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In the C-Suite: Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki

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WILMINGTON – In his more than four decades of service to New Castle County, the state and the city of Wilmington, Michael “Mike” Purzycki has undoubtedly left his mark on his longtime home.

Wilmington Mayor Mike Purzycki | PHOTO COURTESY OF MAYOR’S OFFICE

His story begins nearly two hours to the north, however, growing up in a humble family of four in Newark, N.J.

“We didn’t have any money to speak of, but nobody had any money so nobody ever felt poor,” he recalled.

It was at school and in the yard with his brother, Joe, that Purzycki discovered his first love in life: football. A naturally talented player, he earned a scholarship to the University of Delaware and his brother soon followed him. At UD, Purzycki found success as a wide receiver, setting all of the university’s position records at that time.

He recalled the impact that his time at UD had on him as a young man in the tumultuous 1960s, noting the political divisions, civil rights protests, race riots, political assassinations and Vietnam War all occurring at once.

“I will always be eternally grateful to the University of Delaware; I had a great experience. I played for two Hall of Fame coaches in Dave Nelson and Tubby Raymond. I have friendships that last to this day. It wasn’t just football, it was my entire University of Delaware experience, which was so rich,” he said.

He played so well at UD, that a scout for the NFL’s New York Giants got him signed to a free agent contract. Purzycki’s pro dreams were short-lived though, as he injured his knee in training camp and wasn’t able to play again.

“When I got cut, I came home, and I told my father I thought I should get paid because I got injured.  I didn’t get cut because I wasn’t good enough. He told me I was crazy,” Purzycki recalled.

Not satisfied with that, Purzycki called the team offices and asked for storied owner Wellington Mara, and surprisingly connected with him. He later met with Mara in New York City and pleaded his case. A few weeks later, checks started arriving.

“I had tears when I drove out of camp … but I’m pretty resilient. I’ve never been one to collapse,” Purzycki said.

He would spend a few years working at IBM and at a stock investment firm run by a friend but would later end up finding his new passion: real estate. Working for a small Newark brokerage, Purzycki brokered sales and started investing and developing properties as well, ranging from residential to commercial to golf courses and marinas.

“I tell people all the time, I use my real estate investment experience more than anything else every day here in the city because, for better or worse, it’s my own instinct about what I think is going to work,” he said.

“There’s nothing like experience. I’ve had my share of failure, my share of staring at the ceiling in the middle of the night trying to figure out how to make a mortgage payment or payroll, and I think that’s an invaluable experience. Anybody who’s a real investor, who has to make it on his or her own, they all understand it because everybody goes through it.”

Purzycki would go on to earn a law degree in his early 30s, work for a few years as counsel to the State Senate and then was elected to the New Castle County Council in 1982, serving nine years before stepping down to pursue more development opportunities in the county without conflict.

In 1996, he was appointed the first executive director of the Riverfront Development Corp., which aims to reimagine a desolate shore of the Christina River in Wilmington. For two decades he led the organization in making the bustling area of activity that it is today.

It almost wasn’t to be, as calls seeking him to apply weren’t returned until his wife, Bette, intervened.

“She said to me, ‘Think about what this could be. It’s a development job that’s partly politics. It’s working on a project that could define your life,’” he recalled. “I started to think about what this could be, and I couldn’t sleep at night. I dreamed every night about what it could be.”

In 2016, he ran for Wilmington mayor, fearing that the progress they made at the Riverfront could be lost, and prevailed in a crowded race. Unlike developing delipidated buildings, Purzycki is now tackling more difficult issues like social determinants.

“I don’t know what else I could do with my life that would be more purposeful right now,” he said, noting that he aims to invest city and federal funds into revitalizing neglected neighborhood economies to boost families back up. “I don’t want people to say, ‘Look at all the buildings he built.’ I want people say, ‘Look at all the improvements the mayor made to our neighborhoods.’”

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