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Riverfront looks back at 25 years of transformation

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The Riverfront was once a little-visited industrial wasteland, but was transformed into a tourist destination along the Christina River over the last 25 years. | DBT PHOTO BY SCOTT SERIO

WILMINGTON – For those who remember the Riverfront in the early 1990s, it was not a sight to behold.

A collection of run-down warehouses held over from the city’s shipbuilding past were largely used as storage, some industrial use or forgotten altogether. But it not for the vision of then-Gov. Tom Carper, work of the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC), a public-private partnership; and buy-in of some of Delaware’s biggest names in development, the area might still largely look like the decaying industrial centers familiar in many American cities.

Mike Purzycki

Today, 25 years after officials began work to rehab the area, however, the Riverfront is a bustling center of business, recreational and residential activity. Its progress has drawn new attention to Wilmington, leading to investments in other parts of the city.

For Mayor Mike Purzycki, who spent 20 years leading the RDC before being voted into office in 2016, the Riverfront is a deeply personal success, but also a reminder of the possibilities available to Delaware’s biggest city.

“I can’t imagine our city without the Riverfront,” Purzycki said.

Frawley starts the fire

Many credit the interest in developing the Riverfront starting with the arrival of Frawley Stadium in 1993, although it was then known as Legends Stadium.

It almost didn’t happen, as team officials were originally looking at a site in Stanton where the Delaware Technical Community Campus is today, recalled Michael Hare, a Delaware Economic Development Office staffer under the Carper administration. That plan fell apart and then-Wilmington Mayor Dan Frawley suggested land on the Riverfront for the project.

With a team secured and a stadium built in less than a year, the home of the Wilmington Blue Rocks became a mega attraction in small Delaware. The excitement didn’t disappoint, as the baseball team won the Carolina League championship in its inaugural year, sparking a new generation of fans who grew used to the unorthodox location.

Mike Hare

Hare said that the success of Frawley Stadium, despite its location amongst warehouses in the Riverfront helped catalyze the interest to see if more was possible.

“I think it was really the early success of Frawley that gave government officials the confidence to invest that money in the Riverfront because they saw people will come and figure out how to drive back there,” he said.

The year after the Blue Rocks’ breakout season, Frawley unexpectedly died, and the corporation set up to manage the stadium renamed it in his honor.

Carper takes the wheel

Carper recalled that in his first weeks as governor, he was visited by former Gov. Russell Peterson and former University of Delaware President E.A. Trabant who co-chaired a task force set up by Carper’s predecessor Mike Castle.

They led the blue-ribbon commission that researched the state of the Christina River and Brandywine Creek to determine what could be done to improve the areas environmentally and economically. Carper recalled that the pair were not prepared to submit a final report in that first meeting.

“I said, ‘That’s OK guys, come back when you’re ready.’ I thought I’d never see them again, but they came back less than six months later,” said Carper, now Delaware’s senior U.S. senator.

(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

What Carper saw in their report was a vision of a Riverwalk, water taxis, businesses and the public congregating along the water and he was wowed by the idea. He asked Peterson who was going to lead on making the vision and reality, and the elder statesman replied that the young governor would.

“You are, because you’re a governor and this is what governors do,” Carper recalled Peterson, long a visionary politician himself, telling him.

Carper would enlist a bit more guidance from a similar architect, William Donald Schaefer, who as mayor of Baltimore and then governor of Maryland led the revitalization of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor into the tourist destination it is today.

In the winter of 1995, Carper invited Schaefer, just a few weeks after he left the governor’s seat, to tour the Riverfront with him to get his advice. They walked for a while and Carper shared the rendering of the vision, finally asking, “Do you think this is a fool’s errand or might it be a good idea?”

Schaefer looked at Carper and said, “This might be a very good idea.”

The Marylander shared some advice, including the need to set up a governing board to lead the effort that would become the RDC by the end of that legislative year.

Sen. Tom Carper

Carper’s administration oversaw the massive effort, including economic development, transportation infrastructure, environmental concerns, and more. The governor attended every RDC board meeting in his eight years in office, invested upward of $80 million in state funding in the project and continued to help steward its growth from the U.S. Senate afterward.

