[caption id="attachment_203722" align="alignright" width="250"] Jacob Owens Editor Delaware Business Times[/caption]
As I delved into the history and future of the Riverfront for this week’s edition, marking the revitalization effort’s 25th anniversary, I found myself often thinking about the impact it’s had on my relationship with the city.Spending most of my life as a Delawarean, I enjoyed a typical middle-class childhood in the Brandywine Hundred suburbs of Wilmington. Satisfied with the trappings of suburbia, it was a rare occasion for my family to venture down into the city limits.I certainly have fond memories of occasionally digging into a Walt’s fried chicken platter, visiting the Brandywine Zoo, helping our church serve a meal at the Emmanuel Dining Room or taking a field trip to the Kalmar Nyckel, but we weren’t spending most of our weekends in the city.Why that was, I’m not sure. Wilmington has certainly received its fair share of bad headlines over the decades, and as a father now I can understand my parents’ apprehension. The city has always been home to large banks, chemical companies, law firms and the countless offices serving many of those businesses along the way, but that didn’t move the needle to getting families like mine downtown.The Blue Rocks changed that in a big way. I can recall venturing down to Frawley Stadium with my parents and brother in its early years. To see professional sports being played in our city was something I probably thought would never happen. For the first time in much of our lives, Delawareans could root for a home team that didn’t play in Philadelphia.It was exciting, and they were good. Somewhere in a box in my basement, there is still an autographed baseball card of future World Series champion Johnny Damon from his Blue Rocks stint in 1994.For all of that energy though, when you went to the Riverfront in those years there was little else to do – at least for a kid too young to partake in the fun at Kahunaville.
[caption id="attachment_211335" align="alignleft" width="428"] (L-R) Then-Wilmington Mayor James Sills, RDC Executive Director Mike Purzycki and Gov. Tom Carper mark the groundbreaking of the Riverfront project in the min-'90s. | PHOTO COURTESY OF RDC[/caption]
As Gov. Tom Carper and the Riverfront Development Corporation, led then by now Mayor Mike Purzycki, Buccini/Pollin Group executive Mike Hare and current RDC Executive Director Megan McGlinchey, ramped up efforts to change the landscape, so too did my family’s willingness to venture south. The addition of the Shipyard Shops – we went, even if you didn’t – and the first restaurants led us to celebrate birthdays at Iron Hill Brewery and gatherings with friends at Timothy’s on the Riverfront. I can recall the pride that the community felt in hosting world-class exhibits like the Nicholas and Alexandra in the late ‘90s and early 2000s.By the time I was a teenager with a car of my own, venturing into the city and to the Riverfront on dates became a bigger part of my life. As much as I enjoy the natural landscapes of coastal Delaware, White Clay Creek State Park or the Brandywine Valley of my youth, I’ve always had a great love of architecture and cities. I wanted to know more about this hidden gem of a city that was just a short car ride away my entire life.In meeting my now wife after college, I saw more of Wilmington’s nightlife from Trolley Square to Market Street to the Riverfront. We were nearly weekly patrons of the former Firestone, now Docklands, down along the waterfront – it even hosted our wedding shower.After starting our family, the trips to the Riverfront’s bars and restaurants slowed, but our time at the Delaware Children’s Museum, Delaware Theatre Company, the Riverwalk and Constitution Yards has risen. It’s a real thrill to be able to take my family to the area that my parents and I first discovered some 25 years ago and make new memories.
[caption id="attachment_211329" align="alignright" width="339"] The Riverfront's Justison Street is now also home to several larger to employers, including Barclays Bank. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS[/caption]
In many ways, my life has been intrinsically tied to the growth of the Riverfront in ways I’d never really thought much about.As I drive down the Justison Street corridor nowadays, I’m often struck at the amount of progress made in such a relatively short amount of time. To go from a collection of run-down lots and warehouses to three modern hotels, a convention center that punches well above its weight class, hundreds of residential units, major employers and strong local restaurants is a testament to the vision and leadership that got it done.There are cities aplenty in America dying for that kind of progress in 25 years.It has also spurred new interest in other parts of Wilmington, including the central business district, Southbridge, and Riverside. I’ve spoken to a number of out-of-state employers and real estate investors in the last two years who have told me that the progress at the Riverfront convinced them to make the move to the First State. Whether that’s paying millions to acquire a Market Street office building or moving a company into space along the waterfront itself, it means new energy, money and excitement that Wilmington has been missing since the DuPont days of yore.
[caption id="attachment_211330" align="aligncenter" width="1080"] The new Margaret Rose Henry Bridge linking the Riverfront and Southbridge will help direct new interest in developing the eastern side of the Christina River. | PHOTO COURTESY OF RDC[/caption]
“I can't imagine our downtown development occurring without the Riverfront, because what is finally happening is something we all saw 25 years ago. That is the Riverfront and the downtown kind of joining together in a spine, a kind of entertainment and commercial district,” Mayor Mike Purzycki recently told me.I think he’s right, and frankly I’m excited for the possibilities that lie before Wilmington even after emerging into a post-pandemic future. The city may focus on different things after a yearlong, work-from-home slumber, but I’ve already seen the dirt being moved on new projects and heard the whispers of new deals in the making – in large part because of the Riverfront’s success.