At a recent Milford Conversation, Janne Collins, who recently accepted the position as Executive Director of Downtown Milford, inc., explained how historic preservation has been important to her since she grew up in a river town in Indiana with a large historic area.
“I am from a little town called Vincennes, Indiana. It is on the Wabash River. It is a historic town and was where one of the last Revolutionary War battles was fought,” Collins said. “And so, the history of Milford really tugs at my heartstrings. I was the oldest daughter in a family that had six children. And my dad died when I was seven. So ,by the time I was 11, I was working to provide for my family. My mother had gone into a deep, dark depression after he died that she didn’t come out of or almost 16 years. So, my older brother and I literally worked to help provide for our family and take care of them. I was the first person in my family to graduate from a four year college which was a big deal back then and I graduated as a theater major.”
Collins explained that she fell in love with theater after a meeting with a high school guidance counselor who provided her with a list of careers and asked her what she wanted to do with her future. She read through the list and told the counselor she wanted to do all of it.
“I would like to learn how to fly a helicopter. I’d like to do all these different things. Well, I never learned how to fly helicopters, but I did get to ride in one at the Delaware State Fair,” Collins said. “The funny thing was though, all through school, I loved music, and we had gotten a new theater director at our high school and I started doing theater. I thought you know what, if I become a theater major, I can do all those things because you can pretend like you’re anything and that’s so much fun. So, I was a theater major. And I had been so impressed in my life by my teachers in high school that my thought was what I want to do is go back and I want to teach and so that was my plan. Become a theater major, get my degree, become a teacher and teach other people how to do this. And lo and behold, I get done with my four years and the government decides that they’re going to take all the arts programs out of the schools and I’m just like, well there goes that.”
After realizing a career in teaching theater in schools was not likely, Collins married and became a mother. Her husband was in the military, and she followed him around the country, landing in Delaware for a few years before heading back to Indiana when her husband’s job changed. She explained that one day he told her he would never go back to Delaware. She asked him why because she actually enjoyed living here and he just said he never wanted to go back.
“Two weeks later, we were going back to Delaware, and I said never say never,” Collins said. “We came back to Delaware, and he worked for WBOC. Four years into that, our marriage broke up and he left me here with a van that didn’t go into reverse and would only go 40 miles an hour. So ,I became a single mom of two little boys that were nine and 12 at the time, and I was so blessed by people Delaware, that I have stayed here that there are just remarkable people here. I had someone who didn’t even know me who found out about my plight and on Thanksgiving Day, dropped a car off in front of my house and said here’s a car for you. I’ve paid the insurance for a year. Because they could see I was working hard, I was trying to make it. I was trying to get on my feet. That is the kind of person I am, I don’t let the things that try to knock me down keep me down. I get back up. I keep going. You tell me I can’t and I’m going to say I can. It might take me longer than it will take some other people, but I can do it and I will eventually.”
Collins stated that she could not do her job without the many people who have not only blessed her life but who give so much to DMI to help the organization with its mission. She came into the position when DMI was trying to rebuild after a pandemic that wreaked havoc on many non-profit organizations. She explained that DMI has four standing committees that achieve the goals of DMI.
“One of them is the Promotion Committee that a lot of you are familiar with because they tend to do things like Third Thursdays and the Holiday Stroll,” Collins said. “Then, we have the Economic Vitality Committee that is working on some projects. One of them they’re working on is a Civic Pride project that they haven’t really talked about it yet because they’re building this program. They’re working on it with the city and hope to introduce that to everybody and invite people to come out to learn more about what that means. We have the Design Committee that is responsible for the beauty in downtown Milford is how I would put it. They make sure we have baskets filled with flowers and that they get changed out seasonally. They take care of the banners and things. And Joe Phillips at Causey Manson does most of that. I mean he has a whole crew behind him, but he is really the one who spurs that. And then we have the Organization Committee that is supposed to be doing things like grants, kind of laying foundationally things to keep DMI going. And that Organization Committee is suffering a little bit because they’re losing a lot of people that were on it, and we’re trying to bring new people on to that.”
