Community members, Millsboro residents and business owners met with state officials last week to have an open discussion about local issues and needs. During the meeting, Jessica Wiggins — president of the nonprofit Millsboro Downtown Partnership (MDP) and owner of Blue Water Grill — announced that the MDP would be taking a break from its efforts to revitalize the town.
“We’ll keep everything open. We’re not dissolving the organization; we’re just putting it on hold. There are still plenty of funds available for small projects. I hope that Millsboro will be ready for this soon — because we certainly need it.”
MDP was created in 2010, after Wiggins was approached by Diane Laird, state coordinator for the Downtown Delaware/Delaware Economic Development Office, to see if she had any interest in revitalizing the town.
“Because I’m in the downtown and talk to a lot of people, I said, ‘Absolutely! I can see it and certainly know a lot of other people who would love to see a change,’” recalled Wiggins. “It started from there, and it just kind of grew.”
Wiggins said that, although the nonprofit started out with good support, it waned after facing numerous obstacles.
“There were so many walls. With having so few people who were really willing to do the work, we realized it just wasn’t the right time, unfortunately,” she said, noting that the end of the summer of 2013 was when those involved in the organization realized they needed to take a break.
“We had lost board members and gained new ones. The farmers’ market was sort of the last straw. We tried really hard to make it work. Our market master had a really difficult time trying to find volunteers to help and ended up essentially running it by himself,” she said. “We just didn’t have the support and volunteers — the organization as a whole — to make it work. We were becoming very burnt-out.”
On March 18, Laird, along with Kathy LaPlante, senior program officer for the National Main Street Center, and Rick Ferrell, business development consultant, took a walking tour of the town, met with Mayor Robert Bryan and the council, and later held a meeting with community stakeholders.
In 2012, the Delaware Economic Development Office (DEDO)/Downtown Delaware had received a three-year USDA Rural Community Development Initiative (RCDI) grant. It was the second RCDI that DEDO had been awarded, the first being in 2008. In both years, Millsboro was included as a recipient town, making it eligible to receive technical assistance and training services targeted to downtown revitalization.
DEDO has worked with members of the Town of Millsboro, as well as with some community stakeholders over the past several years. The MDP was created as a result of local stakeholders forming a committee and establishing a non-profit organization. Those who attended the meeting discussed where the nonprofit can go moving forward.
Those involved in the partnership said that there needed to be better support from the Town in order for the nonprofit to succeed.
“We can’t even get the Town to donate flyers,” said Alice Betts.
Those who attended the meeting were asked, if they had a magic wand, what would they do to improve the town?
“What I would like to see for the town would be, for lack of better word, cooperation, being on the same page,” said Millsboro resident Peg Buzzelli. “The residents, businesses, the town council and Chamber — those three groups have to be together on this. When we worked before together on some of these events, I didn’t see it.”
“The one thing I would like to see with the downtown is small family-run business opportunity,” said Amy Simmons, executive director of the Greater Millsboro Chamber of Commerce.
Simmons said that the Chamber mostly focuses on the small businesses in town, as most of the larger businesses out on the highway, including BJ’s, do not want to join the Chamber.
“I’ve lived here all my life,” she said, adding that she wants to see the downtown area improve. “We have three great restaurants. We have got the anchor to this, if we can just figure what to do from here. We do have things to offer.”
“I’d like to see the town improve and make it more exciting for people to want to come to Millsboro,” said Kathy Higgins, a member of the Millsboro Garden Club and MDP.
Dan Reed, who recently moved to Long Neck from Maryland, said he was interested in the town and what could be done to make it more attractive.
“I’m here to see if there is some way I can help the process.”
“I would increase staffing within the Town that would allow more efforts in revitalization,” said Wiggings, adding she’d also work to have better communication within the Town and connect all those invested.
Wiggins also said there is a lack of accountability to commercial property owners who are not in town limits.
“There is definitely an issue with property owners versus business owners,” she said. “As an organization, we found it difficult. We didn’t want to step on toes.”
Higgins said that, with the absentee landlords, there needs to be a way to incentivize owners to be more responsive to the needs of the tenants in the town.
Laird that, sometimes, dealing with absentee property owners requires those in town to find the property owners who “will play.”
“Sometimes, you have to wait until they sell the building or move on,” she said.
LaPlante echoed Laird, saying there are probably property owners who would be willing to invest in the town where they own.
“Recognize that we’re coming out of a really bad period of time where people didn’t have the money to invest,” she said, noting Delaware’s Project Pop-Up, which incentivizes property owners to offer small businesses three months’ rent, free of charge, with the prospect of a long-term lease agreement afterward.
“The State is partnering to do some good things,” she said.
She added that having an open dialogue with property owners would be beneficial in the long run.
Ferrell spoke to the group, stating that it is important for the group to identify problems more specifically before working on fixing the issues.
“You have to make sure the incentive is the right tool to be responsive to the problem. It may not be enough to say the issue is an absentee owner,” he said. “The absenteeism is not the reason something is happening to that property… You need to peel the onion a little bit more and get into what is it that you want and get back to what is their plan and what you need.”
Laird said that Main Street can help small nonprofits who want to revitalize their town but lacks the staff to oversee the efforts. She added that most programs receive 20 percent of their overall budget through the town.
She noted that Middletown thought it was so important to have a Main Street program that the Town financially backed its first year and hired a fulltime manager. Within a year, the program amassed a board of directors and brought in funding to continue.
“Not all towns have that level of support,” she added. “In any town that wants a Main Street program, there has to be support from the government.”
Wiggins said that those involved in MDP have decided to put the partnership on hold until further notice.
“Sometimes the environment just isn’t right to launch this kind of an effort. I believe there were some good accomplishments to date,” said Laird, noting the downtown clean-ups and the farmers’ market. “It may be that this break is exactly what is needed. Feel good about what you’ve accomplished, even with challenges.”
The results of the study conducted by the DEDO is expected to be released in five weeks.
“I applaud your efforts to date,” said Laird. “I think right now I think you’ve made a right decision in setting things on hold… As time goes on, things change, and the time will be right at some point.”
Wiggins said she hoped that sometime in the near future all those with vested interests in the town will become more interested and the MDP’s efforts will resume.
“I truly hope that we can pick up on this right where we left off, that there will be more people in place who are willing to work for this, who truly want it,” she said. “I hope that we have more interest in the future, that we have more people in place that can do the legwork, that the town government will support us, where revitalization will be a priority. Right now isn’t the time.
“The vision I have for the town is great. Streetscape enhancement, more businesses… it could be great. I hope it can be that someday soon in the future.”
Those who are interested in learning more about the Millsboro Downtown Partnership can visit www.facebook.com/pages/Millsboro-Downtown-Partnership/134878176601818?re... or can contact Wiggins at firstname.lastname@example.org.