What Wilmington’s Next Mayor Needs to Do

While the rest of the world focuses on the presidential primary circus, Wilmington city residents need to pay attention to something closer to home: November’s upcoming mayoral election.

The next mayor will face very difficult challenges – not only in changing the public’s perception of Wilmington as ‘Murdertown USA’ but also the negative impact resulting from DuPont’s merger with Dow.

Let’s look at the blowback from the merger: currently there’s a 90 percent reduction in research jobs at the Experimental Station. http://www.fool.com/investing/general/2016/03/26/did-dupont-just-ensure-3ms-future-dominance.aspx These were high paying jobs with benefits. If some of the layoffs involved Wilmington residents – they’re no longer paying payroll taxes (translation: revenues decreasing). Will more DuPont jobs disappear from the Wilmington area?

What about attracting jobs to Wilmington? That ‘Murdertown USA’ reputation doesn’t help when businesses are seeking locations for business expansion.

All other considerations aside, Wilmington ought to be an attractive place to locate a business (and grow jobs). Its location halfway between New York City and Washington, D.C. should count for something. Its ability to perform backoffice financial operations at a lower cost than New York City, Princeton or Newark, New Jersey should be a major selling point. Those high-rise Wilmington bank buildings are testaments to this.

However, I’ve noticed some of these operations have moved/expanded out of Wilmington, and are in suburban New Castle County. Will this exodus continue?

For a post-DuPont Wilmington to thrive will require a radical re-invention of the mayor’s job. Fortunately, most of this involves plain common sense. Here are some of my suggestions:

Manage by driving around. The late William Donald Schafer (a mayor of Baltimore) was famous for having his driver take him to random parts of the city, while Schafer would note on a yellow pad the locations of overfilled public trash cans, sofas on the sidewalk, busted public benches, etc. Schafer would return to his office and announce his findings to his staff. But he wouldn’t give the exact location of the overfilled trash can, etc. Rather, he told his staff the next time he drove by the offending site, it had better be cleaned up. Notice how his staff was actively and constantly engaged in cleaning up the city.

Candidates – will you be vigilant about keeping Wilmington clean? Will you reorder the Mayor’s staff positions to reflect this priority?

Managing by walking around – the schools. School quality has a great deal to do with the reputation of a city, and its attractiveness to business. Although the Red Clay school board may have responsibility for the city’s schools, this doesn’t absolve the mayor from taking an interest in how schools are or aren’t functioning. I suggest making unannounced school visits (with an aide taking notes). Are the hallways clean? Are students walking through the schools in an orderly manner? Is the atmosphere conducive to learning – is the school a quiet place? What’s going on the cafeteria? Does it appear the school’s administrators are in control – or are the students running the place? Don’t forget to ask about the in-school crime statistics.

Candidates – when students, teachers and administrators see you physically present and paying attention, then doing follow-up work to ensure safe schools, you will be a much needed change agent for the city. Further, your discussions with the school board won’t be based on pretty Red Clay computer slide shows, you’ll be able to speak from your own experiences and insights. That’s very powerful.

Vigorously enforce the building code. Building codes exist for a reason – one of which is to prevent overcrowding. Overcrowded housing strains city resources (e.g., waste disposal), and accelerates the deterioration of housing stock. It also puts the city at risk for residential fires. According to a Delmarva official I spoke to last year, the power company’s liability ends at the junction box on the telephone pole. If fourteen wires are coming out of the box to one house, and the house burns down (overloaded or faulty wiring, a space heater burning up, etc.), it’s not Delmarva’s fault. Candidates: do you want a house fire to happen on your watch?

Enforcing the city’s building code also works hand-in-hand in improving the city’s cleanliness.

Vigorously enforce timely property tax payments. An independent audit of property tax payments will identify who is in arrears and what is city is (or is not) doing about it. Stepping up timely payments will encourage property owners to get reliable tenants in their buildings. A major benefit will be more revenue for the city. However, if the property owner is seriously in arrears, then the city could cancel the tax payment by taking possession.

Tear down abandoned homes. Boarding up blocks of abandoned homes and painting pictures on the boards is worse than useless – it’s dangerous. Boarded-up homes are housing for rats, roaches, and other vermin. A painted-over board on an abandoned tenement house won’t prevent a child from getting a rat bite.

If the house is privately owned, the owner should be fined for maintaining a public nuisance, and the fine should be such that the owner will be encouraged to tear down the building, and let the property revert to the city.

Plan to rebuild and improve the city’s housing stock. Start with blocks of abandoned houses. That property is ripe for Habitat for Humanity. Then look at blocks with majority-abandoned houses and work with the state and/or philanthropic groups to acquire the rest of the property.

Granted, accomplishing this is a challenge. However, there are untapped resources for help from Wilmington’s churches, schools (public and private) and those just outside the city line (e.g., the Wilmington Friends School).

Get a new attitude about training for real jobs with good pay. The myth is that everyone should go to college. It’s a myth because many students don’t want to learn about history, literature, algebra, etc., they want to get a job when they get their diploma. Forcing kids into a college prep program when they really want job training is a recipe for boredom, anger and dropping out.

The fundamental principle to crack the college myth is: all work is good and respectable – including work done by high school graduates. And there’s a justice component: why should students have to pay for training in computer coding, hospital work, or medical billing coding (among other things) when they could learn it for free in high school?

Talk to the managers in those bank high-rises – what are their needs regarding jobs that don’t require a college education? How can the city’s public schools adjust their curriculum to meet those needs?

One more thing: eliminate all vocational classes for beauticians – where women spend class time styling hair on life-sized Barbie doll heads. It takes 1,700 hours of salon practice (usually washing hair) to qualify for a beautician’s license. That’s 1,700 hours of minimum wage work. Then, if the student gets a job as a beautician, it’s likely to be a part-time one with no benefits.

The classes may be fun for the women, but they’re a dead end for most of them.

Increase high school graduation rates. What if Wilmington had a reputation as having one of the highest percentages of high school graduates in the nation? That’s much better than being Murdertown, USA.

Discouraging drop-outs using proven techniques is one component, but increasing access to GED classes is another. Again, Wilmington’s churches could play a vital role by allowing their facilities to be used for GED classes, and publicizing GED activities to their congregations. Having a high school diploma helps move people out of poverty, and as mayor, you should ask if there is state and federal funding to help accomplish this – and if there isn’t, demand it.

Rethink the Riverfront. The Riverfront concept was visionary in its day, but now the view from I-95 is of unconnected big-box restaurants with a strip mall and a huge parking lot. Yes, there’s new housing nearby, with easy access to the office buildings and the train station, but the commercial area is stuck in the past.

However, new city planning possibilities are on view in Newark. There, rebuilding has included residences atop retail stores, banks and eateries. Parking is located off the main street (College Avenue), making it a more pedestrian-friendly area. Could the Riverfront complex be reconfigured to be more like Newark? The pedestrian-friendly part would be easy (no thoroughfares at the Riverfront), and a multi-story garage could replace the parking lot. And the Riverfront would become a real community, not just a destination.

But it will take a lot of will and energy by the incoming mayor to get this done.

Candidates – do you have the right stuff to save Wilmington?

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About the Contributor

Joanne Butler

Joanne Butler

Joanne Butler of Wilmington is a graduate of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and a former professional staff member of the Ways and Means Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives.