Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Words of Clarence Wright - Director of Wilmington's Future

Clarence Wright is the director of the Wilmington Main Street Project. A minister and a civil-minded activist, Mr. Wright was courteous enough to answer several questions I had for him on the current downtown Wilmington development and his life in general. I can not offer enough thanks for what Mr. Wright has done and is doing for our city, and for taking time out of his very busy schedule to speak with me.

After graduating from Temple you stayed in Philly and worked as a program manager for housing and economic development. Did you accomplish everything you wanted to there? What important lesson(s) did you learn in the larger metropolis that will serve you here in Wilmington?

I think I did, I still go up to West Oak Lane and look with pride at what it’s become. When I started up there it was a residential neighborhood and that was pretty much it, now it is a destination vibrant with restaurants and entertainment. I really pushed hard for an 18 hour destination community and that is exactly what it has turned into. I guess the lesson that I learned from West Oak Lane is that it can be done, and downtown Wilmington has a lot more to build on than West Oak Lane did when I started up there.

What drew you to the field of community development?

Going to school in North Philly I witnessed first hand the need for urban reinvestment, and once the seed was planted I had to be involved. The community development sector does development the right way from the grass roots level and at the same time holistically attacks all of the root causes of the problem. If you focus only on bricks and mortar the community will revert back to its state of dilapidation.

What drew you to Wilmington in particular?

I felt the position with Main Street Wilmington provided a valuable opportunity to make a citywide impact because of it’s location in the downtown. Wilmington also reminded me in size and demographics to my hometown of Syracuse, NY.

What are "Main Street Wilmington" and "Downtown Visions"? How have other "Main Street" projects fared?

Main Street Wilmington is a grassroots community driven program for community revitalization based on the four point approach developed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The four points are Design, Promotions, Economic Restructuring and Organization. There are volunteer driven committees that support each one of these four points. Since its establishment 30 years ago there have been more than 1,200 Main Street Communities nationwide ranging from small towns to bustling urban corridors.

Our program here in Wilmington is made up as a partnership of key downtown stakeholders. Downtown Visions is one of our five key partners. They manage the downtown business improvement district and provide vital services such as cleaning, safety ambassadors and camera monitoring. Because the police in Wilmington focus more on the outer lying residential neighborhoods Downtown Visions plays a vital role in keeping downtown safe. We also partner with the Wilmington Renaissance Corporation, the Downtown Business Association, the Mayor’s Office of Economic Development and City Council. We also work closely with business owners, corporations and developers as well as the growing downtown residential population.

What is your ideal vision for Market Street, physically, psychologically, emotionally etc... What will it look and feel like if your every idea could be completed?

My vision for Market Street is for it to be the entertainment and cultural capital of the state of Delaware, a place with successful businesses, high foot traffic and activity 18-24 hours a day. I believe the bones are already there to create this we just need to get the word out and continue to build momentum.

What is your "jurisdiction"? What area exactly does the project include?

The Main Street target area covers the same footprint as the Downtown Business Improvement District, which is 70 square blocks. The boundaries are roughly Martin Luther King Blvd. to the Brandywine River and Walnut Street to Tatnall plus Delaware Avenue to I-95. You can see the map on our website www.mainstreetwilmingtonde.org .

What steps have been taken, are being taken, will be taken in regards to the progress of the project?

We have set up our organizational infrastructure and we continue build our network of downtown stakeholders.

How much of Market was residential/commercial and in use prior to the development? How many newly available properties have been leased? What businesses can we look forward to moving in?

There will be literally dozens of new businesses in the next several years with a focus on unique retail and food service, although there will also be some national chains.

How is the project paid for?

Through a combination of funds from the city of Wilmington, the state office of economic development (DEDO), as well as other organizations and individual contributors.

Is there anything in the works for a local music venue, like the 4W5? Or other things to do after 5pm?

Yes we are working very closely with all of the existing arts organizations downtown and there are plans for a multi million dollar renovation to the former Queen Theater at 5th and Market to convert it into a top notch entertainment venue.

What are the district designations in regards to numbered streets, i.e. - LOMA, Ships Tavern, etc..?

There are no official boundaries for these "subdistricts" however LOMA is short for Lower Market (Roughly from MLK to 4th or 5th) this will focus on design (i.e. home furnishings, architecture, graphics…), Crosby Hill is the term being used for the upper part of Market (Roughly 5th to 10th) this will focus on entertainment and the arts. There is also a fashion district planned for 9th Street anchored by the former Bottle Caps building in the 200 block.

