecting more customers to walk through their doors during presidential transition period and perhaps beyond.

Hundreds of reporters and political staff have swelled revenue at hotels and restaurants near the conference center, and more are expected in coming months, helping to soften the heavy financial blow dealt by Covid-related shutdowns and shrinkage of traffic.

Even if the election-related surge in business can’t be fully sustained, Biden’s presence at the Riverfront has given it, and perhaps the whole city of Wilmington, some national recognition that it would not otherwise have had, and that’s likely to be of lasting benefit, according to one local restaurant owner.

“It adds a little je ne sais quoi to Wilmington and to Delaware,” said Venu Gaddamidi, owner of Ciro Food & Drink, a restaurant, and Veritas, a wine store, both on the same riverfront site. “There’s always this reaction like: ‘Where is Delaware? What is Delaware? Who wants to live in Delaware?’.

Credit Delaware Public Media
Venu Gaddamidi, owner of Ciro Food & Drink and Veritas, says his businesses have been helped by Joe Biden's presence on the Riverfront this month.

“For most of us as business owners and most of us who live here, we love this place, it’s where we’re from, it’s part of our identity. Now we can say: ‘We have the President of the United States, the most important job in the world.’”

Biden’s presence, he said, “eradicates those questions like ‘What is Delaware?’ I think there’s going to be a lot more interest in having events here, and that’s going to provide more reason for having more growth.”

Gaddamidi said his restaurant revenue has plunged by some 80 percent since the pandemic started but he was able to claw some of that back in the form of a surge in takeout orders on the night of Biden’s speech. That’s when he also saw a big increase in sales from his wine shop, particularly of champagne purchased by celebrating Democrats.

Combined with already-robust sales of wines and spirits for people to drink at home during the pandemic, Gaddamidi estimated that his overall alcohol sales for the two weeks either side of the election were 50 percent higher than a year ago; that is, before the pandemic began.

“It’s an absolute welcome for not just my business but all the other restaurants and hotels in the area that have suffered heavily due to all the regulations with Covid,” he said.

The expected economic boost may also increase bookings for the Chase Center, which was held back by a shortage of nearby hotel space, and by its relatively small size – some 90,000 square feet – compared with local competitors such as the much larger Pennsylvania Convention Center in Philadelphia.

But the accommodation shortage eased in 2014 with construction of a Westin hotel adjoining the convention center. Two other hotels, the Hyatt Wilmington and the Homewood Suites, have since opened on the Riverfront development, making it easier for attendees to walk to their meetings, and increasing the attractiveness of the Chase Center for groups wanting to hold meetings and conventions.

Credit Delaware Public Media
The addition of hotels like the Hyatt Place and Homewood Suites have helped The Chase Center's efforts to draw business

That helped to drive gross sales up 8 percent in fiscal 2019 but the improvement suddenly halted early this year when it was shut down by the state in the effort to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. Although the center has reopened with a maximum occupancy of 60 percent, many customers are still wary of inside events, and so it will take some time to rebuild to pre-pandemic levels, said Megan McGlinchey, executive director of the Riverfront Development Corporation of Delaware, which manages the complex.

Whenever Covid is under control, the center’s new high profile will allow it to compete with bigger venues like the convention centers in Baltimore and Philadelphia, McGlinchey said.

“It really put Delaware on the map, and Wilmington and the Riverfront in particular,” she said. “Now that Joe Biden is the president-elect, Delaware is going to have a high visibility over the next four years, and we’re looking to capitalize on that.”

The center already got a boost from hosting part of the Democratic National Convention in August, and will be building on that with the extra exposure provided by the successful Biden campaign.

It’s definitely going to be something we can use when we are out there marketing, post-Covid,” she said. “If we can host something of that scale, then at this point I think we can do just about any event.”

"Now that Joe Biden is the president-elect, Delaware is going to have a high visibility over the next four years, and we’re looking to capitalize on that." - Megan McGlinchey, Riverfront Development Corporation executive director

The opportunity to raise the national profiles of both Wilmington and Delaware has been seized by the Greater Wilmington Convention and Visitors Bureau, whose director of media relations, Jen Boes, predicted the benefits will outlast the initial post-election euphoria.

“The worldwide attention Greater Wilmington and the Brandywine Valley have received goes beyond hard news,” Boes said. “We’ve gotten a lot of inquiries from people wanting to know where the Bidens eat, shop and spend their leisure time locally. And they want to experience all of these things first-hand. We feel confident this interest will continue long after the Inauguration.”

She said hotels at the Riverfront are “full” with media, and are expected to stay that way until at least the inauguration on Jan. 20 next year.

In addition to the reporters covering breaking news about the Biden campaign, and now transition, there has been a lot of media interest in lifestyle topics such as where the Bidens like to eat, the subject of a recent story in Food & Wine magazine, Boes said.

She predicted that Biden’s presence, whether to announce policy or eat in local restaurants, will draw more visitors to Wilmington, especially from nearby cities in the densely populated northeast – where Wilmington is centrally located. During the pandemic, visitors are more likely to drive than fly or take the train in order to reduce the risk of infection, she said.

“The Biden connection is just the leverage we needed to spread the word about our region,” she said. “You can’t put a price tag on this level of exposure.”

But Jim Butkiewicz, a professor of economics at the University of Delaware, argued that the benefits to local businesses of President-elect Biden’s presence in Delaware will be mostly lost because Covid has deterred travel to Delaware and will continue to do so.

"By the time restrictions are likely relaxed sometime in 2021, Joe will be in DC, and events in Delaware will just be a memory to most people. The virus changes everything." - Jim Butkiewicz, UD economics professor

“With increasing travel restrictions as the virus surges, much of any benefit is lost,” he said. “By the time restrictions are likely relaxed sometime in 2021, Joe will be in DC, and events in Delaware will just be a memory to most people.  The virus changes everything.”

Still, Delaware’s hosting of a new president must represent valuable, free publicity, said Kurt Foreman, president of the Delaware Prosperity Partnership, an economic-development agency that seeks to attract businesses to Delaware.

“The attention for the community was certainly something that would take us a lot of effort to – quote – buy,” Foreman said. “Having Wilmington, Delaware across the bottom of most people’s TVs for the last couple of weeks…certainly helps us visibility-wise.”

He predicted that the DPP will now get some inquiries that it wouldn’t have seen unless Biden had won the election, and gives Delaware a new opportunity to distinguish itself from competing states.
“It gives us a platform to get our message through the clutter of all the messages around the community,” he said.

Any new business opportunities sparked by the focus on Biden are more likely to come from international markets, Foreman said, because companies looking to expand into the United States may take a harder look at the state that’s now identified around the world with the President-elect.

“International companies may say, ‘That’s a place we should look at’ just because it’s visible,” he said.

Jon has been reporting on environmental and other topics for Delaware Public Media since 2011. Stories range from sea-level rise and commercial composting to the rebuilding program at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and the University of Delaware’s aborted data center plan.