How Seaford’s leaders are reviving the town after DuPont’s departure
By Gwen Guerke
As with many cities straddling a highway, the first impression of Seaford can be deceptive.
Drive through the town on U.S. 13, and the landscape at 55 mph unfurls as a somewhat unremarkable stream of big-box stores, small businesses and fast-food restaurants. Turn west and head downtown, and the landscape is remarkably different. High Street, the center of the business district, offers Bon Appetit, an upscale French restaurant; the city’s museum, a new coffee shop and signs of lost charm in renewal.
The baby steps are the result of a legion of stakeholders working together to tap the town’s potential to rebuild a prosperous economy decimated by the departure of DuPont and the 2004 shuttering of its nylon plant, which for decades employed or benefited nearly everyone in the town. The plant not only provided thousands of good jobs, but was also tied to Seaford’s culture, its prosperity, and, since 1939, even its brand as “The Nylon Capital of the World.”
Today, city leaders have accepted the loss, but recognize the need to develop a fresh reputation while preserving Seaford’s heritage.
At least one expert, Edward Lewandowski, coordinator of the University of Delaware’s Sustainable Coastal Communities Initiative, agrees that Seaford has plenty of potential. It’s probably no consolation to stakeholders that the community is not alone. Many larger cities have been gutted when a manufacturer jumped ship.
And just like those other cities that experienced industrial loss, “Seaford now has to create a different sense of place that will attract new businesses, residents and services,” he says. “This can be done by focusing on the numerous other attributes that can help the city redefine itself. It really must begin with changing the perception about what Seaford has to offer. It takes a village.”
ENGAGING THE COMMUNITY
Many of those committed to reviving Seaford have lifelong ties to the community, remembering a prosperous, Mayberry-esque town, a place where everybody knew your name. Recognizing that Seaford must continue to revive itself in a 21st century world, leaders and residents already share a common goal fueled by old-fashioned hometown pride. Individually, they cite celebrations that bring people into town, parades and Riverfest, among them. They see potential assets and opportunities. Seaford’s new brand is “A Perfect Place to Start.”
Although technically not a native, Mayor David Genshaw boasts deep Seaford roots. A Seaford High School graduate, he has experienced the before, when Seaford was a DuPont town, and the after. “We once had all those great jobs, and we want to see a positive ending to this story,” he says. “DuPont is not coming back.”
Others lived through the cultural and economic disruption and vow to rebuild. State Rep. Daniel Short was born and raised in Seaford, and after serving on city council and as mayor, the insurance agent now represents his hometown in Dover.
“I was mayor when DuPont made the call,” he says. “Made the call” is how local folks refer to the 1990s when DuPont gave notice that it was pulling out of Seaford. In response, the city built a business and industrial park, now home to operations like FedEx. Short, along with state Sen. Bryant Richardson, continue to be actively involved in the recovery process, lobbying at the state level to reshape Seaford’s future.
A bright spot on the horizon, they agree, is the planned construction of infrastructure, specifically a central sewer line along U.S. 13 running south from Greenwood and funded in part by $500,000 in state bond bill funds. Leaders say new infrastructure may catch the attention of future businesses, and is already credited with luring Wawa and Chick-fil-A.
But the mayor’s not naive. Yes, there have been what he calls “small strides,” citing substantial investment in The Residences at River Place condominiums overlooking the Nanticoke River, and improvements and expansion at Nanticoke Health Services, including the cancer center and a medical center on the northwest side of the city.
But closer to the city’s center, physical reminders of Seaford’s negative image remain. The dilapidated shell of a once-flourishing Nylon Capital Shopping Center still sits along Stein Highway. And hidden in the shadows is the lure of substances that dull the pain of despair while ensnaring some in an inescapable trap.
Like other economically struggling communities, Seaford deals with the social problems that accompany pervasive poverty: drugs and drug-related crime. Even in its heyday, Seaford achieved some unwelcome publicity when a 1989 Wall Street Journal article focused on the city’s gritty underbelly: The infamous corner of Third and North streets was referred to as “Crack Alley.”
Crack cocaine has been replaced by opioids, and the corner at Third and North is now one of many distribution sites. Yet the reputation remains. In the three decades since that article appeared, an opioid epidemic has swept the nation, and is particularly insidious in western Sussex County. Crime prevention, Lewandowski explains, must be included in design plans. “Just yesterday, I saw a clear example of how criminals were taking advantage of community design to elude law enforcement,” he says. “One way to change this type of activity is to select place-specific strategies that help to reduce crime.”