Collins is always surprised when she steps out of her office and sees people stepping out of cars with out-of-state license plates. She likes to ask them what brought them to Milford, and many are either considering moving to the town or have just moved here and want to learn more about it. In her eyes, there is a need because of the new visitors to town as well as new residents to let people know what Milford has to offer. Collins is also surprised to learn that people are unaware there is a music school downtown. Collins was with the Music School of Delaware for over five years before taking the DMI position. She is also shocked to learn that people, many who are born and raised here, are unaware of the shipyard history in Milford, something she learned about from a subcommittee of the Economic Vitality Committee, the Vineyard Shipyard Task Force.
“They started because they wanted to see about a way to make that a focal point in the community historically for Milford but also in partnership with the Delaware Nature Society,” Collins said. “I think originally the task force thought the city was going to be the purchaser but it now looks like we’re going in a different direction. We’re still working on that. Nicole (Rogers, Milford Museum) is helping work on that and I love her passion. We are the ones that house money for that project. It is not money that DMI will ever use for itself. It is only money that we will give away to be used for that project. So, if you know if anybody else who is passionate about the Vineyard Shipyard that wants to give towards that. We have been given a grant of $100,000 from the state and they’re working on another, I believe around $800,000 from the state. They’re also working with the Longwood Foundation for a big chunk of change. And I won’t even say what that number is because I don’t know for sure what that is. I’ve heard varying amounts. The museum would like to become owner/operator of it and they seem to be the most logical choice. They have the ability and knowledge to do this. They know how to preserve what is there and they know how to bring what they are preserving into the future.”
Collins turned the discussion over to Rogers to describe the vision the museum saw for the shipyard.
“I’d like the Vineyard Shipyard to become the Delaware Museum of Maritime Life. That’s kind of the big goal,” Rogers said “If any of you have been to the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michael’s something similar to that they have. Of course, they have more water than we do to be fair, so not exactly like that. But in a similar manner having that kind of thing. They talk about the oystering industry in the Chesapeake. I don’t know if anyone knew this, but there were oysters in in the Mispillion River. There was an oystering industry on the Mispillion River that died out when people got typhoid from the oysters and things like that. So, like that kind of history, telling that story and telling the story of all of the shipyards as well. At one time there were there were seven functional shipyards throughout Milford and at the same time, only one survives. It’s the Vineyard Shipyard. The other ones aren’t around to tell their stories. So, I feel like the one that survived should also tell their story. And of course, the Vineyard Shipyard is of national significance. They built sub chasers and other ships for the United States Government for World War One and World War Two and things like that. So, I would like it to be kind of more of an overarching, not just focused on the Vineyard Shipyard itself but all of the shipyards and the maritime life that came through on the Mispillion River as well.
Collins explained that the task force put their plans on hold during the pandemic and that the time away from the project may allow them to refocus their efforts into a more maritime view rather than strictly focusing on boat building and science. Although those types of activities could eventually be part of the shipyard, the history should be the focal point. There was also discussion about the current state of the Mispillion River drawbridge which cannot be opened due to an accident. Many of those in attendance agreed to contact legislators to pressure them into opening the bridge. After the meeting, Jason Hastings of DelDOT confirmed that DelDOT is committed to fixing the bridge but due to litigation could not share any more details.
“I went to a conference for DMI just recently in Richmond, Virginia,” Collins said. “They had a big old train station there that was falling down and nasty and they decided it was time to revitalize it and preserve it. They turned it into a fantastic venue for arts and entertainment and things like that. We got to visit it, they had a band playing, they had a market inside which is like our farmers market, but more for people who make things, and it just was fabulous. The trains come back and forth, even though it wasn’t being used for people to actually get on at that site anymore. They had these banners up that said “Wait till you see where the train station takes Richmond.” I think we need that for the Vineyard Shipyard. “Wait till you see where the shipyard takes Milford.” That is a way we can get people excited about this project.”
