by Ian Gronau
It’s come slowly and steadily, but Smyrna clearly seems to be having a moment.
A flurry of economic activity, including new businesses scouting the town and existing businesses looking to expand has Rick Ferrell, a business and economic development consultant for the town, enthusiastic about Smyrna’s prospects.
It’s assumed that economic activity will resume in the thaw of a recession and on the heels of a population increase. Smyrna is seeing both.
Mr. Ferrell says that that’s only half the story.
“The population rise and recession bounce-back are helping a lot, but there are many different factors making Smyrna such a great business climate,” he said. “We have an engaged town council, a proactive economic development committee, a responsive business development committee and an active redevelopment authority.”
The recent Downtown Development District designation announced for Smyrna by former Gov. Jack Markell last August has also begun to funneling funding in for local businesses.
Taken together, these factors create an environment where economic activity, and by extension, the town can thrive, said Mr. Ferrell.
“When a business comes to Smyrna to make inquiries, the first things they feel are that they’re welcomed and there are resources available to them. They don’t feel like they’re going it alone,” he said. “In that respect, we are different from a lot of other small towns. This growth is no accident.”
Gary Stulir, acting town manager of Smyrna, said there is proof of that in the number of interested parties over the last few years.
“There is definitely an upward trend in the amount of business licenses being applied for. There’s no doubt we’ve seen an increase in activity,” he said. “It’s the town’s role to be business friendly, and I think we’ve been successful in forming very open and positive relationships with the businesses in town.”
Painted Stave Distilling expansion
Painted Stave Distilling became a favorite new business success story in Smyrna when it moved into the building on West Commerce Street originally built as a first-run movie theater in 1948. The building had sat vacant for years and was starting to deteriorate.
“It was empty and essentially becoming an eyesore. It had graffiti on the back of it too,” said Ron Gomes, who co-owns Painted Stave Distilling with Mike Rasmussen. “It needed a lot of work, but the town was active in trying to find the right business to move in here with the challenges that it presented. They didn’t want to knock it down.”
After some preliminary talks, Mr. Gomes and Mr. Rasmussen were convinced to locate their distillery in the old building after some extensive renovations about three years ago. Mr. Rasmussen noted that from the beginning, they’ve felt like they could count on the town for assistance in operating the business.
“The town has been supportive from start to finish. It was actually them that encouraged us to locate here rather than outside of town,” he said. “We still have hoops to jump through when we make certain changes to the business, but with the town’s help the hoops are visible and obvious and they’ll help us jump through them as opposed to them putting up walls.”
After seeing a recent rise in the demand for their products both locally and regionally, Painted Stave Distilling initiated a process that will result in a significant expansion, they said. Last Tuesday, they officially purchased the building they’d been renting and have outlined construction for a 4,800-square-foot storage warehouse in the back and an 8,000-square-foot “cocktail garden” on the west side of the existing building. They plan to start construction shortly and have both projects (estimated at a cost of $200,000) complete by late spring.
“Our warehouse will be for storing barrels, glass and other production supplies — it’s essentially a pole barn,” said Mr. Gomes. “We’re starting construction on that right away because the funds are in place. For the cocktail garden, we are starting to consider crowd-funding options like Indiegogo. It will be a unique way for our fans and community to own a little piece of what we do.”
With the added storage space, they’re planning to double their current amount of product they currently stock.
“Right now, we have about 80 barrels in stock. By the end of 2017, we’re hoping to add 100 more,” said Mr. Rasmussen. “For the cocktail garden, we’re envisioning some nice landscaping, a patio, outdoor furniture and putting in a stage/pad area for music performances. Also, the warehouse will be situated in a way where we can put a screen up on it for outdoor movies.”
Painted Stave Distilling has had its help from the town, but it’s also seen a large benefit in cross promoting itself with other local businesses such as Blue Earl Brewing Company and Brick Works Brewing and Eats, the owners said.
“We have a collaborative billboard, and we’ve done two Smyrna craft crawls already,” said Mr. Gomes. “Cooperating with the other companies in town has done nothing but help grow our individual businesses and the town itself.”
Last year, the owners estimate they had 12,000 customers walk through the door. They currently have 9 employees (some part-time). With their expansion project, they hope to transition several part-time positions to full-time and add two more new jobs.
Downtown Development grants
On retiring, David Hugg, the former Smyrna town manager, told Delaware State News he was told by several people when he started the job 19 years ago that “downtown is dead, don’t invest in it.” Mr. Hugg said he was happy to see that debunked.
The recent Downtown Development District designation seems to come as a vote of confidence from the state, as well. It’s something Mr. Ferrell said is already having an impact.
“In January, we secured our first large project reservation,” he said. “A sizable grant was issued for the redevelopment of Dairy Sweet on US 13. That project will be under way this year. It was family-owned for a long time, but they retired. A new owner has already reopened it, but it will be getting a really nice facelift with the grant.”
Because of the funds available in the Downtown Development program, Mr. Ferrell said that getting projects like this funded isn’t very difficult.
“For large and small projects, there are individual allocations of dollars,” he said. “A large one is anything more than $250,000 and a small one is anything below. They have funding rounds for the large projects — the last one was in December — but for the smaller ones an application can just be submitted. Up to this point, there haven’t been more applicants than there is funding available, so, if you write a good application you’re likely to be funded.
“It’s been terrific throughout the state.”
Although not all businesses that scout Smyrna end up going all the way from the planning stage to the grand opening, Mr. Ferrell said the amount of businesses looking at the town and their varied natures is encouraging.
“There is a West Indian grocer looking out on US 13 (and) working on negotiating a site,” he said. “They’d have spices and fresh produce. There’s a yarn and knitting shop in the process of signing a lease downtown. Maverick Texas BBQ is slating summer 2017 to finish their restaurant with live music location downtown. It’s all very exciting.”
Another project he points to is the renovation of the Wright Mansion on 47 E. Commerce St.
“It was a chronically vacant building that is now being renovated,” he said. “It’s received new siding and a facelift and the interior is scheduled to be redeveloped this year. It will feature event space, catering and lodging.”
Although The Inn at Duck Creek closed down last year, Mr. Ferrell has high hopes for the renovated space it left behind.
“It’s unfortunate that it closed, but it went from five different parcels that had been chronically vacant to one that is now updated, so that’s a positive aspect,” he said. “It’s a great property because it’s basically turn-key for the next restaurant opportunity. There is a lot of activity, and there are some more seasoned restaurateurs looking at that currently.”
Mr. Ferrell also noted that Slate Café, a recently opened restaurant, bar and billiard hall, was another example of a recent inclusion to Smyrna’s business climate.
Opening last June, Brick Works Brewing and Eats is thrilled with the reception it has received in its first year of operation. General manager Chantal Foor said that patronage has been steady since the grand opening.
“With the holidays on our first year we didn’t know what to expect, but we really had a great response,” she said. “At first we attributed the flood of business to the fact that we were opening in the summer and we were a new restaurant, but it’s stayed consistent.”
The restaurant employs about 40 people, many of whom have been with them since June. Ms. Foor also points to the local businesses’ cooperation as a boon.
“We really try to work as a tight-knit community. We try to bring Painted Stave and The Blue Earl in often and share events and activities and support one another,” she said. “Everyone is more likely to succeed if we work together.”
Mr. Ferrell agrees that the spirit of cooperation between local businesses and town administration appears to be the special sauce that has cooked up the recent Smyrna revitalization.
“When you leverage the collective opportunities that downtown business owners have, I think you get a much better result,” he said. “It’s better than having everyone operate in their individual silos and hope that the right things happen.”