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Georgetown revitalization project proposed with Latino marketplace

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In Sussex County, the Latino population pays $50 million in taxes. Advocates hope a Plaza Latina would buoy Georgetown’s economy. | PHOTO COURTESY PLAZA LATINA

GEORGETOWN — Social activists and entrepreneurs are reimagining downtown Georgetown as a marketplace with Latino cultural flare in hopes to give the county’s seat a new destination born from its growing Latino population.

The proposed Plaza Latina de Georgetown calls for developing a vibrant commercial corridor, with North Race Street as its cornerstone, through redesign and providing opportunities to the Latino business community. Mary Dupont, a member of the Delaware Hispanic Commission and economic development consultant, and other Sussex County business leaders are the driving force behind the plan.

“It’s the right time and the right place,” Dupont told the Delaware Business Times. “About 30% of Georgetown’s population is Latino, and with retirees, it’s the largest growing demographic in Sussex County. They’re entrepreneurial and they don’t look for help. If we provide that opportunity to help this community to reach its full potential, it’s not just them that will benefit, it’s the entire city.”

While Georgetown City Council tabled its vote to support Plaza Latina last week, Dupont is confident that plans will move forward with the support of the city and several business leaders who have reached out.

The project would take a three-pronged approach to economic and community development: revitalizing Race Street, expanding business and community services, and creating a business association.

North Race Street is already the commercial hub of the Latino community in Georgetown, but Plaza Latina would oversee major redevelopment to bring more cobblestone and Latin American architectural features and streetscapes. An archway on Race and Market streets would welcome pedestrians.

The Plaza Latina organization would also acquire and renovate properties to have commercial space on the ground floor and apartments on the second floor. The hope is that with this new design and more business, the corridor will become a destination for visitors driving in or biking minutes away from Lewes.

“Imagine a cobblestone walking street lined with arches, flags, fountains, outdoor dining, and street art with a Latin American flavor,” Plaza Latina board member Javier Torrijos said in a prepared statement. “Thousands of people will visit Georgetown to enjoy Latino food and culture.”

To lift the business community, Plaza Latina will also offer business and personal finance programs. That would include financial coaching, business plan development training, social media and online marketing training, English as a second language course, and technology literacy. Nonprofits and community organizations can also help grant access to loan programs.

Since Georgetown is in an Opportunity Zone and in a Downtown Development District, incentives can help subsidize revitalization efforts. To fund business services, Plaza Latina will tap into grants and solicit donations for the Plaza Latina Fund at the Greater Lewes Foundation.

Finally, forming a Plaza Latina Business Association would create a network for business owners to find support and share resources. Over time, this association would partner with other chambers of commerce and business groups.

“This program is designed to help build capacity for Latino business owners in Georgetown,” Dupont said. “In turn, that helps their families and achieve the American dream. But it also creates opportunities for all businesses, because as business grows, so do jobs. Everyone knows that the greatest growth in our economy comes from business development.”

Plaza Latina, in essence, is born out of the Delaware connection. After launching Nehemiah Gateway Community Development Corporation, an organization focused on financial stability in low-income communities, then-Gov. Jack Markell tapped Dupont to take those principles and expand them throughout the state. The result was “Stand By Me,” a financial coaching program.

Over time, Dupont said much of her work became focused on Georgetown and its rising Latino population, so the state and its partner, United Way of Delaware, created Stand By Me Hispano to address specific financial issues the Latino community faces.

“That’s how we started working with La Esperanza and Charlie Burton, who was on the board at the time,” Dupont said. La Esperanza is a bilingual non-profit in Sussex County that offers immigration counseling, family coaching, and resource navigation services.

Years ago, Burton floated the idea of a marketplace to Dupont, celebrating the Latino community while drawing in more opportunities for retail and restaurants. The idea “resonated” with her, but she put it aside to continue her work. Now retired from the state government and seeing the population keep growing, she said the need has become too great to contain.

Sussex County’s population of hispanic residents is 22,357, and it’s projected to rise 53% by 2050. Georgetown alone has 39.5% of the Latino population, Dupont said, and many are from Mexico or Guatemala.

“The Latino community contributes $50 million to Sussex County in taxes. A study done by the Delaware Community Foundation shows that 68% of the Latinos in Sussex County are employed, compared to 56% of the general population,” Dupont added.

From a business standpoint, a survey found that 67 licensed businesses in Georgetown and 800 in Sussex County are owned by a Latino resident. Key to Plaza Latina’s success is to turn renovated properties over to business owners who would run operations there.

“They would become vested members of the Georgetown community, these are people who want to make it here,” she said. “The plaza would build that innate capacity, help those businesses to grow and help the community to build personal wealth, investment and pride in their community.”

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