Downtown Millsboro is the kind of place where you can stop by the local barbershop and share a laugh with the owner while he’s snipping and trimming.
That’s what Starting Line Up owner Brian Reeves was doing one recent afternoon, especially since 4-year-old Desmond Cephas was in the chair and Reeves, who goes by “B,” wanted an uptown look for the preschooler.
“It’s his birthday. He’s a star,” Reeves said, as he carefully designed — what else? — a four-pointed star, using one of the clippers in his impressive collection.
Inside the shop, there’s an easiness, a friendliness, that belies the noisy, steady stream of traffic not far away on Route 113. Millsboro is growing — so quickly, in fact, that it’s listed as first in growth among Sussex County’s 25 municipalities.
In one month, 48 building permits were approved in the town, which situated just 20 miles from the beach.
“Nature definitely was our tailwind,” said Millsboro Town Manager Sheldon Hudson, offering one of many reasons it’s appealing to those who want to open businesses and live there.
“We’re surrounded by waterways. Our geography is a blessing. There’s a lot of growth on the south side; but, you know, I’m thankful for every vehicle. I would like to see some improvement to traffic, but I’m really thankful for every vehicle,” he said.
Millsboro’s growth is happening quickly, but can it be managed while maintaining the folksy feel of downtown, where shopkeepers water flowers on their porches and come out in the morning to sweep sidewalks while waving at one another?
“We are an emerging commercial hub — well, we already are a hub — but we want a transition from small town to big town, not to big city,” said Hudson, an amiable man with local roots and a desire to rise above mediocrity.
A new town hall is being built downtown to “set the tone, because it will be right at the gateway to downtown,” he said.
“We can still be quaint. There is enough separation between the downtown and the highway so that doesn’t have to change.
“Growth has become a dirty word, but we don’t look at it that way. Our quaintness can improve without gentrification.
“Downtown is distressed in a number of ways. The Town feels it should take the lead and make a strategic investment. It is beginning to improve. We don’t want to push out mom-and-pop shops, but to give inspiration for shops to raise the bar,” Hudson said.
To make room for the new town hall, an auto parts store and an old house that was once a retail establishment were recently demolished. Pavers will be put in place downtown, and new sidewalks installed, at a cost of $200,000 to $250,000.
Millsboro’s annual budget is $12 million, and the population is 7,000.
There are tentative plans for the police department, now downtown, to move to the existing town hall, on Monroe Street.
Meanwhile, as growth around the town, which was founded in 1860, continues, engineers at the Delaware Department of Transportation have suggested building a full cloverleaf on Route 113 northbound some time in 2025 or 2026.
The plan is for the cloverleaf-shaped bypass to connect Route 113 to Route 24 near the Mountaire Farms processing plant.
Route 113 will likely be widened from a four-lane highway to a six-lane highway in the Millsboro area, with one additional lane being built for northbound traffic and one more lane for southbound drivers.
As he cuts hair, Reeves, a master barber, isn’t worried about downtown becoming a metropolis.
“Even though you have some people say it’s busy, you don’t want to go to a place where nobody goes. I think the growth brings money. It brings businesses, small businesses like mine,” he said.
“You don’t go corporate. You keep it quaint. You just have to want to do it,” Mayor John Thoroughgood said one recent afternoon as he sat in the antiques shop he owns and lifted one of his two dogs onto his lap.
The town of Berlin, Md., managed to retain its charm in the face of flourishing growth all around, he said, and he has long admired Williamsburg, Va., for the same success.
Millsboro is attractive for many reasons, the mayor said. It’s small enough for visitors to walk from one end to the other; and there are inviting restaurants, friendly residents and no charge for parking on the street.
“Parking should be free. You ask people to come to town, then you want them to pay to park? It’s ridiculous,” he said.
He’s right about the welcoming friendliness on the street, with bright impatiens overflowing from flowerpots, benches and an “All Welcome” sign at the Greater Millsboro Art League.
Bill Meisch said he was drawn by the feel of downtown and recently opened House of Modern Living where Millsboro Bazaar used to be.
“I think the architecture downtown is interesting. The buildings all have the same roof lines. Town Hall coming downtown will be a good thing,” he said.
“It would be great if we could get rid of the chicken trucks downtown. People could sit outside and eat at the restaurants. People are sitting and eating a chicken sandwich in a restaurant now, and a chicken truck goes by? It’s like, ‘ewww…’” he said, shaking his head.
Across the street, at Antique Alley, Geneva Peruchi was working at the business owned by her daughter, a downtown mainstay since 1996.
“We have restaurants and antiques shops here. People come from out of state, and they walk through and look at our antiques. They come here every year when they are on vacation.
“They look for certain dishes, or they just come in and look around,” she said, amid comfortable small-town chatter that mingled with brass candlesticks and jewelry neatly arranged in a glass display case.
Outside, the sun was shining and decorative flags waved in the breeze.
“We’re still emerging, and we still have a long way to go,” Hudson said.
Millsboro officials have partnered with the retail recruitment firm Buxton, based in Texas. Buxton uses statistics to cross-tabulate data — using analytics, not just demographics, to determine for town officials what types of correlations are the best fits for burgeoning Millsboro.
“We’ve had a ton of annexations. Ashley Furniture Store is coming. We want to recruit mid- to upscale grocery stores, like Safeway, Giant, Harris Teeter.
“The VFW on the highway is for sale, and it would be perfect for a restaurant. We have another four parcels being considered for annexation,” Hudson said.
Millsboro, with a population of about 4,000 in 4 square miles alone, still has about 20 percent of its land left to develop, adding to the existing businesses, including B.J.’s, Lowe’s, Chick-fil-A, PRMC’s Delmarva Health Pavilion, grocery stores and banks.
“People like our geography. We have one U.S. Route — Route 113 — and four state routes — 24, 30 and 20 — that all pass through Millsboro,” Hudson said.
“We decreased impact fees recently, and we want age and race and all types of diversity. We are relatively affordable. We have a business-friendly posture, and I think we’re family-friendly, too,” he said.
“We can have the convenience of a city but the charm of a town. If we play our cards right, we can have both.”
By Susan Canfora