Part III: A Change is Gonna Come
This economic development retrospective covering the years 1945 to 1984 will be serialized as eight parts, running on alternate days on Town Square Delaware.
The elections of 1968 in Delaware proved to be one of the rare moments that truly shook the Delaware political establishment to its core. Gov. Terry was dumped in favor of a Republican DuPont Company transfer from the Midwest, Russell Peterson. In Wilmington, two-term Mayor John Babiarz was defeated by former Republican Congressman Hal Haskell. The first act of this new Republican team was to remove the troops from Wilmington’s streets.
Haskell took advantage of the mayoral powers now in force thanks to the new city charter enacted under his predecessor and installed professionals in city hall to begin an overhaul of city government operations. Gone were the commissions, the citizen boards that ran the day-to-day operations of city departments as small fiefdoms. In their place were professional administrators who now ran Public Safety, Public Works, Licenses and Inspections and the other departments. City planners were brought in to manage the planning and zoning process and financial experts looked at the city finances. And what these financial experts found was more bad news for the new mayor.
Haskell and his team took the financial projections over to the DuPont Company to show to their top officers. At the time DuPont dominated Wilmington as few other companies did their hometowns. Its approximately 10,000 employees occupied the DuPont, Montchanin and Nemours buildings, spilling over into adjacent office buildings, and the company would soon occupy the Brandywine Building then under construction. Its work force generated jobs in surrounding banks, shops and restaurants and made the company the focal point of downtown activities. DuPont also provided Wilmington something most old industrial cities didn’t have, a strong white-collar job base. This dual nature would prove an asset for future development.
Wilmington was almost completely dependent on the property tax for revenue, just as New Castle County is today. When the DuPont Company officials looked at the real estate tax projections it was clear substantial tax hikes were inevitable, a direct assault on DuPont’s bottom line as a huge holder of Wilmington real estate. Their recommendation: create a wage tax on city workers and residents similar to the one in Philadelphia. This would establish a new source of income for the city while spreading the tax burden beyond just the property owners.
DuPont put its considerable influence behind the effort to get the state legislature to approve this new tax for the city of Wilmington, which was written to apply to any city in Delaware with a population greater than 50,000 people. The timing was right to have this considered because governments at all levels were in a state of flux. New Castle County had just dumped its Levy Court system for a County Executive and Council format, while state government was jettisoning commissions for a government by departments. The horse-trading for votes in the General Assembly took many turns but in the end Wilmington got its wage tax, albeit on a temporary, 4-year basis. Also, responsibility for Brandywine, Rockford and Canby Parks moved from Wilmington to New Castle County on a 40- year lease arrangement and New Castle County turned over responsibility for welfare programs to the State.
Now Wilmington had a new source of income to balance its books, one tied directly to the retention of existing jobs and creation of new jobs within city limits. Economic development took on a new meaning and a new urgency for Mayor Haskell and his team as they planned for Wilmington’s future. Whether this new taxing power could survive the wrath of angry suburban commuters and their state legislators was another matter.
The riots of 1968 had taken the wind out of the sails of the GWDC proposals, but Haskell’s administration set to work to bring the center- piece of the study to life. Already land was being cleared between King and Walnut Streets funded by the federal Urban Renewal program and a new Federal Office Building was under construction at 9th and King. A study prepared for the Fusco Corporation in 1969 showed the plans for a regional shopping mall had now grown to a total of 1.1 million square feet of space, with a 200,000 square foot office building and a 350 room motor hotel on top of a parking garage. The 8 block project would require the elimination of French Street between 8th and 4th Streets, plus the widening of King and Walnut Streets as major arterial one-way streets. The farmer’s market, an outdoor venue similar to the Italian Market in Philadelphia and long a fixture on King Street, would have to go to accommodate the new regional mall project and its required traffic changes. A spur from I-95 would bring suburban shoppers directly into the mall parking garage without the need for them to traverse city streets at all.
An anchor department store was needed to kick start the project, and Hess and Wanamakers were wooed. But competition from the suburbs beckoned. Another project of H. B. duPont, the Welfare Foundation, owned 600 acres in Stanton along I-95. Their offer in 1969 of 200 acres to the Wilmington Medical Center for a suburban hospital site was to have far-reaching affects not only for the future of hospitals in Wilmington, but also would inadvertently undermine the GWDC plans for a regional mall in Wilmington. The Stanton area was now looked upon as a development site and became the focus for a suburban regional mall.
This was a losing battle for Wilmington, and the announcement of the new regional shopping center to be called the Christiana Mall ended for all intents and purposes Wilmington’s plans. While a failure, the city administration under Haskell had taken the first tentative steps towards a winning approach. A partnership would be needed among several players including the federal government, the State of Delaware and private developers to make things happen in downtown, and Wilmington would have to go beyond providing infrastructure to directly negotiating with private companies to come to the city.
Next: A New Hope to City People.
Carol Hoffecker’s excellent book, Corporate Capital Wilmington in the Twentieth Century (1983) gave me a great source for the early post WWII years. I would also like to thank the following individuals who contributed their time, assistance and recollections: Peter Besecker, Joe DiPinto, Elliott Golinkoff, Brian Murphy, Dick Pryor, Fred Sears, Dave Singleton and Stan Soja.