The city's historic downtown is having a revival.
Amy Winter jumped at the chance to return to downtown Delaware. When she opened a second location of her Edwin Loy Home boutique in August 2016, she zeroed in on Delaware's historic district, where she'd worked at her aunt and uncle's home interior shop from 2005 to 2009.
Back then, downtown Delaware was a sleepier place, with fewer nightlife options. Now, the district is the center of the action in this city of nearly 39,000, with Winter and others opening a slew of lively stores and destination restaurants—including two craft breweries—while new office tenants are adding to the economic diversity of the city center. “We liked the historic downtown and found it be very vibrant, so opening here was a no-brainer,” says Winter, a graduate of Big Walnut High School in Delaware County who also opened a second retail shop, Stone & Sparrow Apparel, within her other Delaware business.
Indeed, Winter's 3,000-square-foot operation joined a bustling downtown that has slowly revived in recent years, a turnaround that has left just a few holes among the 108 or so street-level storefronts between the north end of Ohio Wesleyan University and Delaware County's new courthouse. Veteran downtown landlord and investor Joe Diamond says a bit more than half of the storefronts along North Sandusky, Williams and Winter streets stood vacant about 20 years ago.
“It had gotten tired,” says Diamond, who owns or has otherwise participated in the redevelopment of 16 downtown Delaware properties. While the department stores, drug stores and shoe shops have left, other retailers such as Winter's home décor and apparel businesses have flowed into the downtown. Among those are the Restoration Brew Worx craft brewery and restaurant and, around the corner close to the landmark Bun's Restaurant on West Winter, the more intimate Staas Brewing Co. pub. “The type of retail we're seeing now is specialty retail,” Diamond says. “Food and beverage seems to be a big push.”
Some key spots remain open, he says, like the former Brown Jug pub that had a brief stint as a Hoggy's barbecue restaurant before early 2012 when it and all but one of the other locations of the chain closed. “These vacancies,” Diamond says, “recently have been getting multiple offers. We get to pick who we want to go in.”
Diamond and others give part of the credit for the revival to the city's focus on downtown redevelopment through $400,000 in grants to leverage $500,000 in private-sector investment to refurbish the exteriors of 26 aging buildings. The nonprofit Main Street Delaware also organizes a twice-weekly farmers market from May through December, as well as themed First Friday evening events each month that attract up to 10,000 people from the region. “We're trying to get people into the habit of coming downtown,” says Susie Bibler, Main Street Delaware's executive director.
All of that hustle and bustle convinced a co-owner of the Powell Village Winery to open the Oak & Brazen urban craft winery in late December next to the historic Strand Theatre cinema on East Winter Street. “We used to get people from Delaware all the time in Powell,” Oak & Brazen's Jeff Kirby says of his wine production facility and tasting room (the latter he has since sold off). “We think [downtown Delaware] is up and coming.”
The graduate of the Ohio State University Knowlton School of Architecture says the venue has developed strong sourcing relationships with other more established businesses in the downtown, including the Fresh Start Café & Bakery for baked goods and the Gouda Cheese shop for cheese and gourmet meats. It also buys olive oil from the Olivina Tap Room gourmet grocery store. “It's a great downtown that can support [specialty] businesses,” Kirby says.
Downtown Delaware's rise has attracted interest from others in the Columbus business community. Serial restaurateur Bill Michailidis bought the popular Hamburger Inn Diner on North Sandusky in 2010, attracted by its history as a community center. Two years later, he and his partners gutted the property and rebuilt it except for the counters, which date back to 1932. “It was dwindling, and we wanted to bring it back to life,” he says.
While Michailidis stepped back from the restaurant operations side in 2015, he hopes to persuade his partners in the real estate to renovate the second floor that in a previous life had served as the print shop for the Delaware Gazette newspaper. The tentative plan to renovate and perhaps expand the restaurant comes as he considers redeveloping the BP gas station property behind the Hamburger Inn for a renewed BP and other retail. “I believe the downtown will continue to grow,” he says.
The redevelopment activity reminds Zach Price of the building his Triad Architects design firm renovated and moved into in the North Market district just south of the trendy Short North. “Downtown Delaware has that great historic character you find in the Short North,” he says, “with a small town feel.”
Price, who lives just north of Delaware's center, and other Triad partners led the late December purchase of a three-story, 18,000-sqare-foot, pre-Civil War building at 17 N. Sandusky—an investment that comes with no solid plans. “There are a lot of opportunities for investing and developing,” he says of the retail and entertainment strip.
Price says his experience redeveloping the Yankee Trader property suggests the 4,500 square feet on the vacant third floor could lend itself well to an office tenant. That idea suits the city's development director, Sean Hughes, who says growing the number of office workers would further support the street-level restaurants and retailers already invested in the downtown.
The downtown has had some notable success to that end. The city in August welcomed the Substratum software company into space on North Union Street. It also has offered to pay forthe renovation of surplus city offices next to city hall to induce Worthington-based COHatch to open as many as 40 offices and services for small businesses.
“This downtown is firing on all cylinders,” says Hughes, who has led the city's development efforts since leaving a Union County development post five years ago. “We have all of the components of a healthy [commercial] ecosystem.”
Hughes says the downtown renaissance has even become a significant marketing tool for the city's efforts to expand existing businesses and attract new tenants within its west end industrial district. A $37 million city and county investment in the extension of Sawmill Road from Hyatts Road to Route 42 in recent years has opened up 1,500 acres for manufacturing as well as distribution and industrial R&D operations. “Having a great downtown and thriving community can help them recruit a labor force,” Hughes says. “That's as important [to economic development] as building a road.”
Brian Ball is a freelance writer.