Business Leaders Aim to Change Wilmington's 'Office Park' Image

Revitalization program focuses on adding jobs, culture, and livability to city

Wilmington wants to become more than an office park for Fortune 500 companies, which use Delaware's advantageous corporate-registration laws.

Since May 1993, the state's largest city - modest in size, with the tallest building only 20-some stories high - has made a huge effort to revitalize its downtown business district through a public-private partnership called Wilmington 2000.

So far, the city has lined up downtown 7,500 new, mostly technical and administrative jobs, 4,000 of which are already in place. That amounts to a 15 percent growth in jobs in less than two years. And those jobs, officials contend, will create an additional 5,000 service-related positions that will benefit the city's 70,000-some residents - many of whom are poor.

But city officials say they have no intention of stopping there. They are also working to bring culture, entertainment, and livability to a downtown that becomes a virtual ghost town after rush hour.

While public-private partnerships are not unique, analysts who follow city revitalization programs say what makes Wilmington 2000 a model is the strong leadership coming from the business community.

Privately funded Wilmington 2000 is based on programs in Cleveland, Baltimore, and Atlanta.

It is run by 26 volunteer board members, including 20 CEOs and top executives of the city's largest employers, as well as a handful of city, county, and state officials.

"Downtowns are generators of money for cities, and people forget that," says Wilmington 2000 managing director William Wyer, who has helped orchestrate the initiative. "The downtown is the financial strength of the city. If the downtown isn't successful, you can't solve any of the other problems of the city."

Many executives of companies moving jobs downtown sit on the project's board:

r The DuPont Company has shifted 1,700 technical and administrative jobs from a suburb to the downtown.

r MBNA America Bank plans to open next month the first of two downtown towers under construction. The first tower will house up to 2,000 employees; the credit-card giant has agreed to employ 1,000 citizens by 2000.

r Beneficial Corporation relocated headquarters from a suburb to the downtown - a gain of up to 1,300 jobs for the city.

In the mid-1980s, Wilmington, like other cities, lost thousands of jobs to corporate downsizing and relocation of businesses to the suburbs, where land and operation costs were cheaper.

Mayor James Sills, who unveiled Wilmington 2000, says he sees the 7,500 new jobs as evidence that the "tide of businesses" leaving cities for suburbs is finally changing.

"More businesses are beginning to see the competitive, economic advantage of locating in urban communities or expanding operations [there]," he said in an interview.

Richard Bradley, president of the Washington-based International Downtown Association, a networking group for cities, praises the business leaders' involvement in the city. "I think they've had immense accomplishments in the first two years," he says.

Yet, tax incentives Mr. Sills extended to firms to bring jobs downtown have created some controversy, especially since the city is carrying a $5.7 million deficit for fiscal year 1995. But he insists that the incentives, primarily property-tax cuts, didn't contribute to the deficit.

An analysis reported in the News Journal, Wilmington's local paper, finds that for every tax dollar the city gives away with the new incentives, it will get almost $2 in return.

Mr. Bradley contends that the city's biggest challenge could be Wilmington 2000's goal of bringing more cultural activities to the downtown.

Projects, now in their planning stages, include revitalizing the farmers' market, and starting up a street-vending program. The city may also open an art institute in about two years; thus far, it has received proposals from two interested schools, Mr. Wyer says.

Wilmington 2000 also aims to change another statistic: Almost none of the roughly 85,000 people who work in the city - about equal the number that work in downtown Dallas - live in the city. The project hopes to build in the downtown attractive housing for young professionals.

All these initiatives, officials say, will not only help lure more people but also strengthen the retail sector.

Safety is another priority of the program. Wilmington 2000 set up a "business-improvement district" - an area where property owners pay an assessment on top of property taxes to fund privately operated security and cleaning services. Currently, 22 security guards patrol and sweep the district.

"If the downtown isn't safe and clean, and people don't enjoy being here, then the town can't grow," Wyer says.

But the key to making the plan successful, he emphasizes, is getting more people to live downtown.

"We're really looking to the urban pioneers - the young people - they're the ones who are going to save the city."

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