BREAKING NEWS: Georgetown's Circle area now closed ahead of Biden's Return Day visit

Organizers of Sussex County’s annual Return Day festivities in Georgetown confirmed Wednesday, Nov. 5, that Vice-President-Elect and Delaware U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. will be attending this year’s event. The news confirmed rumors that have been swirling around the area for weeks, with expectations of a Biden visit raised by his longtime habit of attending Return Day – an event he has not missed since first being elected to statewide office. The news led to the immediate closure of the area around Georgetown's historic Circle, nearly 24 hours ahead of the previously announced schedule.

Return Day organizers said Wednesday that they were unable to confirm related rumors that President-Elect Sen. Barack Obama might also attend the event this year, just two days after becoming the first black candidate ever elected to the nation’s top office.

Regardless, already heightened security measures for Return Day received even higher focus mid-week with confirmation that Biden would be attending. Government offices throughout the area were scheduled to close for the day as the county prepares to celebrate its annual Return Day festivities, complete with a parade and speeches, and security concerns and logistical operations closed an extended area leading to The Circle.

The Sussex County Administrative Building, at 2 The Circle, will be closed on Nov. 6. The public will not be permitted to enter the building. That includes title searchers, who traditionally work in the building’s basement area, organizers of the Return Day event emphasized this week during an update to the Sussex County Council.

Except in the case of a possible maintenance issue or other problem requiring their presence, no county employees will be allowed in the county administrative building either.

The following courts in Sussex County, located on or near The Circle in Georgetown, will not be open to the public for court business, due to Return Day events: the Supreme Court, Chancery Court, Superior Court (except the Board of Canvass), Court of Common Pleas, Family Court, Justice of the Peace Court No. 14 and the Chief Magistrate’s Office, Sussex County Law Library and Administrative Office of the Courts.

Parking in the area will be affected, too, with the courthouse parking lot cleared Wednesday afternoon and to remain closed through the end of Return Day festivities on Thursday. The parking lot located near the Tunnel and Razor law offices that is traditionally used by county officials will also be closed, its use restricted to dignitaries attending Return Day.

The parking lot near the Dominoes pizza shop will also be closed to vehicular traffic, to be used for the traditional arts-and-crafts part of the Return Day event and a live radio broadcast.

Those who might traditionally have tried for parking spaces near The Circle are being encouraged to look instead to park-and-ride services that will be provided at a number of locations in or near Georgetown, starting at 11 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 6, and running until about 6 p.m.

Park-and-ride locations include North Georgetown Elementary School on Route 113, Delaware Tech at Routes 113 and 404, and the Sports at the Beach complex.

Security measures beefed up for Biden visit

“It’s a little different situation this year, to say the least,” said organizers on Oct. 28 in providing an update to county council members.

“We need rumor control,” they added, referencing the rumors sparked by enhanced Secret Service involvement this year that Biden Jr. would once again attend Return Day and might bring Obama with him.

Return Day Committee President Rosalie Walls said last week that she wanted to reassure the public that the Return Day everyone knows and loves will look and feel the same, even with a few new measures in place.

The enhanced security measures for 2008’s Return Day will see the county’s emergency operations center remain open but being manned on the inside by representatives of various state agencies as an incident management team “in the event something happens.”

Additional security measures for the parade include a prohibition on fuel tanker trucks and other large enclosed vehicles, such as garbage trucks and tractor-trailers, and a prohibition on throwing candy or other items from parade entries.

All entries in the parade had to be registered by Oct. 30. They will have to be in staging areas near Georgetown Elementary School by no later than 11 a.m. on return day to allow for inspections and security checks.

Officials are asking the public to refrain from bringing backpacks, coolers and large purses to Return Day, if possible, as those items would be subject to search. Under the newly enhanced security measures, everyone attending the event will be expected to pass through metal detectors. They will be permitted to bring lawn chairs for seating, but those chairs must not be left attended. Those that are left unattended - including any left in the Circle area overnight by way of saving viewing spots - will be confiscated, officials warned on Wednesday. Everyone who plans to attend was encouraged to arrive early due to the high-profile nature of the event this year.

Vendors participating in Return Day will need to be in place by 8 a.m. and will be located at least a block away from The Circle to accommodate security.

Sussex County Council members are to ride together in the traditional parade, and motorcoaches are expected to take dignitaries from DelTech to board the antique cars, horse-drawn carriages and other conveyances that they will ride in the parade.

Parade participants won’t be allowed to exit the parade early, as some have done in past years, due to security and safety concerns.

“A lot of the precautions we are taking are for the safety of the people, not just our elected leaders,” said Georgetown Police Chief William Tapping. “But everything is going to be as normal as we can make it. We want everyone to have a good time, and we want to showcase Georgetown, Sussex County and the state of Delaware in the best light possible.”

Event has lengthy history

According to event organizers, although the date of the first Return Day in Georgetown is uncertain, it could have been as early as 1792. The state law in 1791 removing the county seat from Lewes along the coast to the a more geographically centered site, later named Georgetown, required all votes to be cast in the new County Seat on election day.

The same voters would “return” two days later to hear the results - hence the name Return Day.

In 1811, voting districts in individual “hundreds” were established, but the Board of Canvassers presided over by the Sheriff would still meet two days later in Georgetown to announce the final tally.

According to the “History of Delaware” by J. Thomas Sharff, written in 1888, Return Day was “one of the customs peculiar to the people of Sussex, from time immemorial, … holding a high carnival on the day when the results of the election are announced.”