Robert Kracyla, immediate past police chief, was a key player on the city’s economic development team. Kracyla, a retired Delaware state trooper and former Dover police officer, says drug-related crimes are “a systemic issue, a socioeconomic issue.”
With that in mind, Seaford officers work closely with kids through a Police Youth Academy at the Boys & Girls Club, conveniently located next door to the police station. The program represents an effort to be proactive, creating interactive drug education and awareness programs, and building relationships.
IN THE HEART OF THE CITY
Craig Aleman, a real estate attorney who grew up in Milford, is heavily invested in the Seaford community. He and his wife, Mirla, have purchased vacant properties, improved them and leased them as homes, offices and retail space. Aleman admits the projects have taken hard work and substantial financial commitments, but he’s brought a barbershop, a restaurant, a childcare center and business offices into formerly vacant buildings.
He may have the best window seat in town. His office in the Executive Center is adjacent to High Street, and in nice weather he is close to the action: pedestrians and kids on bikes.
“I’ve always loved a downtown,” he says.
So do other leaders, recognizing the value of drawing visitors-and tourism dollars-to the heart of the city. Steven E. Rose, Nanticoke Health Services’ CEO, moved with his wife to Seaford 11 years ago to revive a hospital on the brink of closing. And he succeeded.
“We need to focus, to get small businesses in the community to keep the momentum going,” he says. “We are never going to get another downtown. Not everyone in Seaford has economic advantages to go shopping, but people can enjoy the river. The river is an asset. There is potential there. We love it here. Western Sussex is our home. We will retire here.”
Rose isn’t naive. He sees the poverty, but he recognizes there’s no quick fix in the world of economic development.
“We keep plugging away,” he says. “Nanticoke Hospital plays an important role.” He is proud of the healthcare services expansion, which is creating jobs, and points to the new facility up the road in Bridgeville.
Just over a year ago, the Seaford Chamber of Commerce merged with other chambers and relocated from High Street to U.S. 13. “Visibility is the name of the game,” says Lynn Harman, Western Sussex Chamber of Commerce director. In addition, Harman serves as volunteer director of Seaford Tomorrow, a 501(c)(3) affiliate of the Main Street program.
Seaford Tomorrow is “more grassroots,” Harman says, noting that the group shares Main Street’s goals, but with limited funds. “It lets us bite off what we can chew.” Together with Downtown Seaford, the goal is to draw people into town and create a destination by showing off the city’s best qualities. They’ve hosted parades, a block party, and partnered with the city for the annual Nanticoke Riverfest.
Harman has also noticed financial institutions “paying attention. And I’m seeing very responsive legislators in western Sussex come to our economic development forum. Our voice is being heard,” she says.
Harman admits empty storefronts present a challenge, yet she is aware that refurbished properties, like those Aleman invested in, are occupied. With six years of experience promoting the region, she’s seeing more openings.
Aleman mentions more positive changes-small ones like kids whizzing past on bicycles to get ice cream cones in warmer weather, and bigger things like a Seaford police officer on foot patrol as Aleman leaves his office late at night.
During his tenure as police chief, Kracyla made it mandatory for the 27 officers to do foot patrol each shift, whether it’s getting out of the car and walking the streets downtown-like Aleman observed-or having lunch in a school.
“It’s dedicated time. It’s about being visible, building trust,” he says.
Kracyla also built positive relationships with adults through a Citizens Police Academy and the local pastoral community, some of whom will serve as chaplains.
Isaac Ross, pastor of Seaford’s Miracle Revival Center and a chaplain, works closely with police leaders. He knows the notoriety of Crack Alley all too well. His son was fatally shot on that corner in 1992. His church also survived a September 2018 Molotov cocktail attack relatively unscathed, and yet his faith remains strong.
“Seaford is devastated now,” says Ross, a former city employee. “Seaford was supposedly a great city. When DuPont left, there was a lot of joblessness, there was a dent in the economy. Seaford ended up on its back.”
Ross turned to prayer and formed Unified Seaford, which hosts events to build relationships across ethnic, economic and religious lines. “A city that prays together stays together,” he says. “This is my assignment as a pastor, to bring the clergy together.”