“When I left as governor, I wanted to make sure that we went far enough that regardless of whoever followed me, whether they had a passion about the Riverfront or not, the project would be so attractive to the private sector that it would carry itself forward. And that’s exactly what happened,” Carper said.

Hare credits Carper with keeping the group grounded in their goals, despite a feeling that the dream may be unachievable when looking at the situation on the ground.

“Tom Carper had such ownership, I would argue some obsession, with an unwavering commitment to make this happen,” he said. “He was really the one to stoke the fire and get this thing going.”

RDC leads the way

For an upstart nonprofit tasked with an enormous redevelopment that didn’t own a single acre of land, finding the right person to spearhead the effort was imperative – and it almost wasn’t the man who became practically synonymous with the role.

Purzycki, then a 50-year-old lawyer, developer and former city politician, said a friend in government twice asked him to apply for the role of RDC executive director, but he turned it down. It was his wife, Bette, who urged him to take a closer look and noted that his career seemed tailor-made for the job.

“All of a sudden, I looked at it differently and became pretty much obsessed with the possibility that I could do that,” he said of the job he started April 1, 1996. “When I went to bed at night I dreamed about the Riverfront, as crazy as that is.”

The old Berger Brothers warehouse was one of the landmarks of the Riverfront before its redevelopment. | PHOTO COURTESY OF RDC

Hare, who would be permanently assigned by Carper as RDC deputy director, recalled that Purzycki had a way of cutting through the aspirational ideas to what was possible. While prior ideas called for a marina on the river and additional building upstream, Purzycki sought out where there was an “economic pulse,” Hare said.

“At the time, the economic pulse was really just three things: the train station, Frawley Stadium and Kahunaville,” he said.

The first major project would be to turn the former Dravo shipyard into a crowd-drawing convention center.

World exhibits boost profile

The first time he walked into what is now the Chase Center, it had dirt floors, trusses dating back to World War II and asbestos-laced transite siding, Purzycki recalled.

“Tom Carper came to us and said that there’s a fella from Memphis who wants to bring in the Nicholas and Alexandra exhibit,” he said of the Russian art exhibit that covered the ill-fated last Tsar’s family. “We met with Jim Broughton and showed him this big hulk of a building and promised that we could have it ready for a first-rate exhibition inside of six months.”

Verino Pettinaro, founder of the namesake development firm Pettinaro, transformed the building into a suitable space in about four and a half months.

When that landmark exhibit opened in Wilmington in the spring of 1998, Carper got a firsthand look at the progress with Purzycki.

“He looked around, and he said, ‘I have no idea how you did this, and I don’t think I want to know, but I’m glad you did,’” Purzycki recalled with a laugh.

About 560,000 people came through the exhibit at the then-First USA Riverfront Arts Center in a five-month run.

“It was remarkable,” the mayor recalled. “It just kind of gave us a sense of what the possibilities were.”

Subsequent exhibits for Japanese art and Faberge eggs also brought big-name cultural moments to Delaware, albeit with smaller crowds closer to 100,000 people, Purzycki said. While the city’s exhibition run ended acrimoniously, it brought hundreds of thousands down to a place they likely never would have visited.

A new Riverfront

The Riverfront is now also home to several larger to employers, including Barclays Bank. | DBT PHOTO

In the early 2000s, and especially following the Great Recession, the Riverfront began to become home to more employers and multi-family residences than to tourist attractions. In 2001, Dutch banking giant ING Direct became the first major score to settle in the area, followed by AAA Mid-Atlantic and Juniper Bank three years later, both of which are still there today, although Barclays Bank acquired Juniper.

Other employers like student loan servicer Navient have also settled in the area along with three hotels, numerous locally owned restaurants and more than 1,200 residential units built by local developers Buccini/Pollin Group and Capano Residential.

