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[caption id="attachment_227067" align="aligncenter" width="1200"] Newark's Main Street has seen an influx of national and corporate brands, like Qdoba and Honeygrow, in recent years, competing with homegrown restaurants and raising leasing rates for local shops. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS[/caption]
NEWARK — When Mimi Sullivan became the sole proprietor of Bloom in 2004, she was drawn to the eclectic and welcoming atmosphere that surrounded Newark’s Main Street. The lifestyle boutique has been in business for 18 years, and in that time, Sullivan has watched steady growth and development take place right outside her shop windows. From the aesthetic of its buildings to the business endeavors that populate them, Main Street is much changed in 2022. “When I first moved onto Main Street, it was extremely bohemian. There was still a little bit of a hippie vibe, which I always enjoyed because it felt like there were a bunch of independents hanging out here. There weren't many chains,” Sullivan said.City in fluxAs a college town home to the University of Delaware, Newark is consistently a city in flux and its commercial center, Main Street, sees changes almost annually.
[caption id="attachment_227069" align="alignleft" width="300"] Newark's Main Street has seen a decline in retailers, due in part to rising lease rates for spaces. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS[/caption]
While restaurants, retailers and service providers have often competed to get the attention of the more than 20,000 students walking city streets, Main Street has seen more decidedly dramatic swings in the last decade. While national chain brands were hardly a sight on Main Street in generations past, the thoroughfare is now dotted with brands like 7-Eleven, Starbucks, Chipotle, Qdoba and Five Guys.At the same time, longtime small business mainstays like the Korner Diner, Margherita’s Pizza, Abbott’s Shoe Repair, Post House and more have either closed or moved off Main Street.Recalling what she deems the “golden years” of Main Street, Sullivan described the area as a lively place teeming with families eager to shop and stroll in the evenings. Knowing that locals were eager to support local businesses and had an interest in artist-made products was a big draw of the location, according to Sullivan.An industry fashion designer for 13 years, Sullivan jumped on the opportunity to pursue her own creative vision, free from office politics. She started the business intending to provide for a niche aesthetic market.“I saw a hole in the retail. I thought there were enough hippie-related stores, but I wanted to do something a little bit cooler, a little bit more edgy, a little bit more urban,” Sullivan said. Marilyn Dickey is well versed in navigating changes and developments on Main Street, as she’s run Grassroots, a specialty gift shop located on Main Street, for 47 years.“We need more retail on Main Street. It's all food,” Dickey told the Delaware Business Times. “I just feel like fewer regular folks are coming down to Main Street to shop because there aren’t that many options.”The number of retailers has fallen precipitously in recent years though, in part because of rising rent levels that now sit around $30 per square foot for a triple-net lease, said Joe Latina, a commercial real estate broker who has long worked with Main Street businesses.“You’re still going to find your fair share of niche businesses and boutiques, but they're becoming less and less viable. They just simply can't afford it,” he said.Changing aestheticsSince Bloom’s beginnings, Main Street has changed quite noticeably. Even at first glance, the area’s aesthetic changes are prominent. “When I first moved to Main Street, it was a tree-lined street. It was also a mix of residential buildings and commercial properties,” Sullivan said. “Slowly over time, the older residential bungalows and colonial style houses got knocked down and replaced with boxier designs.”Bloom’s original location near Caffé Gelato was redone in such a fashion, Sullivan added, leading her to relocate to a storefront closer to Iron Hill Brewery.
