In May, Milford City Council voted unanimously to renew a five-year grant in the amount of $40,000 per year to Downtown Milford, Inc. On Monday, September 23, Irv Ambrose, President of DMI and Diane Laird, State Coordinator of Downtown Delaware, through the Department of Economic Development Office, spoke to the Council about DMI and Milford.
Downtown Delaware is a resource center that operates within the Delaware Economic Development Office (DEDO) which focuses on issues facing the revitalization of downtown areas. The organization works to reduce vacancies, development business and help cities with proactive planning, following the National Trust Main Street model.
“Milford has recognized significant rewards from the efforts of DMI,” said Ms. Laird. “In fact, I use Milford as an example of how beneficial a focus on downtown can be.” Ms. Laird said that Milford epit- omizes the Main Street Program with sustainable funding and a downtown organization with a paid director whose focus is to build the downtown area.”
“You can’t wait for the businesses to come to you, you have to plan for what you want in your downtown locations,” Ms. Laird continued. “Downtown shopping, where consumers can walk to various stores, are growing in popularity, while big shopping malls are less popular today. Consumers want smaller, boutique type marketplaces where they can shop, eat and play. Milford offers all of those things.” Ms. Laird also pointed out that new businesses contemplating a move to the area want to know what the town offers the employees they will bring with them.
“They are going to look at your downtown, and if it is not vibrant, they may look elsewhere,” Ms. Laird explained. “They want to know what the downtown area provides for citizens.”
Since 2009, Milford has seen many façade renovations, building rehabilitations, new construction projects and completed public improvement. Public improvements completed by the city cost approximately $721,483, while private improvements cost approximately $2,104,278, indicating the cost savings to citizens of the town since government did not have to contribute as much to revitalizing downtown. Much of this was due to the efforts of DMI, Ms. Laird explained.
Ms. Laird also found that Milford implemented community branding broadly, and was one of the first towns in Delaware to develop their brand – River Town, Art Town, Home Town. All materials printed and distributed to encourage tourism include the branding, whether the material is provided by DMI, the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Milford or city government.
DMI developed several programs in an effort to promote downtown Milford. The Business Mentoring Program connects high school students to business and community members, allowing students to shadow business owners. The intention is to help the students build a sense of community pride and encourage them to return to Milford after college.
“It is important to engage youth,” Ms. Laird said. “During the Business Mentoring Program, the students encouraged each other, and, by seeing that there are careers available in their hometown, we hope that they will return here after college or military service to raise their families as well.”
Another program that DMI encourages is the Project Pop-Up Grant, and Milford has had a site chosen for this program for the past two years. This year’s recipient, Milford Massage, Wellness and Yoga, plans to be open by October 1. Paige Deiner, owner of the business, has been operating a yoga and massage studio out of her home, and says that Project Pop-Up gave her the chance to expand her business.
“Last year, I encouraged Milford to apply for the Great American Main Street Award, and I know they were disappointed when they didn’t win,” Ms. Laird said. “However, Newark and Rehoboth both won the award last year, which was their second application attempt. I think if Milford applies this year, they will stand a very good chance of winning. Milford has a great infrastructure, and a wonderful group of people who play nicely together.”