In August, the City of Milford was one of five cities whose downtown was designated a Downtown Development District by Governor Jack Markell. On Thursday, September 29, Mayor Bryan Shupe, City Planner Rob Pierce and City Manager Eric Norenberg along with representatives from Delaware State Housing, Downtown Milford Inc. and Milford Police Department, held a public meeting to explain the benefits of the designation and to bring citizens up-to-date on the Riverwalk Rebirth Downtown Master Plan that was created 12 months ago.
“About a year ago, 200 individuals helped develop this plan of what downtown could look like in ten years,” Mayor Bryan Shupe said. “In January, the plan was approved by City Council and six months ago, we created action items that we wanted to put into motion. We have put the plan into motion and we are moving forward.”
Mr. Norenberg said that there were a lot of exciting things happening in Milford with Touch of Italy purchasing and refurbishing the M&T Bank Building. He said that new businesses like Milford Billiards, Coolspring Cottage and Metro PCS as well as Josephine Weir Interiors were bringing more people to downtown and that a contract had been placed on the Lou’s Bootery building. Mr. Pierce said that the City was working with many different developers and business owners who were planning to locate or relocate in Milford. He also explained that DelDOT was planning to extend the Delaware Bayshore Byway that currently ends at Route 9 down to Lewes and that Milford would benefit greatly from being added to that project.
“Earlier this year, nine or ten towns applied for their downtown to be named a Downtown Development District and the Governor granted five with Milford being one of them,” Mr. Norenberg said. “This means that there are many incentives available to residents and businesses who are located within the boundaries of the downtown district.”
Susan Eliason of the Delaware State Housing Authority (DSHA) presented information on the grant program available to both residents and businesses who are located within the district, which is approximately 169.5 acres in the center of town. Ms. Eliason explained that there are two types of grants available, one for small projects and another for large projects. The grants are for expansion, rehabilitation or new construction of a residence or business in the downtown area. The grants are for up to 20 percent of the cost of the project and the project must have begun after August 10 when the City was named. The grants are available for owners, for multiple owners and tenants with the permission of the owner or developers.
“The grants are for capital expenses only, no permit fees or other soft costs,” Ms. Eliason said. “If demolition is necessary, the grant can be used for that purpose but only if another building will replace the one being demolished. Large projects are those that will cost at least $2 million while small projects are for those that will cost $250,000 or less.”
Anyone who wishes to apply for a small project grant must be able to provide an initial minimum investment of $15,000 and must apply within 60 days of the start of the project. Small projects are based on a first-come-first-served basis. However, residents or businesses may apply for a reservation by presenting a building permit that will hold funding for six months. If that is not done, the project must be completed before applying for the grant.
Those that wish to apply for a large project grant must apply for the reservation and the project must begin within one year with completion in three. A CPA must be engaged for Attestation of Costs, which are receipts and documents that confirm expenditures for the project. Projects that are more than 35 percent started or that will be placed in service within 60 days of August 10 are not eligible to apply. In both small and large project grants DSHA will conduct a review of the documents submitted and do a site inspection. Grant funds are dispensed within 60 days. Detailed information about the grants can be found at destatehousing.com/DDD or via email at Penny@destatehousing.com.
“There are also additional tax credits available for historic preservation,” Ms. Eliason said. “There are $1.5 million in credits available for historic preservation through the program as well.”
Mr. Pierce explained that, as part of the application for the designation, City Council offered additional local incentives in order to encourage businesses to locate within the district and that those incentives were approved at the City Council meeting on Monday, September 26.
“Sewer, water and other impact fees will be waived as are permit fees,” Mr. Pierce said. “Basically, the city gave up some revenue to encourage new businesses and business expansion in the district.” Mr. Norenberg explained that the City planned to place a link on the district website that would provide details about incentives and other benefits of the downtown designation.
Sara Kate Hammer, President of Downtown Milford, Inc., said that some of the action items that were approved six months ago have been implemented in the city. On the third Thursday of each month, downtown businesses are remaining open later to encourage more foot traffic downtown, an event they are calling Third Thursday. The plan is to have the businesses remain open every Thursday starting next year and then to revisit whether another late night should be added to the downtown area.
“I am very proud to say that our Farmer’s Market attracts hundreds of people each Saturday morning,” Ms. Hammer said. “In fact, it has been named the top farmer’s market in Delaware and is ranked in the top 25 nationwide. On Friday, some of the downtown Milford businesses meet in the morning and walk around town, picking up trash and debris to help keep our city clean. During the week, Milford Parks and Recreation does an excellent job of keeping the flowers downtown, placed there by Milford in Bloom, watered. On weekends, there is a dedicated group of volunteers who takes over that job. We are working together to make Milford beautiful, attractive and friendly for anyone who wants to visit the area.”
Police Chief Ken Brown said that Milford Police Department has increased foot patrols downtown. He said the patrols were added without adding to the department’s budget by eliminating a seasonal police program that was not effective. The officers are speaking to business owners, asking them how they can improve the area and some of those suggestions have already been implemented.
“I hate to say it, but we have a drug problem in this country and Milford is no exception,” Chief Brown said. “There have been a few problem areas downtown. One individual has been arrested three times, but he will probably be back out soon because he entered a plea deal. I want people to understand that the police are doing their part, but judges now look at drug offenses are non-violent crimes and are less inclined to lock up the criminals. We are working with other agencies to get problem businesses out of downtown that strain our resources. One recently left and we are working on a few others.”
The Chamber of Commerce of Greater Milford Economic Development Committee Chairperson, Andy Stevens, said that the committee is made of some of the sharpest minds in Milford who truly want the city to grow and succeed. The committee is working to market the town to residents who may be unaware of what the area has to offer.
“People don’t like what they don’t know,” Mr. Stevens said. “We have to let the people who live here know what we have to offer them. Until we do that, we can’t expand to people who live outside our town, which will be the next phase of our marketing, to let people who live on the Delmarva Peninsula know what Milford has. The final phase is to let people outside the peninsula know what we have to offer. The word is getting out. We just need to push to get it out further.”
Mayor Shupe said that the Downtown Development District and the Riverwalk Rebirth plan are extremely valuable but that they will go nowhere if only the City works for it.
“We need residents, businesses and investors to make this work,” Mayor Shupe said. “Based on the people here in this room and the questions asked, I think we are moving the downtown area forward in exciting ways.”
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