Despite the city of Wilmington’s reputation as a business powerhouse, strategic location along the northeast corridor, and proximity to major transportation assets (I-95, Philadelphia International Airport, Wilmington Airport, Amtrak), the New Castle County seat is often overshadowed by the larger, neighboring city to the north. Yet with the help of cross-sector collaborations and strategic investments led by local business and civic leaders, Wilmington is emerging as an urban renaissance story. During October’s Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange, a group of 40 area leaders took a short bus ride down to Wilmington to explore exciting developments in Delaware’s largest city.
A Thriving Creative Economy
Much of the groundwork for recent revitalization projects and place-making initiatives has been spearheaded by Wilmington Renaissance Corporation, a public-private organization that collaborates with partners to spur urban revival through strategic planning and community outreach. Perhaps WRC’s most recognizable accomplishment has been the redevelopment of the LOMA (Lower Market Street) district into a vibrant economic and cultural corridor.
With its theaters, music venues, art galleries, and Delaware College of Art and Design, downtown Wilmington is well-positioned to capitalize on its existing cultural assets. To help attract and retain businesses, WRC has launched the Wilmington Storefront Project to coordinate marketing of available storefronts and engage with prospective tenants to identify appropriate uses for available spaces. The Willing Street Artist Village provides live-and-work homeownership opportunities to local artists, makers, musicians, and performers in the area adjacent to the commercial corridor. The WRC’s downtown public art program has the dual benefit of promoting local artists’ work while also beautifying Wilmington’s public spaces. With the addition of new luxury apartments and improved walkability, downtown Wilmington is increasingly becoming a magnet for creative professionals.
Wilmington Waterfront Redevelopment
Not far from the LOMA district, another major redevelopment effort is helping to make Wilmington’s riverfront a recreational destination for local residents and visitors alike. Significant state and private funding have enabled the Riverfront Development Corporation (RDC) to breathe new life into the area along the Christina River – an area that was known for its industrial uses and swamp land when the RDC launched in 1995. Strategically located off of I-95 and one mile from the Amtrak station, Wilmington’s riverfront redevelopment has been instrumental in attracting newcomers to the city. Key assets along the waterfront now include a scenic 1.8-mile RiverWalk trail, restaurants and nightlife, an iMax theatre, a trampoline park, and the Delaware Children’s Museum.
The Riverfront’s development approach goes beyond entertainment to make it a live-work-play destination. Luxury townhouses and apartments provide high-end housing options within the heart of the culturally-vibrant area. The RDC is also working to attract new jobs to the area. The Shipyard Center has become a hub for healthcare and human resources firms, and the riverfront business center recently added Barclay’s Bank Delaware, AAA Mid-Atlantic, and Navient to its list of large regional employers. The city’s $21 million investment in the riverfront between 1996 and 2012 has yielded $46 million in new tax revenue.
Though developers and public-private organizations are keen on expanding economic vitality through new redevelopment opportunities, other key players are coming together to address longstanding issues around public safety and affordable housing in a city where poverty persists. By leveraging private sector funds given to the state through a mortgage crisis settlement, city officials are expanding neighborhood revitalization and crime reduction efforts through the Neighborhood Building Blocks Fund grant program. The Delaware Attorney General's and Governor’s Offices are also leveraging these funds to work with nonprofit organizations, the corporate community, and local law enforcement to improve community outreach and replace blighted, vacant properties with renovated and affordable housing units.
Together these public-private partnerships to capitalize on Wilmington's emerging creative economy, redevelop its downtown and waterfront areas, and sustain neighborhood revitalization efforts are helping to raise and shape Wilmington's profile.