While the passage of the landmark Financial Center Development Act in 1981 would engulf Delaware’s shores with a tidal wave of credit card banks, it meant little to Market Street. The bankers, like almost everyone else in the ‘80s, preferred the suburbs.
In the 1990s, a Market Street turnaround would begin, slowly and quietly, dwarfed by the mega-projects underway less than a mile to the south on the Riverfront—a baseball stadium, outlet shops, restaurants and a meeting center, followed later by office buildings, a movie theater, a children’s museum, townhouses and condos.
With relatively little fanfare, the funky LOMA district between Second and Fourth took shape, with shops and restaurants downstairs, digital marketing and consulting businesses like the Archer Group and Trellist around the corner, and millennials hungry for life in an up-and-coming neighborhood taking over the rehabbed apartments upstairs.
The Delaware College of Art and Design, opened in 1997, would grow steadily to an enrollment of 400-plus students, with many living along Market Street, either in second- or third-floor walkups or in a former hotel recently converted into a residence hall.
In 2011, the venerable Queen Theater would discover a second life (a third, if you count its 19th-century origins as a hotel) in the next two years, joining the Grand Opera House as a destination for city residents and suburbanites in search of top-quality live entertainment.
For much of the past decade, two developers—Preservation Initiatives in the 300 block and the Buccini/Pollin Group from Fourth to Rodney Square—have been rehabbing upstairs residential units and new residents have been eager to move in.
At the same time, Downtown Visions, Wilmington’s affiliate in the national Main Street economic development program, has been supporting local businesses through training programs, marketing, event sponsorship and, most significantly, a façade improvement program financed through loans and grants that has resulted in the removal of most of the storefront security gates. “We’ve done 49 façade projects and 26 of them have included [interior or exterior] building renovations,” says Will Minster, Downtown Visions’ director of business development.
“Market Street’s cultural assets have always been there,” says Mark Fields, The Grand’s executive director, citing his venue, the Christina Cultural Arts Center, the Queen and the just-renamed Playhouse on Rodney Square.
“What we’ve been waiting and hoping for is the rest of what you need for a vital downtown to catch up with us—people living downtown, as much as anything,” he says.