“Booths, stalls and stands are erected near the courthouse, where all kinds of edibles, such as opossum and rabbit meat, fish and oysters, can be procured. The women, who constitute a considerable portion of the crowd, are generously treated to cakes, candies and the best the booths afford.”

In the tradition of the 19th century booths, ox-roast sandwiches, fresh from an all-night open-pit barbecue, are distributed to the throngs attending Return Day, at no charge.

After the parade, Return Day attendees can join Delaware’s political leaders on the main stage on The Circle in front of the Sussex County Courthouse to hear the town crier deliver the returns from the Courthouse balcony, and the dramatic “Burial of the Tomahawk” by Sussex County’s party chairmen will officially end Delaware’s political season.

Road closures were planned starting Nov. 5

“We have been working with the Secret Service,” organizers noted last Tuesday. “And the plan could change, depending on what the Secret Service dictates.”

Plans that were said to potentially be altered at the last minute included street closures in the area, which were originally slated to begin at 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 5, but went into effect mid-day on Wednesday, when the following streets were closed:

• The Circle and connecting streets, out one block. These include parts of North and South Bedford, and East and West Market streets;

• The first block of South Race Street, and the first block of East Pine Street (rear of Sussex County Courthouse and Sussex County Administrative Offices Building);

• West Laurel Street, from North Bedford Street to Front Street.

Detours will be posted directing traffic around The Circle by way of side streets. However, through-traffic is being encouraged to use the U.S. 9 Truck Route (Airport Road to South Bedford Street to Arrow Safety Road to U.S. 113) to avoid downtown closures.

Beginning at 6 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 6, closures were originally to include:

• West Market Street, from School Lane to The Circle;

• Old Laurel Road, from U.S. 113 to School Lane;

• East Market Street, from Albury Avenue to The Circle;

• Entire length of Pine Street;

• Front Street, from Pine Street to Edward Street

• East Laurel Street, from North Bedford Street to Layton Avenue;

• Entire length of Sussex Central Avenue;

• Entire length of Margaret Street;

• Robinson Street, from West Market Street to Edward Street.

Only local residents and property owners will be permitted access.

Beginning at 11 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 6, all primary arteries into the town were originally set be closed at the following major intersections:

• Del. 18/404 at U.S. 113;

• U.S. 9 at U.S. 113;

• Arrow Safety Road at U.S. 113;

• North Bedford Street Extended at North Georgetown Elementary School;

• South Bedford Street Extended at U.S. 113;

• Del. 18/404/U.S. 9, east of Georgetown, at U.S. 9 Truck Route;

• U.S. 9 Truck Route (Park Avenue) at Wood Branch Road.

Additionally, barricades will be erected at side streets that connect to these arteries. Only local residents and property owners will be permitted access.

Motorists are being strongly encouraged to avoid travel in these areas during the closures. Detours will be posted. Streets will be reopened on a phased-in basis after the Return Day parade has ended. All streets were expected to re-open to traffic by 6 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 6.

In addition to the park-and-ride service, provisions will be made for those citizens with impairments or disabilities. Handicapped parking will be available at the Georgetown Square shopping center (Dollar General) on East Market Street. Also, users of the DART First State Paratransit system can schedule service for Return Day. Subscribers must contact DART First State at 1-800-553-DART (1-800-553-3278). Normal rules and fees apply.

For more information on street closures, contact the Georgetown Police Department at (302) 856-6613.

Return Day 2008 Program of Events

Tuesday, Nov. 4

• 2 to 4 p.m., Budweiser Clydesdale’s Team and Wagon, Viewing and Picture Day at the Marvel Museum

Wednesday-night entertainment, Nov. 5

Sponsored by Delaware National Bank and Megee Motors

At the Court House Parking Lot, near the Ox Roast)

• 6-7 p.m., Whaley’s Corner, bluegrass;

• 7-8 p.m., Bird Dog & The Road Kings;

• 8-9 p.m., The Funsters;

• 9-10 p.m., Bird Dog & The Road Kings;

• 10-11 p.m., The Funsters.

• 6-10:00 p.m., food vendors available

Thursday, Nov. 6 – Return Day

• 9 a.m. to dusk, Arts, crafts and food vendors, North and South Race Street, North Bedford Street

• 10-11:30 a.m., Sussex County Youth Entertainment Stage, sponsored by Delaware Electric Cooperative, 129 East Market Street

• 11:30 a.m. to 1:25 p.m., Return Day “Idol”

• 10 a.m. Reception for candidates and honored guests, Del Tech Community College, Wm. A. Carter Partnership Center, Routes 113 & 18

• 11 a.m. Wilmington Trust Stage in front of Court House on the Circle

• 11:30 a.m. Hatchet Toss – mayors of Sussex County, Old Court House, South Bedford Street

• 12:45 p.m. Miss Delaware 2008, Galen Giaccone, Wilmington Trust Stage, in front of Court House on the Circle

• 1:30 p.m. Return Day Parade with Announcer Wade Perdue, starting at Georgetown Middle School, West Market Street to South side of The Circle, turning on East Market to South King Street, turning on East Pine Street, back to the school

• 3:45 p.m. Ceremonies on the Circle with Master of Ceremonies Steve Hammond of WBOC, Wilmington Trust Stage in front of Court House on Circle

• 4 p.m. Reading of the Returns, Town Crier W. Layton Johnson, courthouse balcony

• 4:30 p.m. Ox Roast, Sponsored by Carl M. Freeman Foundation: Free open-pit-barbecued ox sandwiches, courthouse parking lot