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Sunday, April 18, 2021

Wilmington: How We Got Here and Where We're Going

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Kevin McGonegal
Kevin McGonegal worked in the Maloney, McLaughlin and Frawley Administrations. Today he is vice president of Bellevue Realty Commercial Division in Wilmington.

Part VII: A Transformed Downtown
This economic development retrospective covering the years 1945 to 1984 will be serialized as eight parts, running on alternate days on Town Square Delaware. 

With the victorious effort to keep Hercules in town, Wilmington now had a major success story to tell, a stunning addition to its skyline and a model for future development projects. At about the same time a $4 million UDAG was awarded for a new Wilmington Trust building that incorporated into the building design the post office façade on Rodney Square. AIG was retained in the city in a new building on King Street thanks to a $1.5 UDAG grant for the project. As the State of Delaware’s new Financial Center Development Act began to attract out of state banks to Delaware, Wilmington’s partnership with the governor’s office helped the city get a fair share of the action. Seven of the first 13 new banks established offices in Wilmington, including J.P. Morgan in the old Hercules space at 902 Market, and Chase Manhattan, originally in the former Delmarva Building at 6th and Market (now the Delaware Center for Art and Design) and then in a new building at the old Wilmington High School site on Delaware Avenue ($9.3 million UDAG award). Beneficial’s building at 4th and King Streets kick-started the Christina Gateway development ($2.5 million UDAG).

Wilmington expanded its UDAG reach by obtaining grants for a new shopping center at 4th and Adams, a new Elwyn Delaware Building on the city’s eastside, and two senior housing projects, the Loreton on W. 4th Street and a new Layton Home at 8th and Walnut. By the end of the McLaughlin Administration, Wilmington had secured over $39 million in UDAG grants leveraging $177 million in private investment. Downtown Wilmington was being transformed into a regional banking and white-collar business center.

The partnership approach first attempted by the Haskell Administration proved its worth. Wilmington could not do it on its own, but with active support from the Governor’s office, private developers and companies willing to risk an investment in Wilmington, and a federal government willing to put up gap financing, the partnerships got amazing results. Bu it was clear that this would not be the Wilmington of old. The blue-collar jobs were, for the most part, gone.[1]  There would be no regional shopping center or even a single department store to draw crowds like on Lazarus Day sales at the Dry Goods. Nightlife had its occasional successes, like Oscar’s and Tiffins on Market Street, or Loop Nights, but there would be no streams of diners or movie-goers creating a bustling evening throng. Those days were over.

It’s The Arts

Quietly at work in this era was the growing sense that it takes more than office buildings to change the face of Wilmington. An appreciation for the arts had always existed in town, evidenced by the Delaware Art Museum on Kentmere Parkway and the Broadway productions that came through Wilmington to the Playhouse in the DuPont Building. The connection to downtown development began by means of a remarkable transformation.

The Grand Theater on Market Street by the mid 1960’s was a broken-down rat-trap of a movie house. When it finally closed in the late 1960’s it became the focus of attention for several groups as a reclamation project, for behind the false fronts attached by various business tenants over the years was a beautiful cast iron façade in need of restoration. A gala celebration was held in 1971 to celebrate the theater’s 100th anniversary and kick off fundraising efforts. Three years later the restoration was completed in time to be a center- piece for the new Market Street Mall. Wilmington once again had a center for the performing arts.

Tom Maloney had his own unique way of showing his appreciation for the performing arts. Early in his term he began a practice of throwing a cast party at his house for the cast and crew of the Broadway productions stopping in Wilmington. Stuck in hotel rooms in a city with little night-life, the touring companies welcomed the chance to come to a private home and unwind a bit after a performance. Maloney would offer liberal amounts of food and drink, then fearlessly grab his ukelele and with his wife Linda sing anything from George M. Cohan numbers to dirty ditties. The Broadway stars, ranging from movie legends Rex Harrison and Jean Simmons to TV celebrities Lucie Arnez (daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnez) and Barry Williams (“Greg” on the Brady Bunch) were entertained as much by the Mayor’s audacity as his talent. Some, like a very lubricated Barry Williams, even joined in the entertainment by taking a turn on the gut-bucket. Maloney’s message to the performers was clear – Wilmington was a fun place that appreciated their talent.

During McLaughlin’s time the appreciation for the arts began to take a more concrete form. The Delaware Center for Contemporary Arts (DCCA) found a home in an old Water Department building on E. 16th Street, while the Delaware Theater Company found a permanent home in a new 300-seat theater along the Christina River. The somewhat surprising connection to economic development was that the arts proved an attractive outlet for corporate leaders’ financial support. Corporations like the image of high-profile support for their communities, and support for the arts offers a non-controversial demonstration of that support. Wilmington’s arts projects gave its corporate leaders the chance to take leadership positions that reaped positive publicity for themselves and their companies. The arts and business was a good marriage.

Next: Glimpses of the Future


[1] The notable exception to this was the Port of Wilmington, which continued to grow particularly as port of entry for fruit. This, too, was done with the same type of partnerships that produced the new buildings downtown. Private businesses such as Dole were willing to invest in the port and the State of Delaware was willing to offer financial support to install container cranes, while the federal government’s Corps of Engineers dredged the Christina and Delaware Rivers.

Author’s Acknowledgements:

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.

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