Milford Downtown Milford Director to Retire

Lee Nelson holding a blank sculpture from the Art on the Riverwalk Tour public art project. The beautifully painted boats can now be found around the Mispillion Riverwalk.
Lee Nelson holding a blank sculpture from the Art on the Riverwalk Tour public art project. The beautifully painted boats can now be found around the Mispillion Riverwalk.

By Terry Rogers

On July 22, Downtown Milford Inc.’s Executive Director Lee Nelson will step down after five years in Milford and ten years as a Main Street Manager with the organization. Mr. Nelson says that he and his wife, Anne Jenkins, are planning to combine leisure with business.

“We are planning to full-time RV around the country,” Mr. Nelson said. “We are going to operate a consulting firm, traveling around to rural America’s small towns helping them focus on art as a valuable economic development and placemaking tool. We want to go wherever opportunities exist and provide them information on projects we have seen be successful.” Mr. Nelson said that after ten years as a Main Street manager, he felt it was time to do other things.

When asked what he felt his biggest successes were during his tenure at DMI, Mr. Nelson said that he does not feel they were his successes. He said that he viewed himself as the conductor of a symphony, making sure the players were playing the same song and moving in the same direction. He said he owed every DMI success to the many volunteers who worked tirelessly to make things happen.

“I was very fortunate to have two very strong presidents during my time here,” Mr. Nelson said. “Irv Ambrose and SaraKate Hammer were critical to the success of DMI. All of the partners we worked with like the City, Parks and Recreation, the Delaware Economic Development Department, the Mispillion Art League, Riverwalk Theatre, Milford Senior Center, Milford Library, were all incredibly supportive and helpful.”

Mr. Nelson said that he is very proud of the awards DMI has won over the years. He pointed out that the Diversity Project won the first technical assistance award and has been applauded as a national first among Main Street organizations. He said he is also proud of the five awards given to DMI by DEDO out of the 15 available last year. He said that he could not pick a favorite event out of all of those sponsored by DMI each year.

“The value of the events were unique, bringing the community together,” Mr. Nelson said. “They create a sense of place. It is great that our existing events are well-established and that the newer ones are adding a different flavor to the town. New events like the Roaring 20’s party are not only fun, but they have an important goal and that is to raise money for historic preservation. DMI had not done much of that in the past, but now we have a foundation for promotion of historic preservation. Once that is totally up and running, it has great potential. The Brewgrass Festival brought a different demographic to town which is exciting. The International Food Festival, which is scheduled for October, is another great new event that offers people a chance to get a feel for other cultures.”

As for challenges he faced during his tenure at DMI, Mr. Nelson said that, when he arrived, there was not an organized method for tracking finances. He worked to establish standardized tracking of finances, allowing the group to attract two large sponsors in Bayhealth and Milford Chronicle. He said that DMI now has a realistic and accountable budgeting process as opposed to the relaxed method used before he arrived. He said his biggest challenge was creating a downtown organization that was sustainable and healthy.

“We moved toward more committee driven activities than individual driven,” Mr. Nelson said. “With individual-driven events, when the individual in charge can no longer commit or grows tired of the requirements, the event stops. With a committee-driven focus, even if the leader has to step down, another committee member can step into the leadership role.”

Mr. Nelson said that Milford’s future looks bright and that the “stars are aligning” to make Milford great. He said that the new Bayhealth campus has given Milford a renewed vigor and that there seems to be a new attitude growing in the town. He says that the Mayor, City Manager and new City Council members are bringing new ideas to the table that will move Milford in a positive direction. Mr. Nelson noted that changes are already happening with Josephine Keir, Coolspring Cottage and Touch of Italy, which will be opening in the former M&T Bank building in the near future. He said that the Downtown Master Plan gives a visual blueprint of how downtown should look as well as a plan to follow to move Milford in the right direction.

DMI Board President, SaraKate Hammer, said that the board is actively recruiting for a new Executive Director. They are searching for someone who is familiar with the Main street program as well as experience and education commensurate with managing and directing an incredibly active non-profit. DMI is growing and Ms. Hammer says the new director will need to be ready to guide the growth and bring the energy needed to keep the momentum going.

“Lee has been an invaluable resource for DMI,” Ms. Hammer said. “In the years since has been at the helm, DMI has seen a marked increase in volunteers, programming and state and national attention highlighting our work through awards and articles. Among the many awards, including five at last year’s Downtown Delaware awards ceremony, DMI was a semi-finalist for the Great American Main Street Award in 2014. The acknowledgement on the national level was great validation for the hard work and creativity Lee brought to DMI during his tenure. With Lee’s guidance, DMI saw the addition of the Riverwalk ARTtour boats which he was instrumental in securing funding for, an award-winning partnership with Eat Drink & Buy Art and growth of our volunteer base to over 200 people. In the recent year, Lee helped DMI secure a national grant and a VISTA volunteer in Noa Kornbluh to helpDMI diversify our programs and volunteer base. Additionally, Lee has been a great manager, dutifully attending meetings for all of our events and programs, providing at touchstone for our Board and volunteers to help keep us focused and organized. We will certainly miss his knowledge and insight into all things DMI and his presence as the face of DMI to our community.”

Ms. Hammer said that Mr. Nelson’s replacement will need to be ready to keep up with an aggressive agenda to make Milford the best downtown in the state to live, work and play. The Board is seeking someone with more grant research and acquisitions to fund the great economic development ideas presented, including preservation programming with the DMI Milford Historical Preservation Group. She said that there are so many great ideas that will be tossed at the new director and they hope the chosen candidate will be able to make the ideas become reality. Mr. Nelson says that the perfect candidate should have an enthusiasm for growing downtown Milford, but should also have a sense of humor. He said it is important to realize that not everything has to be serious. DMI has posted the job description and application procedure on their website.

“While we are sad to see Lee leave Milford, DMI is certainly a better organization for his time and commitment to the mission and vision of DMI,” Ms. Hammer said. “Additionally, his wife, Anne, has been a wonderful partner to DMI, volunteering for numerous positions in our organization and really giving us a two-for-one deal when they arrived in Milford. We will miss them both together and the unique energy and brush strokes they contributed to our community development.”

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