Milford sees opportunity in business growth

MILFORD — The ebb and flow of business growth is easily evident in a smaller city such as Milford.

Residents noticed when Gooden’s Floral Shop, seasoned with more than 70 years of service to the Milford area, closed its doors in 2016. They realized the future impact when community staple, the Milford Skating Center, closed later that same year.

The community buzzed with activity when Starbucks and a medical marijuana grower announced Milford locations to open in 2018.

Amidst all the excitement growth has to offer, does the community fully understand its implications?

Dr. Michael Casson Jr., director of Delaware State University’s University Center for Economic Development and International Trade (UCEDIT) and Economic Development and Leadership Institute (EDLI), said Milford is poised for sustainable, future growth thanks to current economic movements by businesses, residents and the government alike.

“Milford has been doing wonderful things. From what I’ve seen and read, Milford has been really progressive and innovative in terms of commerce,” he said. “With Bayhealth coming in, that’s an additional economic growth engine. I would definitely be excited about the prospects of that, as well.”

Teaming with the state of Delaware and local government leaders has been one key to Milford’s current success, he added.

“The state of Delaware is doing an excellent job in terms of trying to stimulate development and small business growth,” he said. “Step one of attracting businesses to the area is the fluidity of working with the necessary kind of change of command. In terms of business, that’s zoning, tax structures, labor regulations, etc. All of those things are very important matters for business and dealt with at the local and state levels.”

Continuing, he said the state of Delaware directly impacts local communities through initiatives such as the Downtown Development District.

“They are really looking to fuel innovation and entrepreneurship, and market what there is in opportunities and potential in Delaware,” Dr. Casson said.

Milford earned its Downtown Development District designation in August 2016, allowing grant funds to pay for up to 20 percent of “hard costs” to businesses and residences within the district in the form of a refund after construction work is complete. The city of Milford coupled this designation with incentives such as waived impact fees, building permit fees and realty transfer taxes.

Local entrepreneur Daniel Bond has used the designation to his benefit while restoring The Pikus Building, formerly

Lou’s Bootery. The Music School of Delaware’s Milford branch also utilized the program in 2017 when it moved just doors down from its former location next to Gallery 37 to its current location at 10 N. Walnut Street.

“The Downtown Development District has helped highlight the economic potential of downtown Milford and is catalyzing new investment that will pay dividends for the community for years to come. It is exciting to see many new businesses and new residents locating in our DDD area,” Milford Mayor Bryan Shupe explained.

The designation is just a part of the vision behind rebuilding the downtown and surrounding areas as businesses continue to enter the market, however. Dr. Casson equated the visionary process to building a house.

“How do they build a house? How is the design? We could have great hammers and nails, but not have great vision for the house,” he said. “In my opinion, the state is one key. But, it’s also key to bring together community partners, saying, ‘What do we want Milford to look like in 10, 15, 20 years? What do our tools look like?’” With a similar mindset, many such conversations have happened over the last year between stakeholders in Milford.

City leaders hosted “community conversations” throughout the municipality, facilitated by leaders and attended by residents, business representatives and others invested in growth. These meetings helped leaders prepare for strategic planning efforts.

City Manager Eric Norenberg explains, “The Community Conversations helped engage the public in thinking about how our economy should grow and evolve over the next five years. Residents and businesspersons identified how the City can support a thriving economy, what individuals and families need to be economically resilient, how the City can help increase the quality of life in Milford and what businesses would like to see to support their growth. So, economic health and vitality has become one of the five priority areas for our strategic plan.”

With the input of the local community in play, businesses stepped in to address needs uncovered with what Dr. Casson called social entrepreneurship.

“So that’s those businesses that effectively give back to the communities that support them,” he said.

Lifecycle, for example, has done a lot of work to the betterment of the community.

Opening its brick and mortar shop in the heart of downtown behind the Milford Public Library in March 2017, owners Jenn Rowan and Ben Jones have worked tirelessly at finding solutions to needs discussed during community conversations.

With the help of the community, the pair have organized community events, heralded healthy lifestyles and pedaled toward safer streets in the downtown area.

In fact, most businesses in downtown Milford remain active in community events and seek out opportunities to draw customers downtown. Organizations such as the Mispillion Art League and Gallery, Milford Public Library and Riverfront Theatre also host events which help bring people to the area.

“We work together. When I have a problem, I just call on someone and they help me through it. Or if we have an idea, we get the others involved. It’s a great atmosphere,” Petite Sweets Co-Owner Keila Montalvo- Sierra said of her fellow entrepreneurs.

Downtown Milford, much like the surrounding areas, has seen several businesses close local locations in the recent years, such as Cozy Cottage and Lou’s Bootery. Other businesses and organizations, such as the Music School, Fur-Baby Boutique and Bayhealth Medical Center, have expanded their facilities and moved to larger locations, freeing up space in the downtown area for future growth.

The successful ebb and flow of downtown Milford plays a role in enticing larger, national brands to the area, according to Dr. Casson.

“When you start at the state level and work your way down, you really see a focus on small business. That small business is necessary for the inclusion to the attractiveness for larger businesses to come in,” he said.

The coffee industry is one area that thrives in Milford thanks, in part, to successful businesses like Dolce Bakery and Coffee Shop, A’Latte Soul and All Rise Cafe.

“We talk about when there’s profits in the market, there’s people that want to come to the market. The demographic in Milford is more appreciative of coffee and are able to pay for that. The projections for the coffee industry seem upward,” Dr. Casson said.

With perky industry projections, it’s only natural for larger companies such as Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts to want a cup.

Other larger chains have also recently expressed interest in Milford.

Planet Fitness, a chain with more than 1,400 locations, opened its exercise facility in Milford last year. It is set to open another location in Dover soon.

Along with the growth of businesses in Milford comes the diversity seen in local entrepreneurs.

“Forbes did a study not long ago, maybe five or six years ago, where they surveyed 500 lead executives from the world. Across the board, all the fortune 500 leaders said diversity is key to their success. They also said that they had a diversity team. But, they said they are still faced with extreme challenges in addressing diversity needs,” Dr. Casson said.

Although businesses in downtown Milford are primarily owned or run by women, other diverse factors are evident within new businesses. Businesses recently opening their doors in Milford include a blend of African- Americans, Hispanics and Caucasians. Most of these business owners are from about 25 to 55 years of age, a younger crowd compared to businesses who closed up shop in recent years.

“When we dig deeper, our millennials are the same ones that are driving our entrepreneurship. The statistics say they want to be a part of communities that are diverse. They see that as an important aspect of their growth,” Dr. Casson said. “Diversity comes in many shapes and forms. Cultural confidence comes in many forms. When we appreciate that, then we can see cultural growth and inclusion and understanding of cultures. It goes beyond understanding. It’s appreciation and seeing how those differences can be celebrated and create and community economic system. That is what I see in Milford.”

For more from Forging Our Future: Read the E-Edition here

Jennifer Antonik can be reached at mc@newszap.com

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