Just five years ago it would have been impossible to imagine walking in downtown Smyrna and smelling freshly brewed coffee or grabbing lunch at the tavern and topping it off with a hot-from-the-oven sweet treat.
It may have been a long time coming, but Smyrna is enjoying a flurry of business activity with a number of new businesses opening such as Painted Stave
, Slate Café
and Brick Works Brewing and Eats
Last summer, the Lemon Leaf Café
and JR's Past-Time Pub
moved into the building vacated by The Inn at Duck Creek, while One North Main Street Eats and Sweets recently took over the space occupied by the Drunk'n Baker.
Lindsay Powell-Conley and husband Timothy are looking to open their second business in the downtown area this fall: Cobalt Manor, an event space and restaurant at the site of the old Wright Mansion
on 47 E. Commerce St.
The Yarn Maven has moved farther up Commerce Street to a larger location to accommodate growth, Painted Stave is building an outdoor cocktail garden for a Memorial Day weekend opening as well as an outdoor whiskey storage facility.
Being chosen for the Downtown Development Designation
(DDD) program has definitely helped downtown Smyrna grow, as has the rebounding economy and population increase.
"Things are definitely coming back," Town Manager Gary Stulir said. "We're working with developers."
That's only part of the story, according to Rick Ferrell, the town's business and economic development consultant. Ferrell believes that communities must have strong organizational structures in place to be able to take full advantage of government incentives. That, he said, is what put Smyrna ahead of the game relative to other Delaware municipalities.
[caption id="attachment_32159" align="alignright" width="400"] Ron Gomes Jr. and Mike Rasmussen opened Painted Stave Distillery in 2013, aided by incentives and tax abatements from Smyrna. | DBT PHOTO BY ERIC CROSSAN
"We have an engaged town council that values business and economic development, a proactive economic development committee, a business development committee and an active redevelopment committee," he said.
Smyrna, which straddles the county line between New Castle and Kent, also had a strategic plan passed by council in 2014. That plan would form the basis of its district application. The town did not receive designation until two years later, but having a viable blueprint for growth in hand allowed it to have projects in queue.
"When we got [the designation] in 2016, we received more than $200,000 in grants that resulted in $1.6 million in private reinvestment in the first year," Ferrell said.
Stulir said Ferrell's expertise has played an important role in downtown Smyrna's success.
"Rick is constantly trying to bring business to town and help them out if they're struggling," he said. "There's a lot more one-on-one attention than in a place like Dover which is a little more spread out."
Ferrell encourages property owners in the downtown area to interact with each other to determine the best mix of tenants to achieve synergy and market growth.
"The biggest challenge to downtowns is not the shortage of ideas but influencing the people who own the real estate," he said. "You can have all the ideas you want but if you don't have three property owners who see it the same way, you may not get the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker. You might get three hair salons or something that doesn't necessarily grow the market."
Ferrell also advises business owners to "come out of their silos" and cross-promote themselves with other local businesses. That brands the downtown as a regional destination, drawing tourists who will spend time and money and make repeat visits.
"A town like Smyrna with a population of 11,000 can't support a downtown economy," he said.
Painted Stave Distillery got lots of help from the town in the form of fee waivers, help with utilities and tax abatements, when owners Ron Gomes Jr. and Mike Rasmussen opened in 2013. The owners have also seen the value of cross-promoting their businesses with other establishments, such as Blue Earl Brewing Co. and Brick Works Brewing and Eats, Gomes said.
"We do two pub crawls a year with Blue Earl and Brick Works and we've had a collaborative billboard," he added. "Whenever we find interesting opportunities that we think are going to help the businesses and help the town, we're all about it."
By Christine Facciolo
Special to Delaware Business Times