Editor’s note: Longtime Wilmingtonian and regular contributor to TSD, John Riley offers his views on the City and the upcoming mayoral contest. John has served in numerous leadership roles in government, business and charitable causes.
The City of Wilmington, like family, has been one of the great constants in my life.
Living on the east side of Market in the 50’s and early 60’s, I played ball and went swimming at Prices Run Park, jumped on my uncle’s 4-1 bus and rode all over the city and walked more than a mile each day, first to Christ Our King School and then Salesianum.
Although as kids we had to learn some street smarts and basic survival instincts, my mother felt pretty certain when one or all nine of us left the house in the morning we would make it home safe at night. From the late 90’s to today all my three children have lived at different addresses on Lincoln Street in the Forty Acres section of town – today I own two properties there. Most of my work life, from the old Huber bread factory in the 60’s to Hercules through 2008, has been in the city. Although today I am not a city resident, Wilmington is very much in my blood – like my father before me and his father before him (my grandfather was Chief of Police from 1946 to 1949), we are multiple generation Wilmingtonians. But as I look at the current condition of our city and our prospects going forward, I, like many others, am deeply discouraged.
I provide this background to explain why it has become personal to me that Wilmington, our state’s center of commerce and culture, be turned around before it is too late. We not only have a high profile problem with violence in our city, we are suffering from a diminished reputation that causes businesses to choose to move out, potential residents and visitors to avoid us and citizens to lose pride.
Walking through the little park in front of the Amtrak station some time ago I observed with disgust weeds and trash in the very spot that is the first image many see of our city. A small issue compared to murder on our streets but one has to wonder if the city government doesn’t care how the city looks, why would the public?
I had walked past this mess many times before and thought how futile it would be to call the city and complain. So I called my friend Mike Purzycki, who runs the Riverfront, and he said – “I’ll fix it with our people – the City won’t even notice.”
If you know Mike Purzycki, you know a man who brings a certain passion to everything he does. And seeing the extraordinary success of the Riverfront, at a time when the rest of Wilmington has been in decline, you know he channels that passion into action on a high level.
As Director of Business Development during the Carper Administration I attended the very first meeting of a group led by former Governor Russ Peterson that wanted to transform the old Dravo shipyard and the surrounding environs into an attractive destination to serve future generations of Delawareans. Were it not for a convincing pitch by former Mayor Schaefer of Baltimore, who led the creation of the famous “Inner Harbor,” the idea would have been almost laughable.
Some time after this event my phone rang on a Saturday morning – it was Mike Purzycki who said he had something urgent to discuss and asked if I would meet him at Gallucio’s on Lovering Avenue. Over lunch Mike shared his interest in the Riverfront project and what sounded like a pragmatic approach to bringing it to reality. By this time a board had been formed and they were well down the road to selecting a director.
As we talked about the project I began to reflect on Mike’s talents and attributes and became convinced he was the perfect person to lead this effort. Mike had experience as a lawyer, a small business owner, developer and politician. Most importantly, Mike possessed a certain resilience developed growing up on the streets of Newark, New Jersey, and a competitive drive and sense of teamwork from his football career at UD and briefly for the NY Giants – character traits that were sure to sustain him through what clearly would be a an extremely complex environment. I told him that unfortunately I thought it was too late but that I would call the Governor and give it my best try.
As they say, the rest is history – and the decision to hire Mike Purzycki has been repeatedly endorsed by Delaware governors and legislators over the past 20 years.
From my perspective the Riverfront has exceeded all expectations and the results are clear: $700 million in private sector investments, more than 6,000 jobs, hundreds of apartments, a riverwalk, 14 restaurants, a hotel, a conference center, a movie complex and much more. The Wilmington Riverfront is one of the most successful projects of its kind in the country and it simply would not have happened without Mike’s vision and leadership. A vision and leadership that extended past the government leaders who agreed to support this ambitious effort to the small business owners and corporate CEO’s who would have to invest millions of dollars and risk moving their employees to the wasteland by the river. No doubt much of the results we see today came about because these leaders trusted Mike Purzycki.
But unfortunately, while the Riverfront has prospered, the city neighborhoods have been under siege, businesses are leaving and the reputation of Wilmington has sunk to an all-time low. Over the years some friends and community leaders have discussed this dichotomy with Mike and urged him to think about running for mayor. Why not bring the leadership, the talent, the competence and passion to the entire city instead of just the Riverfront?
Based on my years as an executive recruiter, I learned that the Governors and CEOs I worked for insisted on real, demonstrated results from the candidates they would consider for important leadership positions within their organizations. What had the manager candidate actually run and what results had they achieved? How relevant was that experience to the task at hand? We need to bring this kind of critical thinking into the 2016 City election – it cannot be business as usual.
I have found as I talk to others around Wilmington that there is a real hunger to fix the city – many are Republicans and independents willing to change their registration because they are frustrated by the futility of having bad choices and want to vote in the Democratic primary next September because that’s where the election will actually be decided (changing parties is surprisingly easy and can be accomplished on line at https://ivote.de.gov/voterlogin.aspx.)
There was an election years ago that used the slogan, “this time vote like your whole world depended on it.” You may not be a resident and you may not have a vote, but as Wilmington has declined we can all see that we have a stake in its future. So I would offer, “this time get involved, because Wilmington and Delaware truly depend upon it.” Of course if you are a resident, the power is in your hands!