In early October, Downtown Milford Inc. (DMI) came before the City of Milford asking that $45,860 in funding approved during the budget process be distributed to the organization. At the time, City Council had several questions related to the organization’s executive board structure and their balance sheet that representatives were unable to answer. The request was tabled until the October 25 meeting with council requesting that the entire board be present in order to answer questions.
“I have provided you with a number of historical items and verbatim meeting minutes,” Mark Whitfield, City Manager, said. “I also provided details on how we came up with funding for DMI. It is staff’s opinion that we fulfill our obligation to DMI, but we know that a number of questions arose at the last meeting, and I believe there are representatives here who can answer those questions.”
James Rabe, Vice-President of DMI, asked if council wanted him to go through the entire packet of information provided. Councilman Jason James suggested that council simply ask the questions they had in the interest of time.
“I had a general question on the balance sheet, specifically toward the cash positions,” Councilman Dan Marabello said. “You have cash of $58,677.03 and total major project investments totaling $57,468.94. How did you come about having that much funding?”
Rabe explained that previous boards were preparing for a time when DMI would need to vacate the office space next to City Hall and had hoped to purchase a building which is why they had such a large amount in the major project investment fund. Rabe also stated that some of the funds were set aside for large capital outlay, such as large deposits for events.
“Last month, there was an appearance of an organization in disarray,” Councilman Mike Boyle said. “We learned last week that the third president has resigned. How strong is your management structure and are you gaining, losing or retaining the number of businesses that are now part of DMI?”
Rabe explained that there is no membership in DMI and that any business in the downtown area is provided value. He also stated that, as the Vice-President, should the current president have to step down, he was willing to step into that role.
“We do have a younger executive staff at this moment,” Rabe said. “We are currently looking for an executive director and program manager. COVID has been rough. At our current price point, it has been hard to attract candidates. The city is a valuable stakeholder in that process, but obviously, our goal is to grow that base into grants, sponsorships and fundraising so that we can add value and funding to our membership. We are in a flux, but we are rebuilding. We have great experience in the room from people who have been with DMI since the beginning, and we have great people who have served several terms as president.”
Councilman James asked how many businesses the downtown area has gained over the past 12 months, stating that he knew that was a difficult question to answer with the ongoing pandemic.
“I don’t know if I have a finite number as far as businesses,” Rabe said. “I know the key performance indicators we focus on are volunteer value, foot traffic and downtown commerce. Since April of this year, we have generated $66,000 in volunteer value, $9,274 in folks walking downtown and around $130,000 in downtown commerce through DMI activities. The Main Street program has a return ratio of $18 for every dollar. While it is a complex program, it has value. We are also about historic revitalization, so there are two sides to the coin. You may add economic value, but you could sacrifice the historic nature of the downtown, river town, art town experience.”
Peggy Reilly, who is a past president of DMI, stated that there had not been three presidents recently.
“Our terms are for two years,” Reilly said. “Sara Pletcher was president for two years and then I took over for two years and then we had a new president. When we gave our last presentation, we were pleased that we gained businesses during COVID. Since then, I believe we only lost one business and that is Nancy’s Café which closed.”
Councilman Todd Culotta asked if being Downtown USA accredited qualified DMI for grants and other programs, wondering if the organization had applied for and received any grants.
“I’ll just say that Milford has one of the Rockstar Main Street programs in the state of Delaware,” Patty Cannon, Coordinator of the Delaware on Main Program, said. “There are only four accredited Main Street programs, and it is a high level to hit. One of the primary requirements is that you must have support from the city or county you are in. They can’t do it alone and so it is a model that works. When we were in the heat of COVID, the state brought down kits with hand sanitizer and disinfectant and masks. Your DMI folks went around, door-to-door, delivering those to small businesses and they’ve done this without charging any fee. We have one other fully accredited Main Street program in Delaware, Rehoboth Beach, and they charge a membership fee. They try to provide services to everyone, but when money is tight, they target to members.”
Cannon explained that the City of Wilmington operates in partnership with Downtown Visions, providing them with an additional stream of revenue while Dover Main Street runs a land bank which provides funding.
“Yet, Milford has been the most effective, fully accredited Main Street in Delaware for a number of years,” Cannon said. “Understand that you are our rock star. You are doing the best of the best, but we understand COVID hurt a lot of people. There is not a single American who does not know someone who died of COVID. There is not a single American who doesn’t know a small business that did not make it. So, everything you’re doing to help these businesses make it matters. You should be very proud of what DMI has done for the community.”
Lang Redden provided insight into the projects that are visible in downtown Milford that were created due to grants.
“A very good example of the things I know personally we’ve been able to do through our accreditation is the downtown bike racks,” Redden said. “Day in and day out, you see the downtown bike racks and that particular grant came from the Main Street program. Our executive director at the time went to a free Main Street training. They came back and wanted to build that program. They applied for the grant and got it, so that is a great example of how our accreditation directly contributed to downtown. Right now, we are working on a photo opportunity for downtown. We are hoping to place a large sign on one side of the Walnut Street bridge near the Santa House that says “Kent” and another that says “Sussex” so that people can stand between the signs, take a photo and say they have one foot in one county and one in another.”
Councilman Marabello explained that he had been a DMI volunteer in the early days and remembered when reports from the Riverwalk Farmer’s Market came in on 3×5 cards. He asked if Rabe could provide information on DMI’s vision going forward.
“One of the key objectives is to bring our event calendar back up into full swing,” Rabe said. “We are also improving signage and working with the Vineyard Shipyard project. We are rebuilding because everything post-COVID is different. It changes how everything runs and you can get into some issues such as non-refundable deposits. We don’t pretend to know all the answers, but our goal is to deliver the most value to our stakeholders while rebooting loved events.”
Councilman James thanked everyone who came out to the meeting.
“I know there’s probably an elephant in the room and since I am an open guy, I will address it,” Councilman James said. “I know the question is ‘how did we get to tonight from the last meeting?’ I want to address that. If we had this at the last meeting to speak to the questions that council had and to address these issues, we probably wouldn’t be here tonight. The last meeting, the presentation wasn’t a presentation. It gave council nothing. When we asked questions, it was ‘I don’t know;’ ‘that’s above my pay grade;’ ‘that person is not here.’ Those were the answers we got and that’s how we ended up here tonight. So, if this is what you bring us, we can get to where we need to go a lot quicker.”
Council approved disbursement of the funds to DMI unanimously.
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