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Artisanal market hopes to revive First State’s downtown capital

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The Capital City Farmers Market has returned to downtown Dover this summer, and one vendor is hoping a new effort supported by the Downtown Dover Partnership will offer a leg-up to themselves and more than a dozen other small, local businesses.

Black Swamp Farmstead owners Justin and Tara Brandt are planning to make the jump to farmer’s market to storefront. The couple will be running an artisanal market in downtown Dover, with hopes to bring new life to the city. | DBT PHOTO BY MADDY LAURIA

The Black Swamp Artisanal Market, soon to open at 204 W. Loockerman St., could serve as an incubator for farm-to-table and creative entrepreneurs in a town that’s been struggling with some of the highest commercial vacancy rates in the state.

“Getting involved in the Artisanal Market or the farmers market is one way to test the market or test products in our city,” said Diane Laird, executive director at the Downtown Dover Partnership. “Our hope is that those that invest in those ways, that they become so successful that they actually start taking their product to their own space.”

The new market will be spearheaded by Black Swamp Farmstead, a veteran-owned farm based in Felton. While they run the day-to-day operations of the market, about 18 other businesses will have a new place to sell their merchandise.

Unlike other permanent markets that have designated areas or stalls for separate vendors to set-up shop, the Black Swamp Artisanal Market will feel like one cohesive store. Items will be arranged by type, such as produce and food goods in one area and artisanal or craft items, like wooden signs or soaps, in another. Even the furniture and fixtures will be for sale, from another Delaware-based, veteran-owned local business.

This was a win-win when the Downtown Dover Partnership brought it up to us,” said Justin Brandt, who runs Black Swamp Farmstead with his wife, Tara Brant, while also serving active duty in the Navy. “If everybody could own a store or afford to operate, everybody would do it. But it’s difficult. This idea allowed us to fit right in alongside these other farmers and crafters.”

In addition to hosting a variety of vendors in one cohesive 1,200-square-foot space, the market will also periodically offer community classes and demonstrations hosted by different types of local business owners, Laird said.

Helping businesses thrive and connect with customers who are beginning to emerge from quarantine is key to combating Dover’s vacancy rate, which Laird said has teetered around 40% to 50% since before the pandemic. But with tens of thousands of dollars in financial aid and technical guidance available to local businesses not only from the Downtown Dover Partnership, but also the Delaware Small Business Development Center, chambers of commerce, and city, county, and federal partners, it is possible to fill those vacancies if there’s a plan in place, Laird said.

“It doesn’t happen overnight,” she said. “But you’ll be hard-pressed to find a city with as many opportunities.”

Right now, the public-private partnership that Laird leads is in the process of proposing parking solutions and developing a long-term master plan for the downtown’s redevelopment.

For the Brants, the market is slated to open later in August, pending final preparations for the long-unused commercial space, and will be a new chapter for their business, and hopefully for other small businesses, as well. 

“If they can fill those vacancies downtown and create a more bustling community feel in downtown Dover, that’s going to just be good for everybody,” said Tara Brant, a U.S. Army veteran and former nurse. “My vision was to be helping other people like us. …If they’re successful, and they’re happy, then we’re successful and we’re happy.”

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