[caption id="attachment_227071" align="alignright" width="300"] A new Hyatt hotel will significantly change the appearance of Newark's Main Street, stretching up to seven stories behind the historic Green Mansion. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS[/caption]
The physical presence of Main Street continues to change though, with new apartment units planned to rise above much of the commercial corridor and a Hyatt hotel stretching up to seven stories behind the former historic Green Mansion. The city’s zoning code has largely allowed such mixed-use expansion, despite some pushback from residents, in part because UD’s enrollment has grown by 10% in the last decade, but university-owned student housing has actually declined due to the closure of the Pencader Towers. For Gianmaro Martuscelli, owner of the historic Klondike Kate’s restaurant and bar, the addition of more Main Street residents and hotel visitors will likely only aid his bustling business and that of other restaurants.“When you visit a new place, you don’t sit in the hotel room. You get out and explore and find somewhere to eat,” he said.The hotel will also likely benefit Hamilton’s on Main, a neighboring upscale-albeit-unpretentious restaurant, opened earlier this year by chef Jeremiah Brooks and his husband, Anthony. While they opened with a menu of small plate dishes targeted at the more affluent residents and visitors from around the region rather than UD’s students, Anthony Brooks said they did have to adjust that tactic beginning last month.“Our idea was to go kind of basic and since we changed our menu our sales have almost doubled,” he said, explaining the restaurant now serves traditional entree dishes and wine by the glass while listing drinks on the menu. “We’ve seen our beer and wine programs basically triple.”Anthony Brooks said they still don’t see students as their main audience, but recognize that it will be difficult to succeed without some student patronage. They recently started accepting the university’s off-campus meal plan (OCMP) and extended their hours until midnight to be more accommodating.“We’ll never be a $5 pitcher place … it’s just not who we are,” he said. “But we have suffered from this stigma that we are ‘the fancy place’ … I want you to come in your yoga pants or jeans or T-shirt if that makes you happy. Yes, it's beautifully decorated, and yes, our food is exquisite, and the wine and beer are awesome, but it's approachable.”The change in strategy has seen their sales rise and two dozen events book out their private rooms for the Main Street restaurant.Small shops may exitWhile regional restaurants like Iron Hill Brewery and Sante Fe Mexican Grill have survived on Main Street for years, other independent shops may be forced to leave for areas outside the commercial center.
[caption id="attachment_227068" align="alignleft" width="300"] Margherita's Pizza moved off Main Street after decades there, in part due to increased competition from national chains like neighboring Chipotle. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS[/caption]
Rico Della-Monica, co-owner of Margherita’s Pizza, said the increased competition from national brands, including a neighboring Chipotle burrito franchise, forced his pizzeria to cater to a late-night crowd.“We were just a small mom-and-pop shop competing with all these corporate brands coming to Main Street. So of course the business dropped a little bit,” he said. “We just focused on primarily serving the students, but our summertime [sales were] getting worse and worse.”Facing a commercial corridor that looked very different than when they took over the shop more than 40 years ago, the Della-Monicas made the decision to leave their longtime location to move to the Park N Shop plaza off South Main Street about a half mile south of Main Street.Four years later, Rico Della-Monica said it was the right choice, with ample parking able to better serve a more diverse clientele that includes more families and business luncheons along with college students.“I had one customer come in who said they hadn’t been to the shop on Main Street in 15 years. I asked if they had a bad pizza or something, and they said no, they loved the pizza but they didn’t want to look for parking and if they found a spot they feared getting a ticket,” he recalled.A revitalized Newark Shopping Center already hosts some such eateries, and other developments will add opportunities.Fusco Management’s mixed-use community development project — The Grove at Newark — seeks to house, feed, and entertain residents and locals at its College Square site, which consists of 26,000 square feet of new retail and restaurant space.Projects like The Grove are changing the landscape of Newark by offering an “alternative to Main Street,” Fusco spokesperson Brad Clason said. The Grove is sure to make an impact on the area, with the project’s retail opportunities creating jobs and its 300 apartments attracting new residents, according to Clason.“Really the first goal in designing this was to engage with the community,” Clason said.For now, Main Street’s remaining small business owners are also still looking to make their mark in their city while navigating an ever-changing landscape.“I still love it,” Dickey said of running a business on Main Street. “The other day a young woman came in who went to college here 20 years ago, and said, ‘I was passing through and I just wanted to come downtown. I was so happy to find you guys.’ So it’s very satisfying.”Reporter Emma Reilly contributed to this story.