What is the reaction of the residents on and around Market Street? Have there been any objections? Are measures in order to assure that current residents receive their fair share/are not displaced now or in the future?

Working in the context of existing residents can often be a challenge, however it has not been with the Market Street development simply because there was really no one to displace. What is amazing about the downtown Wilmington developments is that it is in effect creating a new neighborhood. For so long downtown has been a place to come to work and then go home, but now with all of the new developments and housing units there is finally 24hour life downtown. None of the developments that I am aware of have displaced residents, however there is the potential to create literally thousands of new residents.

What kind of impact, in regards to social justice, could these developments have?

I believe that economic equality is the new preeminent social issue. The developments on Market Street have the potential to create hundreds of new jobs for surrounding community residents, as well as opportunities to open businesses. Many of the new job openings are being specifically targeted to residents of surrounding Wilmington Neighborhoods. The developments will also increase the tax base of the city as a whole which will mean better services for all of its residents, most notably minority communities (which are actually a majority in Wilmington!).

I read previously that Market Street was intended to be the "greenest" or most environmentally friendly major corridor in the Northeast. Does any of that hold true?

I don’t know enough to confirm that it will be the "greenest", but I do know of several projects which are going for high level LEED certifications, and contain features such as green roofs and energy efficient designs. It’s also worth noting that the majority of the Market and 9th Street projects are restorations and not new construction. This is significant because reusing existing buildings means that those building materials will be kept out of landfills.

Are there any initiatives for first time business owners to open up shop/studio in the area?

We are not specifically targeting first time business owners but we will work with and welcome anyone with a good idea and a sound business plan.

On your myspace you sum yourself up as "a pastor, musician, singer, song writer, poet, spoken word artist, community developer (and all around good guy)… …but I…AM…NOT…an entertainer!!!" What do you aim to accomplish with your art? Is it separate from your civic work, or does it go hand in hand?

Everything I do including my art and my profession are an extension of my ministry. Ministry is not just preaching (although I am an ordained minister). Ministry is literally "service", and you can not serve God without serving God’s people. Everything I do is to inspire, encourage and most importantly create a tangible positive change in the world. If I should happen to entertain in the process, so be it, but that is never the intention from the outset.

Where and when can we see you "perform"?

I do features at spoken word venues in the Philadelphia area. I would consider Wordsmith Alley on Wednesday nights in the 700 block of South Street to be my "Home Mic"

You are rather young for someone in such a position, which I find equally amazing and inspiring. Has your youth been an asset in your work? Has it any drawbacks?

I think overall my relatively young age is a benefit. I’m young enough to retain a bit of idealism to try things that many would consider impossible, but I’m experienced enough to not bite off more than I can chew.

What can I do, specifically, to help see the completion of Market Street through?

We have standing committees covering Promotions, Economic Restructuring, Design and Outreach, you or anyone else is welcome to get involved in any of those four areas.

How long are you planning on working in/for Wilmington? If you complete your every goal for this project, can other areas of the city look forward to your professional assistance? Or might you initiate another "Main Street" project in some other needy yet potential laden city?

I always leave possibilities open for the future. As of right now I am committed to improving downtown Wilmington in the best way possible. I definitely like Wilmington as a city and I can see myself putting down roots here, and I would definitely like to return in some capacity to do work in the neighborhoods in addition to the downtown. How it all plays out remains to be seen, the future will take care of itself I’m just along for the ride.

Is Market Street "open for business"? What can we expect in the very near future?

Market Street is most definitely open for business, along with the rest of downtown Wilmington. In the near future you can expect new businesses, new entertainment opportunities, new restaurants, a more attractive streetscape and stronger outreach to engage the surrounding communities in what’s happening downtown.

With my optimism, people often like to naysay and tell me things won't work. Have you had anyone telling you that this will not work? What do you say to haters?

I deal with naysayers on a daily basis, in fact that is a big part of my job. I deal with them by simply telling the story of what Wilmington could be, never over selling and always being realistic. Some will never be won over, and remain skeptical even after the end product is delivered, but I can never let doubters affect my mission.

Please check out http://www.downtownvisions.org/ and http://www.mainstreetwilmingtonde.org/ for more info.

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