Morgan Golladay, President of Mispillion Art League, pointed out another area where Milford was lacking.
“You mentioned the creative process enrichment,” Golladay said. “There’s a creative process here in the middle of the branding of the city that’s been out there for what 10, 11 or 12 years which is “River town, Art Town, Home Town But it seems as if the city has put all of their marbles into one basket, or eggs depending. And the problem is that they’ve put all the eggs in the River Town, not into the arts. Now, Milford is the only city in the state that has a museum, an art school, a music school, dance studios and live theatre, the only city in the state and it’s a prime opportunity for the city of Milford to expand all the branding and support. They have allowed the arts organizations to do it on their own and we can’t do it on our own. We need some type of an organization to help us. And it’s not just the organizations that we have. Do you know how many videographers and photographers and individual musicians that there are in town how many are moving into the area? There’s no way for them to network. There’s no way for them to find out what’s going on, where the venues are for them. It’s a goldmine of creativity that the city has ignored, and the city’s been ignoring it. I’ve been harping on this since I moved to town three years ago. It’s a pet peeve of mine, particularly because I’m involved with the art league and I’m thinking about where we are in our town. I don’t see any signs of it anywhere. Only the signs that the individual organizations get out and hammer into the city or into other organizations like DMI. But the new people that are moving in don’t know about us, they don’t know about the richness of the culture here.”
Suggestions were made that DMI create a Milford Arts Council under the Economic Vitality committee that would focus on the arts. It could also tie in the Civic Pride aspect. Collins invited anyone interested to attend an Economic Vitality meeting.
“Unfortunately, this isn’t just a problem here. It’s a problem across the United States. As someone with an art degree and also a history degree, the joke has always been that I doubled down on being unemployed because there’s just no funding in any of the arts and it drives me crazy,” Rogers said. “Because it’s like when you ask people what they do on vacation, they say they go to museums, they go see all this culture and art and all this stuff. And it’s like there’s money in it, but people don’t put money back into it. They don’t fund it.”
Research confirms Rogers’ comments. Statistics show that 79 percent of millennials prefer to travel domestically, and 69 percent take regular weekend trips. In addition, people that age steer away from tourist traps and prefer to experience new cultures. Around 76 percent of millennials want to learn more about the areas where they travel while 62 percent extend a business trip to participate in cultural travel, such as museums and festivals. On the other end of the spectrum, senior citizens often want to travel within two or three hours of their home. They also spend more than any other generation on travel and take longer trips than younger generations. One thing pointed out in the meeting was that large cities like Philadelphia, Washington, DC and Richmond are within a three hour drive from Milford, opening up a large population for tourism. Claudia Leister, Executive Director of the Milford Museum, pointed out that a walking tour held on the previous Saturday often only had 10 or 11 people. Because the museum was able to do additional marketing, there were 30 people on the tour.
“I think a lot of that marketing is a very big deal and marketing is expensive. So that’s another problem. I’m on the board of Southern Delaware Tourism now as well and I realized as I read through their bylaws, you know the fun stuff of being a board member, and we as Milford only get one vote on their council and that’s because of our hotels in Milford,” Rogers said. “That’s because it’s Southern Delaware Tourism, so Sussex County. We have a single bed and breakfast on the southern side of the of Milford and it is Causey Mansion. Everything else is on the north side. So, we have very little sway over the voting in Southern Delaware Tourism. I also have a friend who is a nurse at the hospital at Bayhealth. It snowed one night and, luckily, my parents lived down the street from it so she could stay there and not have to drive to Dover. All the nurses were complaining there are no hotels there. There’s no place to go down that way. So that’s another thing that I think would be helpful to benefit to Milford.”
Anyone who is interested in joining DMI or one of their committees can reach out to Collins at 302-839-1180. You can also learn more by visiting https://www.downtownmilford.org.
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