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VIEWPOINT: Making the next Wilmington, a better Wilmington

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Brandon Brice

Private capital investment is doing the “heavy lifting” to rewrite the narrative for what Wilmington will look like in the future. Within the next 10 years, local developers are envisioning a more walkable, and diverse city, where residents have access to retail, culture, the arts, and commercial centers all within a short distance from where Wilmington residents live.

 While major developments have had a place in Delaware for decades, commercial development is taking on new roles both big and small in today’s AI world. For Wilmington’s economic recovery, it needs to focus on being far more welcoming and inclusive than it has ever been before. Yes, we know Wilmington’s three C’s (chickens, credit cards and chemicals) have always driven the state’s narrative, but perhaps we need a reboot? 

 Wilmington, given its proximity to New York City and Washington, D.C., is destined to become a global city, where there’s culture, technology, and innovation. Most importantly — the city is home to President Joe Biden, which offers unlimited possibilities. 

 But unfortunately, a lot of Wilmington’s historic sites, and neighborhoods which were originally structured for walkability, have now fallen into great disrepair and witnessed the decline of population over time. Fortunately, Wilmington still has enormous potential to restore this, creating opportunities for reshaping its focus and some of its original splendor. Perhaps the metropolitan region, not just the city of Wilmington, is an important aspect when discussing how to remake Wilmington a world-class city. In the view of many, it calls for more ‘Regional involvement’. 

Just imagine. Delaware has approximately 1 million residents, with about 650,000 in New Castle County and about 350,000 in the two lower counties. In reference to city size, Wilmington is about two-thirds of what it once was, with its population peaking around 1968, just before the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. 

 Arguably, if we focus on planning, the Wilmington metro area has about six distinct population centers in New Castle County, including Middletown, Odessa, Townsend, Delaware City, Hockessin and Newark, which would be about 450,000. Today, at only 71,000 residents, one cannot look at Wilmington without looking at the mostly,special areas around the city’s limits. 

This has great relevance and importance to solution-finding in a strategic approach for rebuilding downtown Wilmington. Just imagine, even DuPont, once the economic vehicle of Delaware, is now headquartered directly outside of city limits. CSC, Delaware’s largest privately held company with more than $2 billion annual revenue, also resides in the unincorporated area of metro-Wilmington.

 Fifty years ago, Wilmington was at its peak. The city was flourishing with economic investment, nearly 100,000 residents claimed Wilmington as their home. 

Today, Wilmington barely resembles the city it once was. The census estimates show the population has severely declined. Those who live in Wilmington are predominantly low-income and African American — although the Hispanic population is steadily growing. Most of this has been known for decades, and a succession of mayors have predicted that the city would come back, that Wilmington would one day be a thriving metropolis and where business would strive. That hasn’t happened. 

 But it is time to ask the tough questions. 

Proximity is what makes Wilmington attractive for many developers, investors and employers including companies like Amazon, whose Boxwood site is reportedly among its largest in the world. Other warehouses are also coming to the Wilmington metro area in a race for blue-collar labor. 

How about advanced-degree-holding “Eds and Meds,” which increasingly is anchored by industries with much higher investment, as well as high payrolls’ for a State that prides itself on tax incentives for companies. Maybe Wilmington should seek out and encourage more biopharmaceutical, life science and tech companies to reconsider locating in Texas or California and instead set up in the First State.

 So, will Wilmington ever “come back” to be a global and viable city again? And will President Biden’s influence attract more diversity and industry to consider relocating to America’s First State? It depends. 

Wilmington’s future depends on its leadership. In retrospect, Wilmington itself has entire neighborhoods and economic centers that are largely outdated or destitute. Less than half the adult population is even in the labor workforce. Perhaps most telling of all, there are not enough people for the job opportunities — at least, enough good-paying jobs that actually already exist. And sadly, many of Wilmington’s local residents do not possess the skills to even fill the jobs needed. 

The city was making slight improvement in terms of employment prior to the pandemic, though unemployment was still as high as elsewhere. Then COVID-19 dealt Wilmington a further setback. 

Maybe political leaders and stakeholders should rethink what Wilmington is versus what Wilmington can become. If Wilmington incorporated the city’s metropolitan areas into new mini-sections that would be able to engage citizens with a more in-touch and personal type of approach, this could change the economic and political dynamics of Wilmington. 

Maintaining a larger city promotes a focus on just political power and often not public service or investment. Some of Wilmington’s communities are severely depopulated, and it is hard to see Wilmington having the ability to continue to run a 12-person government for a city only serving 71,110 people.

 What is often left out of most discussions about Wilmington is any understanding of how it declined in the first place. Many past residents blame the newer residents, who they claim did not keep up their property. On the other hand, some long-term residents blame others for using the city’s resources and then fleeing with their companies and jobs to the suburbs, resulting in low-income residents who couldn’t escape.

 But the truth is, the city imploded from 100,000 people in the 1960s to about 71,000 in 2023, and those running the city did not have the foresight to zone properly, or to think about Wilmington becoming the economic driver of technical change and innovation for the rest of the state. 

Since the early days of DuPont, many companies wanted to build more efficient, sprawling one-story factories within the city’s boundaries. But Wilmington no longer had large tracts of land, so they began to build in the suburbs. As more people left the inner city, the harder life was for those left behind, who were left with little to no services, a phenomenon that has continued to plague Wilmington today.

 Today, there are many who believe they have the answer on how Wilmington can be “fixed,” or even who contributed to its struggle. Conceptualizing Wilmington as the point of revitalization won’t drive the kind of change the city nor state needs.It will collapse before it crosses the finish line. 

It’s the synergies and resources of the region, a creative focus on relevant industries and its people that will make it work. Wilmington must position itself as a developer’s playground for those seeking a safer and more innovative alternative to Philadelphia, Atlantic City or Baltimore.

 

Brandon Brice is a career public servant, nonprofit executive and political commentator. He resides in Wilmington.

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