THE OYSTER HOUSE
In addition to a safe environment, a thriving and attractive community offers more than infrastructure and jobs. And that’s why leaders anticipate benefits from a project that’s still on the drawing board: the J.B. Robinson Oyster House. Eventually, the replica structure, showcasing the history of Seaford’s oyster harvesting and processing industry, will be situated on nearly an acre on the banks of the Nanticoke River between South Cannon and South Pearl streets. A $90,000 state grant will fund master plan work, according to Trisha Newcomer, Seaford’s economic development director.
The Nanticoke River, an unspoiled tributary of the Chesapeake Bay, is on the radar screen of the Chesapeake Conservancy, with Susan Shingledecker, vice president of programs for the organization, overseeing the project. The conservancy funded the purchase of the lot, and Shingledecker believes that some immediate improvements-a park bench, kayak launch and appropriate signage-will help the Oyster House project gain momentum toward becoming a visitors’ destination. The vision has the support of Seaford native Randall Larrimore, an active Chesapeake Conservancy board member and retired executive leading with his heart to revive his hometown.
“Seaford was a wonderful place to grow up,” he says. His father, who operated a dairy in town, was also mayor when Larrimore was growing up.
In addition to DuPont leaving, he believes a more recent development-Walmart’s positioning on U.S. 13-shifted the town center to the highway and worsened the erosion of the original downtown.
His vision of the Oyster House replica extends beyond that lot on the banks of the Nanticoke, to encompass other attractions-perhaps a future brewpub, dining, shopping and outdoor recreation, as is part of Shingledecker’s vision as well.
“We think it’s a neat drawing card,” he says of the Oyster House. “It can encourage additional visitors. It will never replace DuPont, but it will create some reason to be down by the river. Everybody seems pretty excited. I’m optimistic we can get the funding we need and reinvigorate downtown Seaford.”
While the site is yet unnamed, in Larrimore’s vision it’s called Hooper’s Landing, Seaford’s original name.
“We are still working on details of how we can do some things now and not impede the work the master plan outlines. We are still early in planning, but the possibilities are many, and the impact this project can have on Seaford can be great and most definitely is exciting,” Newcomer says.
Harman says she’s hosted a successful ecotourism tour for travel writers, showing them not only the Nanticoke River, but also neighboring Trap Pond, Broad Creek and Heritage Shores. “The Nanticoke is a hidden gem. It’s pristine.”
Lewandowski says the Nanticoke River is just one piece of the revival puzzle.
“Seaford has a unique story to tell besides the river. Its historic attractions, diverse cultural identities, recreational opportunities and small-town atmosphere are all important parts of that story,” he says.
None of the stakeholders disagree; they’re looking at other puzzle pieces as well. One talking point is that unlike the coastal resort communities, Seaford is still an affordable place to live.
The mayor and city officials know that the Nanticoke may be the linchpin for ecotourism, but in the meantime, there are other ongoing efforts. Newcomer says a recent Delaware Downtown Development grant is making funding available for property owners to improve their image.
“People go downtown, and they love it. It’s a quaint, nice place. There are so many opportunities,” Newcomer says. “We’re changing the culture. You can’t tell the new chapter if you keep rereading the old chapter.”
Genshaw agrees. The mayor is all too aware that Seaford’s demographics-about 7,400 residents with a median household income of $40,000-sit at the poverty level, but at the same time the city is not alone in the struggle to create a thriving community, and funding sources are always going to be a challenge.
“Our responsibility is to tell the story that Seaford is a fabulous town,” he says. “We have the opportunity to do something different. We have a new group of leaders. We can try new things, and we’re willing to challenge the status quo. It’s always great to learn, to go against the grain and hope we are going to be successful.”
Ross also recognizes that DuPont’s exit created a potential loss of future.
“Our kids are leaving. High school graduates are not coming back because the jobs aren’t here,” he says. “We’re praying that industry comes back. Instead of darkness, I see light. We have to fight poverty.”
He has hope that Seaford will become a vibrant city again. “Our problems are not insurmountable. Something is coming,” he says.
Much like a family huddled around a 1,000-piece puzzle on a cold winter’s day, Seaford’s leaders continue to search for little pieces to complete the big picture.
“The impact of DuPont closing is huge, not just to Seaford, but to western Sussex County. It was a huge economic impact. The recovery is going to be a lot of pieces to put together,” Short says. “It’s going to take a little while to get done.”
Editor’s note: This feature originally appeared in Delaware Business Times’ sister publication Delaware Today.