Government & Politics

City Seeks Downtown Development District

22By Terry Rogers

In January 2015, Governor Jack Markell named one city in each Delaware county as a Downtown Development District. Seaford, Dover and Wilmington were chosen for the inaugural designation, whose businesses and residents were then eligible for grants of up to 20 percent of the cost of investments in their property. The program was modeled after a Virginia program that proved successful in leveraging significant amounts of private investment. This year, the governor chose to continue the program and Milford plans to apply for the designation.

Mayor Bryan Shupe said that he was encouraged to see Governor Markell expand the Downtown Development District designation to include more towns throughout the state.

“Recently, the City of Milford has been creating incentives that allow the City to allocate public funds with the assurance that private investment follows and jobs are created,” Mayor Shupe said. “The DDD will help us in this effort as businesses of all sizes will be eligible for state grants for investing in the city of Milford. The designation will also allow us to use tools to encourage home ownership as well as raise the quality of existing housing stock.”

Mayor Shupe believes that a Delaware Downtown Development district would work well with the recently released Rivertown Rebirth plan created by Muldrow & Associates. He said that through the public workshops held throughout the process  that created the Rivertown Rebirth plan, residents identified that they would like to see more restaurants and shopping as well as more housing options in the downtown area.

“If we receive this designation, a developer, homeowner or business owner could receive 20 percent of the money they invest in the downtown area returned to them,” said Rob Pierce, City Planner. “If someone spends $2 million in the area, that would be a return of $400,000. In addition, the designation provides special financing to promote home ownership, historic preservation incentives and assistance from the Delaware Economic Development Office (DEDO).” Mayor Shupe said that the City has already been approached by several investors after they heard the news of the program expansion, indicating they would like to develop mixed-use buildings downtown to serve as locations for commercial and residential use.

In addition to economic growth Mayor Shupe said that the designation would allow the city to address other concerns regarding the quality of housing stock in the downtown area.

“Through the DDD we will work with the State Housing Authority to offer incentives for home ownership and property improvements,” Mayor Shupe said. “The City of Milford and the Economic Development Committee are currently constructing commercial and residential incentives that will be a part of the overall application. The City of Milford also hopes to use this partnership with the State of Delaware as a pilot program to analyze and explore additional economic development incentives and opportunities throughout the city.”

Mr. Pierce explained to City Council on Monday, April 11, that in order to offer the incentives to more people in Milford, the downtown boundary lines needed to be expanded. Using similar boundaries outlined in the Riverwalk Rebirth plan, Mr. Pierce presented an expanded downtown area that would encompass more residential properties than the current boundary.

“The application allows us to include up to 170 acres as part of the downtown area,” Mr. Pierce said. “I reviewed the downtown areas and, using criteria like blight, housing, rentals and other factors, developed a boundary that would encompass parts of all four wards in the city. This boundary represents just over 169 acres, so it meets the criteria of the Downtown Development District requirements.”

Mr. Pierce also showed a map to council that demonstrated the large number of rental properties in the downtown area. He said that there were currently 171 rental licenses in the area that would be included in Milford’s downtown. Mr. Pierce also said that 73 percent of the buildings in the designated area were built prior to 1950, indicating that a large number of the buildings had historic value and would benefit from some of the historic preservation incentives. He said that approximately one-third of the buildings were commercial with the remaining two-thirds residential.

“It seems as if we are coming back to home ownership,” Councilwoman Katrina Wilson said. “We need to focus on that more in our downtown area as this rental property map indicates. That is a lot of rentals in one area.” Mr. Pierce said that some of the information included in the application packet discussed ways to offer incentives that promoted home ownership using tax abatements and other cost-saving measures.

City Manager Eric Norenberg said that the deadline for the application was June 1 and that he was hoping to have significant feedback from council, residents and business owners prior to the submission. He said that it was clear that there were many people who wanted to be part of the growth in Milford and that their input could be important to submitting a winning application.

“I am pleased to see that the housing authority is working on this as well,” Councilwoman Wilson said. “How can we promote a walkable, beautiful downtown when we have dilapidated buildings one block away? When we fix up one area, it pushes other areas to make improvements as well.”

Mr. Pierce said that one of the aspects of the program that could benefit the city were electric vehicle charging stations which many small towns have begun investing in to improve visitor experience. He said that the city planned to work with many partners, including Downtown Milford Inc., Chamber of Commerce of Greater Milford, Bayhealth, Milford School District and others.

“One of the things I read in this application was working with Farmer’s Markets, and ours is thriving, to provide meals for children,” Councilwoman Lisa Ingram-Peel said. “I’d like to see us look into some of those programs as well and see if we can incorporate them into our downtown area.”

Mayor Shupe asked residents, business and potential investors to communicate with him, the City and council members about any ideas that would help to create a successful application for the Delaware Downtown Designation in order to create a robust downtown.

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