In August, Middletown was added to the list of cities with a Downtown Development District designation, but that hardly marks the start of work to revitalize its downtown.
Contributor Eileen Dallabrida tells it is already springing to life and merchants there are seeking ways to build on that momentum.
It’s Tuesday afternoon and James Snow is tidying up between customers at the Little Emporium, the gift store he opened in November 2017 in downtown Middletown.
The shelves are stocked with handmade soaps, jewelry, art prints, candles and cutting boards shaped like the state of Delaware. There’s a one-of-a-kind vintage kerosene lantern converted to an electric lamp by Ron Snow, his handy dad.
“We had a good amount of wall art made from Delaware license plates but we sold out,” he says.
Business is bustling in this historic town, first settled in 1675 as a stop for oxcarts hauling goods between the Appoquinimink Creek and the Bohemia River.
Tradesmen are hard at work on the renovation of the old Delaware Trust Bank, vacant for almost 20 years, that will open as a 140-seat Italian restaurant in October. Volunteer Brewing bought the house next-door to its business to expand operations. Sweet Melissa, a trendy bakery, and Nicole J, a women’s clothing boutique, also have up-sized.
It’s a far cry from 2003, when Snow moved to Middletown for four years before heading to greener pastures.
“Other than the hardware store, there wasn’t a whole lot going on downtown back then,” he recalls. “Middletown has made quite a comeback.”
That’s been spurred, in part, by a $49,500 Neighborhood Block Grant in 2017, and, in August, by Middletown’s designation by the state as a Downtown Development District.
Developers are eligible for up to 20 percent of their construction costs in the form of rebates awarded by the Delaware State Housing Authority after the work is done.
Middletown is part of a national trend, in which small downtowns are being reinterpreted and revitalized. A few examples:
- Easton, Maryland, is building a reputation as an arts destination and is one of 26 districts in the state offering tax incentives to local artists and creative businesses. Developers receive a property tax abatement for artistic-related improvements to buildings, and local artists can draw a state income tax deduction for art created and sold within the 110-acre creative district.
- Philipsburg, Montana, fell on hard times with the decline of mining. The picturesque town has reinvented itself as a tourist mecca, rehabbing 19th century storefronts and attracting a summer theater program, a brewery, a candy shop, a barbecue, and several jewelry stores that feature locally mined sapphires.
- Water Valley Mississippi revitalized its moribund Main Street by recruiting investors to repurpose vintage buildings. A defunct service station converted to a restaurant now fuels patrons with food. The old machine shop is a craft brewery. A vacant department store has been rehabbed into a multi-purpose space, housing a grocery store, café and over-the-store apartments.
Capitalizing on growth
The initial undoing of downtown Middletown might have been its rapid growth. The population more than doubled between 2000-2010 as the town annexed property. Housing and retail boomed in the burbs while the downtown withered.
Now, with 22,582 prospective customers, independent merchants are intent on drawing Middletowners downtown, as well as attracting shoppers from Odessa, Townsend and Maryland.
Jennifer Marsh operates Stubborn Soul with her mother Sandy Dukes. She relocated the boutique last year from Clayton, which also was designated in August as a Downtown Development District.
“With the growth of Middletown, we felt it was the right fit,” she says. “We wanted to be in a downtown with other businesses around, so there is foot traffic coming in the door.”
The boutique is located in the old hardware store, a mainstay of Middletown for generations. Marsh and her customers appreciate that sense of history.
“When people come in the door, they immediately comment that we kept the old cracked and creaking hardwood floors,” she says.
Banking on development
That building and others in town were renovated by developer Rick Clark, whose latest project is La Banca, the restaurant poised to open in the circa 1918 bank building. Clark’s RM Hospitality Group also runs Metro Pub and Grill and has been investing in Middletown since December 2015.
“We are true believers that the downtown is the heart of the community, a place where people come often to gather with their family and friends,” says Adam Cofield, Clark’s business manager.
Cofield says Middletown’s designation as a Downtown Development District will spur more investment in town. That will add to the district’s slate of stores and services, which already includes such players as a tailor, a karate school and a freshly opened spa and salon, Dolls on Main. The Everett Theatre, an historic venue featured in the movie “Dead Poets Society,” is home to a troupe of thespians who stage monthly performances.
At least once a week, Cofield heads to Marlena’s Mediterranean Deli for the shawarma wrap, a combo of spit-roasted chicken, garlic sauce, and pickles in pita bread.
“It’s so delicious, my mouth waters when I think about it,” he says.
Unique offerings and friendly service also are what draw A.K. White downtown.
“I’ve lived in Delaware my whole life but I never felt like I lived in a town until I moved to Middletown,” she says. “A big part of that vibe comes from the energy and passion that the local downtown business owners put out into the world.”
For creative inspiration, she heads to UNika Customs, a shop Green Street owned by Nika Hipsher that focuses on upcycled and recycled furnishings and accessories.
“Not only are the gifts clever and interesting, Nika runs sign-making classes around the holidays that are so fun, with food and wine,” she says. “You walk out with new friends and new décor.”
Daneya Jacobs, executive director of Middletown Main Street, says that sense of connection is essential to Middletown’s success.
“People love that when they come into a small business they are more likely to be greeted by the owner, someone who is passionate about the business,” she says. “Middletown can be your one-stop destination.”
Middletown Main Street is a non-profit organization working with the community to revitalize the downtown district into a cultural and retail destination while maintaining its historic character.
“As time goes on our mission has been shifting from revitalization to finding entrepreneurs to fill those buildings,” she says. “We believe Middletown is a place where businesses can grow.”
Despite significant successes, downtown Middletown is a work in progress. Merchants would like to see a brochure with a locator map of businesses, as well as signage directing pedestrians to various attractions. Parking is abundant and free, but there are no signs that tell motorists where to find it. A number of merchants don’t keep regular hours, leaving prospective customers frustrated when they arrive and find the business closed.
Jacobs says efforts to improve signage are in the works. The association encourages merchants to keep regular hours but no district-wide policy has been established.
“Sundays and Mondays can be a little spotty,” she says.
Back at the Little Emporium, Snow is unpacking hand-carved gourds he buys from a farming family in Pennsylvania. He’s looking forward to Hocus Pocus Halloween, an Oct. 13 event sponsored by Downtown Middletown to attract families to the district. More than 30 vendors registered for a fall crafts festival on Sept. 28. Friday night Yappy Hours, in which patrons are encouraged to bring their dogs downtown, is bringing in pet lovers.
Successful sales have allowed him to put more money into inventory, which he expects will contribute to a prosperous holiday shopping season.
“It’s good to be in Middletown,” he says. “There are lots of opportunities coming our way.”