It seems like for the better part of 20 years there have been talks about the revitalization of downtown Smyrna.

It seems like for the better part of 20 years there have been talks about the revitalization of downtown Smyrna. From the plans drawn up in the 1980s to the streetscape project that was started and stopped a few years ago, fixing up downtown has been talked about and some projects have been finished but it seems like the revitalization is two steps forward and one step back.

Now as other downtowns such as Middletown and Newark continue to grow, some residents have asked the question…is downtown becoming a ghost town or is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

What’s been done?

While there hasn’t necessarily been a complete revitalization of downtown, there have been several changes over the past decade. From the renovation that brought the Smyrna Opera House back to life, to the construction of Christiana Care’s Smyrna Health & Wellness Center, there has been change in town even if it’s been a slow change.

Mayor Pat Stombaugh believes that while more is needed, there are a good number of businesses in downtown compared to years past. One project Stombaugh said was a success was the downtown streetscaping project on South Main Street.
“The streetscaping helped, the one side looks good and there are more store fronts there,” Stombaugh said. “The downtown area is so nice and looks so pretty.”

However, the streetscaping project is an example of how a good plan can be stopped in it’s tracks because of the economy, said Town Manager Dave Hugg.

The streetscaping project entailed basically a complete rebuilding of one block out of each of the Four Corners at Main Street and Commerce Street. Utilities were to be underground. There would be trees, repaved streets and new sidewalks. The town finished the South Main Street quadrant of the project but before they could move forward  with the rest of the project, the funding from the state’s Transportation Enhancement Program ran out.

A sign of the times

The streetscaping project is just one example as to why the improvements in downtown have been slowed. To Stombaugh, the recession is the sole culprit to the problem.

“I don’t think it’s downtown, it’s everywhere because of the economy. Businesses are struggling  to stay afloat and it’s difficult to open a new business. I don’t believe it’s the area. I absolutely believe it’s the economy,” she said.

The town once offered façade grants that would enable local business owners to improve their storefronts, but the grant was cut from the budget because of the economy.

Other towns have had difficulties too. The town of Middletown has seen a lot of improvements over the years but it hasn’t necessarily been easy. Tracy Skrobot, program manager for the Middletown’s Main Street program, said Middletown was simply lucky to have funding to do their streetscaping program. It was the results of this project that resulted in more businesses improving the look of their properties as well.

“I talk to people in Smyrna and I hear about the problems. If the finances aren’t there, it’s tough,” Skrobot said.

For the town, revitalizing isn’t as simple as some people may think. Some residents may blame the town for not doing enough to fill vacant buildings, but Stombaugh and Hugg both said they can’t force a building owner to fix up their building or force people to open a new business.

“One of the misconceptions is that we as a town, we can go out and bring somebody to town. You can make contacts with them. You can provide them with information. You can market yourself to them,” Hugg said. “There’s all these things you can do but that decision to open up a place in Smyrna is not one the town can make.”

Can the town be revitalized?

While some residents may choose to see the downtown area as the glass half-empty, some people such as Stombaugh choose to see it as the glass half-full. While there are a few possible projects on the horizon such as the recent announcement that the new library will be built downtown, Stombaugh would like to see more people be a part of the solution.

“People tell us we’re throwing away our money and downtown can’t be revitalized but I tell them ‘What do you want us to do? What is your answer? You’re complaining, what is your solution?’” she said.

One thing Stombaugh said the town needs to do is find a way to bring more people downtown. While the town has grown in past years, most people who live in the Smyrna area commute elsewhere to work and shop, rarely venturing downtown.

“We need more people downtown to support or businesses and businesses to support our residents,” said Stombaugh.

For Vicki Bartsch, owner of Heart of Smyrna gift shop at the corner of Main and Commerce, she believes downtown can be revitalized.

“I think so. Even since I’ve owned this shop things are different,” Bartsch said. “There are all these committees that are different but have this common goal. Everyone is pushing in one direction so I don’t see any reason why downtown can’t be revitalized.”

Stombaugh doesn’t see much progress in the near future unless the economy picks up but there are some projects in the works.

“I think we’ve done really well under the circumstances. I’m happy and pleased, but there’s a lot more I’d like to see here there’s just not money to do it,” Stombaugh said. “If I could wave a magic wand, I would. We would have the cutest, most quaint little town.”

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