Façade Improvement Program

Within the Wilmington Downtown Business Improvement District, a block-by-block inventory done by Downtown Visions in 2009 showed that 78% of the buildings would benefit from improved façade treatments, in order to improve their appeal and, in many cases, preserve key historic features. The external appearance of a commercial or retail building is a major factor in attracting potential customers. Statistics from the National Trust for Historic Preservation Main Street Center show that for every $1 invested in façade improvements, $18 resulted in increased Downtown business in 2012.

Since 2010, Downtown Visions’ Main Street Wilmington Program has completed forty nine (49) building projects and awarded approximately $600,000 in grants towards the restoration of buildings within Downtown Wilmington. These building projects included the removal of seventeen (17) exterior roll down security gates, twenty three (23) new business signs or awnings, new exterior lights in a dark block, the lighting of the Grand Opera House, the repainting of an entire block of buildings, and the complete restoration of twenty six (26) building facades. These improvements directly resulted in thirteen (13) new business openings as well as improve the revenues through visual appeal of twenty nine (29) existing businesses. This has inspired private owners of neglected buildings to join into the movement to revitalize downtown investing their own funds without the need for public subsidy. Both public and private investment has increased dramatically with the creation of the Downtown Development District administered through the Delaware State Housing Authority and private investment by companies like the Buccini Pollen Group.

A walk down Market Street proves that our Main Street Wilmington Program has been incredibly successful in the restoration of the once hidden and neglected historic character. The program has inspired others to become partners and new businesses to call Downtown Wilmington their home. It is our intent to continue this needed program along the 9th Street corridor and the side streets connecting with Market Street.

As a part of the Façade Improvement Program the Security Gate Removal Project is designed to not only restore the visual aspects of the buildings, but to also improve the perception of safety in the downtown. External roll down security gates have a negative psychological impact especially on visitors during the evening hours. Because current City Code does not forbid the use of these gates we have felt the need to offer 100% funding towards the removal. To reduce our costs we have managed the project internally and contracted directly with vendors. All grants awarded are for physical improvements and do not go towards soft costs. In 2012 we managed the removal of 14 external roll down security gates and facade restorations. As each of the recipients was either minority, immigrant and/or female owned, this program has led to dramatically improved communication between the small businesses and our organization with collaboration on more improvements. Each has expressed interest in doing residential on the upper floors of their properties. The ability to do multiple buildings yielded substantial savings and increased productivity.

The Main Street Wilmington program offers grants that are paid directly to the contractors doing the restoration and Downtown Visions staff oversee the entire project from beginning to end. Grants are offered on a matching basis up to $25,000 per façade or at 100% up to $15,000 when an external security gate is removed. These funds can be used for external and internal improvements when it is clear that the improvements will increase the revenue of the exiting business or enable a new business to start. It should be understood that there are no other programs in the City of Wilmington that incentivize a new business or expansion of an existing. Many of the vacant or available locations even in prominent locations do not meet current code requirements and the market lease rate is not sufficient to cover the investment needed by the property owner. This cost becomes the burden of the new business which makes the location cost prohibitive.

Even with these investments there remain significant gaps in affordable housing opportunities within Downtown Wilmington, both in physical separation between locations and in the ability for individual property owners to finance. In the 700 block of Market Street where the majority of upper floors are vacant our analysis shows twenty seven (27) new apartments could be created. Unfortunately, the cost to renovate these to meet current code requirements is estimated at $150 — $175 per square foot which makes it cost prohibitive. Currently, the only housing opportunities being created are by developers whereas the 700 block properties are minority and/or female owned.

Downtown Visions Main Street Program is currently doing a complete comprehensive inventory of every building within the Business Improvement District (BID). This analysis first will primarily focus on vacant buildings and those with vacant upper floors or underutilized. Each will be evaluated as to square footage, number and size of apartments, condos or commercial units, cost to renovate to active use and potential lease rate. Upon completion we will have the data and analysis needed in a prospectus to offer developers and property owners. It is our intent to restart the City Upstairs program which is a loan to grant program that funds the gap between cost to renovate and the revenue generated. If funds become available we will choose one to two buildings that are minority owned to renovate and create affordable housing rentals. Initial evaluation shows a $100,000 gap in cost too revenue per building. All grants are for physical improvements not architectural, engineering or professional fees.

Our nationally renowned Main Street Program is designed to help you find the right location, guide you through the process of opening your business, and even find grants and/or funding to help you get started. Contact Lani Schweiger at lschweiger@downtownvisions.org