By Terry Rogers
On Monday, December 21, Congressman John Carney toured downtown Milford, visiting local businesses and talking with owners about what could help them improve their business. Congressman Carney was accompanied by Mayor Bryan Shupe, Lee Nelson, Executive Director of Downtown Milford Inc. and Angela Dorey, President of the Chamber of Commerce or Greater Milford.
The first stop on the tour was Petite Sweets, Milord’s newest business and the latest Project Pop-up to open in the town. Owners Albert Sierra and Keila Montalvo explained to Congressman Carney how they became involved with Project Pop-up.
“I saw the for rent sign in the window and reached out to the landlord,” Mr. Sierra said. “As soon as I came inside, I fell in love with the building and we entered into an agreement with the landlord. It was after that we learned about Project Pop-up and decided to apply.” Mr. Sierra said that the Delaware Economic Development Office (DEDO) provided them with guidance, including filling some holes they found in their business plan. In addition, the business is provided the location rent free for three months in order to help the company get established.
Ms. Montalvo said that some of their biggest critics have become their best customers. She said that one of the benefits of Project Pop-up was that they provided them with some insight into the community since she and Mr. Sierra were not from Milford, but had moved to the town from Northern New Jersey.
“I imagine the increasingly large retirement community in the area might provide you with a good clientele as well,” Congressman Carney said. “When I visit developments in the area, I find a lot of people from New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland who have retired and moved here. Many of them are young retirees, members of the military or the police force who are able to retire at younger ages.”
Congressman Carney asked the couple what they needed to improve their business and they both said that foot traffic in the downtown area was the most critical thing missing in building their business. Mayor Shupe explained that they were trying to develop more activities that would encourage more foot traffic, such as the Brewgrass Festival, Bug and Bud Festival and the Riverwalk Festival.
“Capitalizing on the river is an excellent idea,” Congressman Carney said. “Creating an ambiance downtown where people can walk around and shop in unique, one-of-a-kind shops is a great way to grow the downtown area. It was only about 20 years ago when downtowns were dying as malls popped up, drawing shoppers there. I know when I shop, I try to avoid going to the mall. I’d rather go to a small, local business where I can find something different.”
Ms. Dorey pointed out that half the battle for downtown was letting people know that there was ample parking available. Mayor Shupe agreed, saying that many people simply did not shop downtown if there were no parking spaces on the street, despite the fact there were several parking lots behind the businesses on Walnut Street that often were under-utilized.
After leaving Petite Sweets, Congressman Carney made a stop at Gallery 37, asking owner, Marcia Reed, what would help her grow her business. Ms. Reed told him the same thing that Mr. Sierra and Ms. Montalvo said, that more foot traffic was necessary for her business to grow. Congressman Carney admired the horseshoe crab sculptures Ms. Reed displays on the wall of her gallery and pointed out that it might be beneficial for Milford to partner with nature organizations to promote some of the attractions in Milford.
“Naturist tourists have a passion unlike any other type of tourist,” Congressman Carney said. “That is a huge market to tap into. People in DC know the beach towns, but they aren’t aware of the attractions in other areas of the state. People often ask me for suggestions of where else to go in Delaware other than the beach. I tell them about Milford and Milton as fun destinations.”
Congressman Carney also visited Good News Natural Food Store, talking to the co-owner, Richard Collins, about challenges his company faced. Mr. Collins said that the Milford store was opened for two reasons. He said that they learned many of their customers were driving to their Dover store and they decided to expand into Milford. They chose the location on Walnut Street because it had previously been a restaurant, which meant that it came with a commercial kitchen.
“We make healthy lunches-to-go each day,” Mr. Collins said. “The lunches are made here and distributed to our stores throughout the state. Our biggest issue right now is that we are facing competition from big chains who are now offering more healthy options. They can sell items for less than I can purchase them, which makes it difficult. What we sell is often better quality, but sometimes people look at the price over the quality.”
Another issue that Mr. Collins said they face is high electric bills in Milford. He said his electric bill is higher in Milford than in Lewes, despite the fact that the Milford store is smaller. Mayor Shupe said that the City was planning to do a rate analysis to see how they could provide some relief to businesses and residents on their electric costs.
Congressman Carney also visited Irish Rose Gift Shop in Milford, speaking with owner Eugenia Sparks. Ms. Sparks said that her business was doing very well in Milford, explaining where she purchased the Irish-themed items she offered. She explained that she is the only shop like it in the area, which is why she believes she has done so well. Ms. Sparks said that she recently purchased a home in Milford after living in Bear for many years.
“I think there are quite a few people from other areas here in Milford,” Congressman Carney said. “I can understand why people migrate here. When I travel south in the state, about the time I reach Middletown, I feel myself relaxing and that feeling just improves the farther south I go. I can’t say I get that same feeling as I drive toward DC.”
Congressman Carney ended his tour of the downtown area with a visit to Blooming Boutique, where he heard from manager, Lorna Petchy, that the store needed better foot traffic and for “locals to know we are here.” Ms. Petchy said that the store had been in Milford for five years and many local residents said they had just discovered it recently.
“That seems to be a common theme among businesses in Milford,” Congressman Carney said. “The city seems to be building a thriving downtown and there seems to be a lot of good things happening here. I will certainly return for events in town, like the Halloween Parade and the Riverwalk Festival.”