Pettinaro often led the way in rehabbing old factories or building anew, creating landmark architecture like the Christina Crescent along the way. All of the ideas weren’t successes though, as the original vision for outlet shops at the end of Justison Street never took on with shoppers or brands.

“Sometimes small failures are part of the overall success and that’s what we saw,” Purzycki said, noting that the Shipyard Center today is largely filled with employers and some businesses.

Each development along the way fed into the greater vision. Hare noted that the RDC asked employers to not put cafeterias in their offices in order to convince workers to patronize local restaurants. The addition of apartments and condominiums aided the critical mass needed to convince even more businesses to open in the area, including the Constitution Yards beer garden that has become a major attraction.

East of the Christina

Shortly after arriving in the Senate in 2001, Carper secured funding for a ramp to Interstate 95 from the Riverfront. Though badly needed to help ease traffic in the area, it ran afoul of traffic calculations from the Federal Highway Administration, and it never made it off the ground.

Margaret Rose Henry Bridge

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

It was decided then to cross the Christina River instead, alleviating traffic issues while also potentially propelling development to the Southbridge community. Last year, the Margaret Rose Henry Bridge opened to finally link the sides, more than 18 years after officials decided on the solution.

Already on the eastern side of the river, the Buccini/Pollin Group has been leading new construction in recent years, most notably with the construction of the Chase Fieldhouse that is home to the Blue Coats basketball team as well as the high-rise Residences at Christina Landing.

BPG owns about 7 developable acres in the community, while the RDC has acquired nearly 24 acres of undeveloped land bordering the river, according to land records. The RDC is also working to relocate the Salvation Army Rehabilitation Center from the prime corner of 107 S. Market St. to land it owns to the south near the Fieldhouse.

With Wilmington being a landlocked city, Hare noted the importance of officials recapturing areas like Southbridge that are still transitioning out of legacy uses.

Purzycki said that he believes the investment in the Riverfront, and subsequently the central business district, has convinced many other investors and developers to look at Wilmington anew. That interest is beginning to spread to city communities like Southbridge and Riverside that have historically struggled to attract such attention.

In an “all-boats-rise-with-the-tide” mentality, the mayor believes that the Riverfront has been the catalyst to improve the city’s financial position and change its perception.

Pandemic pause, Biden moment

Over the last year, many of the Riverfront’s core businesses, from the Chase Center to Frawley Stadium, hotels and restaurants to the IMAX movie theater were hit by the restrictions spurred by the virus. The Delaware Children’s Museum is still closed to the public more than a year after the first cases were found in the state.

The area has benefitted from its outdoor amenities, however, with a visible increase in visitors to the Riverwalk, the Jack Markell Trail, Russell Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge and the DuPont Environmental Education Center, Valenti said. With vaccinations on the rise and more people re-entering workplaces, Valenti said that the Chase Center has seen some of its smaller corporate functions begin to arrive again, in coordination with health guidelines.

“We’ve had a lot of inquiries about events moving forward, especially weddings,” he said.

President-elect Joe Biden gives his acceptance speech from the Riverfront in Wilmington on Nov. 7, 2020. | PHOTO COURTESY OF BIDEN CAMPAIGN/ DAN LIENEMANN

The Riverfront will also enter a post-pandemic period with a visibility higher than ever, driven by the presidential campaign of native son Joe Biden, who used the area as the backdrop for some of his biggest moments.

“The Biden campaign and presidency really did shine a spotlight on the Riverfront in a way that we could have never hoped for, organically or through paid sponsorship,” Valenti said.

The 25 years of hard work were largely summed up when Carper watched Biden, a former fellow Delaware senator, accept the presidency from a stage built in the middle of what was once a run-down shipyard.

Walking onstage with Bruce Springsteen’s “We Take Care Of Our Own” blaring overhead to a crowd of adoring Delaware officials and supporters celebrating the moment, Biden peered down and said, “I see my buddy Sen. Tom Carper.” For the tens of millions watching worldwide, the success of the Riverfront was evident in that moment, and Carper said it will be one that’s hard to forget.

“For me, with respect to the Riverfront, the thrill is not diminished one iota,” Carper said.

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