Part IV: A New Hope to City People
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 political winds shifted again in 1972. Peterson was turned out of the governor’s office, a young county councilman named Biden upset two-term Senator and former Governor Cale Boggs for a U.S. Senate seat, and a brash 30 year old city councilman named Tom Maloney won the Wilmington Mayor’s race against Hal Haskell.
Maloney and his young team came into office with bold ideas for change but clearly wanted to continue the professional approach to administration started by Haskell. He jumped in to the operations of Wilmington’s port, actively recruiting new companies like Volkswagon and Fiat to sign contracts to bring their cars through Wilmington. He created the Homestead Program to give away city-owned vacant houses to those who would renovate and occupy them. He imported ideas that had worked in other cities to complement his own vision. Most critically, he needed to change the public image of Wilmington damaged by the riots and military occupation so fresh in peoples’ minds.
To alter the public’s perception, he imported the idea from Allentown, PA of tearing up Wilmington’s main venue, Market Street, to build a pedestrian mall. It wouldn’t be the enclosed regional mall attempted by Haskell but it would create a pedestrian-friendly venue to complement existing attractions such as the newly renovated Grand Opera House. The idea was in its developmental stages under Haskell but Maloney made it his own and it became his centerpiece to reinvent Wilmington. He began incorporating other ideas, such as instituting an historic district around the Historical Society in the 500 block of the proposed mall and transporting colonial era houses threatened with demolition to create Willington Square.
Wilmington was falling back on infrastructure improvements to encourage economic development and, for a few years, it worked. Restaurants expanded out onto the streetscape and downtown office workers flocked to the new mall on sunny days to shop or just to stroll. From the start, though, there were grumblings from Market Street merchants and others that the mall was too long, stretching down to 4th Street in front of too many empty storefronts. The new city police mounted patrol added to the urban ambiance but so did the panhandling homeless people. Stores in the middle of blocks were inaccessible to motorists. The upper blocks of the mall thrived, though, and the Mall was the place to go on weekdays, with sunny afternoons producing the crowds merchants desired.
Meanwhile, the 8- block area for the stillborn shopping mall had been purchased and cleared, with no clear plan to move ahead. Maloney decided to put the whole area between 8th and 4th, King to Walnut out to bid to private developers, and in 1975 it was sold to Custom House Square Associates, headed by Fred Krapf and Krapf Construction in partnership with Gilpin. By the mid 1970’s governments had done their part by building the federal building at 9th and King, the State office building at 9th and French and the City/County building at 8th and French, complemented by the Delmarva Power building at 8th and King. Would the private sector now step in and develop the rest of the area?
A new element that Maloney introduced into economic development was property tax breaks for businesses that chose to move to or expand in Wilmington. With no money in the till, the best Wilmington could do to encourage development was to defer property taxes in hopes the gains in wage taxes from new or expanded businesses would make it worthwhile. The property tax abatement program, which eliminated property tax for new or renovated structures for the first several years then gradually increased it until they were paying full rates by the end of 10 years, would prove to be another crucial element in future negotiations.
Economic development remained a priority for Maloney as a means of expanding the tax base, but other issues impeded progress. A garbage workers strike to fight efforts to cut city expenses, the Wilmington Medical Center announcing plans to close the Memorial and Wilmington General hospitals in favor of a new suburban location, desegregation battles that would eliminate the city’s school district – these things preoccupied city hall while political leaders were trying to reinvigorate the business community. A potentially devastating blow was averted when the State Legislature decided not to eliminate the city’s temporary wage tax authority. Part of Wilmington’s negotiating strategy was to deliver to certain state legislators an ersatz copy of the City’s charter. The message was “if you take away the wage tax, you’re now responsible for running the city.”
But bad economic news kept coming. Allied Kid, the last leather tannery, closed, and Electric Hose and Rubber closed, further reducing the manufacturing base. The last of the city’s movie theaters closed, ending an era when people came downtown for their entertainment. Maloney had provided a new attitude and new energy to Wilmington but, outside of the new mall, had little to show for all his economic development efforts.
Next: Jai Alai, Anyone?
 The first home was awarded to DuPont Company attorney Dan Frawley, who went on to become a city councilman and two-term mayor. The program itself became a national model adopted by other cities across the country.
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.