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Editorial: Innovation only seems crazy to those unwilling to risk

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Delaware Business Times Editor Jacob Owens

Anyone with a Facebook account living in Delaware has likely read more opinions than they care to about New Castle County’s latest idea: buying the Sheraton Wilmington South at auction for $19.5 million and converting it into a homeless shelter and social services center.

There were the jokes about the lap of luxury that the stereotypical winos will enjoy at the expense of Johnny Taxpayer. There were those who opined that they should quit their job to become homeless and enjoy an elongated hotel stay. And there were the expected critics who bashed the county’s largesse in overpaying for the hotel in a poorly planned area.

All of these points – at least the more serious ones, are well-taken – but we have to credit New Castle County leaders, including Executive Matt Meyer, the county council and department leaders – for continuously thinking outside of the box.

Carrie Casey, manager of the county’s Division of Community Development and Housing, brought the idea to the attention of Marcus Henry, head the county’s Department of Community Services, and Meyer after learning of the impending auction for the hotel owned by HHM, a publicly traded real estate investment trust formerly known as Hersha Hospitality Management.

The starting bid price of $5.5 million was a steal for the turnkey property and anyone who’s attended weddings or conferences at the hotel know that it is well-situated for multi-purpose use. While audacious in scope, the county’s proposal has already been successfully implemented in Los Angeles, Minneapolis, and Forth Worth, Texas. Officials have been communicating with their colleagues in those jurisdictions to understand the benefits and challenges of such a project.

There are justifiable concerns over whether the site is well-situated for such a program. Longtime residents can recall the boats that have been used to ferry hotel patrons across the Airport Road floodplain during tropical storms and hurricanes. There will undoubtedly be times where shelter residents will be trapped at the complex. Transportation routes through DART will also likely have to be implemented to connect the homeless to other resources, especially if many are bussed out of the city to the shelter.

The concerns about the cost of operating a shelter and where the annual funds will come from are also well-deserved. With thoughts of county appropriation boondoggles like Fisker Automotive still fresh in many minds, the last thing the county needs is a reminder of a failed venture sitting alongside its busiest stretch of Interstate 95.

Casey said that the analysis for the operational cost was still being done, but the county expects to be able to tap federal and grant funding streams it already receives for emergency housing to help offset it. While the CARES Act funding to municipalities and states that will be utilized for the property’s purchase carries a Dec. 31 deadline to be spent, several million dollars in funding from the same federal stimulus bill that comes to New Castle County by way of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development doesn’t have to be spent for several years. That will buy time for the county to create long-term funding streams.

With all the concerns over the cost of the program and the loss of assessed taxes on the property, let’s not lose sight of why it’s needed though. According to the 2020 Point-In-Time Survey that annually tracks the homeless population each January, New Castle County had 665 homeless people. As of Oct. 19, the county’s 15 homeless shelters had 199 of 300 beds available to the homeless, but many required either a negative test or a 14-day quarantine before entry.

Complaints about the homeless are common in Wilmington’s central business district among other areas of the county, and helping them to resolve issues in their lives is not only the altruistic thing to do, but also a smart business decision as the city and county look to attract more employers downtown. By providing a clean, modern clearinghouse for shelter and services, the likelihood of a successful resolution only grows.

We should also move past ill-informed stereotypes of who constitutes the “homeless.” The population includes many who have lost their shelter due to debts through no fault of their own, as well as young children and those who have suffered trauma. All of these are vibrant people who deserve another chance at happiness.

New Castle County has a lot of questions to answer in how it plans to organize and fund this unique idea long-term, but they should be commended for continuing to break the mold of solutions.

“This is really a testament to some of the amazing things that we can do when everybody’s collaborating together,” Meyer said of the hotel plan. “This is a unique time and unique times present opportunity.”

I agree and look forward to seeing where my home county goes with it. 

Jacob Owens serves as editor of Delaware Business Times.

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