[caption id="attachment_26138" align="alignleft" width="1000"]The designer, Philip Freelon, is also responsible for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. [/caption]
Back in 2011, James Parker spent hours pushing a lawnmower across the large vacant property near his home off Del. 9 in New Castle County. From the road, the lot looked like a sweep of uncut grass. But Parker, a longtime Oakmont resident, saw that it had good bones.
"I knew it was a great piece of property," said Parker, an organizer for Eyes on Christ Ministry, a religious social services organization. "To have that much land, you could have put in a brand new community."
Today the property is home to the Route 9 Library & Innovation Center. The 40,000-square-foot facility at 3022 New Castle Ave. features a library, work spaces, a computer lab, a STEM lab, and a range of on-site programming. It officially opened Sept. 12, after two years of construction.
The $31 million facility is one of the most expensive public projects in the history of New Castle County. Its development process has spanned three county administrations, two governors, and the death of May Jarmon, one of the most vocal community supporters. But state and county officials have long framed the project as more than just a place to borrow books.
"I see it as the linchpin for the revitalization of the area," said County Councilman Jea Street, who represents much of the Del. 9 corridor. "I think it's going to spur entrepreneurship. I think some businesses are going to get started out here."
Over 16,000 people live along the section of Del. 9 between Wilmington and the town of New Castle. Residential neighborhoods, which span from trailer parks to middle-class enclaves, sit between long stretches of road with only the occasional sidewalk. Trucks bound for manufacturing and waste facilities closer to the Delaware River speed down the four-lane thoroughfare.
New Castle Avenue - the local name for Del. 9 - is dotted with liquor stores, strip malls and small manufacturing companies. Large portions of the corridor remain underdeveloped, with parking lots and weed-tangled fences running along the road.
"We kind of lost the structure, the discipline and the kindness of the community," Parker said. "We've been in pretty much a downward spiral since the early '90s."
Parker chalked up the decline to a number of factors, including the increase in drug use, prostitution,
and landlords without a stake in the community.
"We know this community is in the desert, for lack of a better word," said Jessica Gibson, senior advisor to County Executive Matt Meyer and the lead on coordinating programs at the center.
"We learned and listened over the last two years about what this community needs, and workforce development and a job training program was at the top of the list," she said.
Some of the programs now in the works address job readiness, resume writing, workplace success, and computer and social media abilities.
"I see this library not as an end but as evidence," said State Rep. J.J. Johnson, who helped bring state funds to the project. "This library is evidence that we in government in the state and county are concerned about this area."
Street said plans are already underway to add senior housing to the property. He would also like to see more diverse retail and a financial institution that would serve residents.
Many nearby residents also see the library as a potential boon to the surrounding area.
[caption id="attachment_26141" align="alignleft" width="1000"]The property back in 2011.[/caption]
"I think it will be good," said Kelly Christiansen, who lives on Hillview Avenue about a block from the library. "Maybe it will keep druggies off the streets. It may improve property values."
Newdy Felton, a Philadelphia-based entrepreneur who also works at his mother's day-care center in Rose Hill, said the library will serve as a place to meet with clients and work on projects while he's in Delaware.
"I wouldn't have thought they would have placed it on New Castle Avenue of all places," Felton said.
"I think it will bring a lot of light to this area."
That sense of surprise that Del. 9 could get such an investment is shared by Parker. He said he doesn't know why it happened now, but that he's glad it did.
"One thing I know is that the first will be last and the last will be first, and maybe this is the time, since we been the last so long, that God is blessing us," Parker said.