Town of Smyrna, Delaware
A legacy of strength
Business View North America interviews Andrew Haines, Town Manager of Smyrna, Delaware, for our focus on Economic Development in U.S. Towns & Cities
Founded in 1768, the Town of Smyrna in Kent County, Delaware was originally known as Duck Creek Crossroads. There are two accounts of the origins of the name Smyrna, one being that it is named after the Greek seaport. The other suggests that the community was so moved by a sermon given by Methodist preacher Frances Ashbury about a church in the Book of Revelation, that they felt compelled to give their community the same name. In either case, the town officially became Smyrna in 1806.
Until the 1850s, the community was a prosperous port, shipping goods along Duck Creek. Smyrna continued as a center of agriculture though the 19th century, and today is home to 12,000 people – and a bevy of rapidly growing residential and industrial opportunities. Blessed with attractive heritage architecture and beautiful natural surroundings, Smyrna offers quaint, small town ambience with a deep connection to community.
Town Manager Andrew Haines declares, “We talk about Smyrna Strong, you hear that often here. It’s not a cliché. There is a high level of engagement in town, from the participation of students and families in the schools, to the way people came together to support those affected by a series of house fires in 2020. It’s not unique to Smyrna, you see it in other small towns as well, but in a community that is growing, it’s not lost. It’s a strong sense of taking care of each other.”
Less than half an hour from the state capital of Dover, Smyrna is perfectly poised for growth, on both the residential and business fronts. “Dover has its natural assets and features that bring guests there,” says Haines, “but we are turning into a prime location for the next growing areas of residential communities. There is great access to infrastructure, great public schools. We have that convenience of location, so our residents can go north or south for work. It is still an affordable place to be with a strong local government – whether it’s our police service, or public works and our growing Parks and Recreation department.”
With growth comes the need for housing, a problem which is more challenging due to the booming real estate market. With several planned communities in the early stages of construction, and several others nearing completion, Smyrna is working to ensure housing availability, including affordable housing. According to Haines, “We just went through our comprehensive plan process for the town, and affordable housing is an important piece. We have some growing light commercial in the area, but Delaware is a strong retirement state. We also have a significant number of renters in our town, so we need to make sure we have an eye to that. We try to work with developers, obviously they will build what they think they can sell, but we are trying to make sure we put incentives in there to have housing to serve everybody in the community. We do need more housing, and it’s being built. For the next five to ten years, we see more development occurring in the town.”
Of course, infrastructure upgrades are a necessary investment in any growth plan. With $6.4 million in funding from the America Rescue Plan Act, Smyrna is focusing on upgrading water, sewer, and stormwater facilities. They are investing over $4.5 million in clean water and sewer infrastructure – looking at building a second water treatment plant, and designing another large water tower for storage. Haines explains, “We want to use not only the ARPA funds, but also the plans we had in advance to continue to make sure sustainable clean water is available. You don’t ever want to be in the headlines like Flint, Michigan. It is so important and, because of growth, we are making sure we’re planning in advance so that we can sustain the quality, the quantity, and that pressure that everybody likes when they turn on the faucet.”
Protecting and preserving the beautiful architectural heritage of Smyrna’s downtown historic district is a priority for the Downtown Historical Review Board. The rich history of the community is curated by The Duck Creek Historical Society, a non-profit organization operating out of The Smyrna Museum, an iconic historic downtown building. On the grounds behind the museum, visitors can view Plank House, one of the last original examples of early Swedish Delaware plank dwelling architecture from the late 1700s. Another historically significant downtown showpiece is the Smyrna Opera House, originally built in 1870 and restored in 2003 as a community cultural arts centre. Owned by the town, the opera house is run by a non-profit organization whose mission is to offer affordable access to the arts, while showcasing and developing artistic talent in the area.
While preservation is ongoing, revitalization is also top of mind for the Town of Smyrna. Haines recounts, “Last month there was an applicant looking to redevelop and it really spurred the bigger conversation about what we can do downtown, and what we can sustain. The next generation wants that walkable community, that ability to be downtown and have amenities, restaurants, and shops to go to.” With a variety of great businesses already including Sheridan’s Irish Pub, The Yarn Maven, Our Table and Thyme, Guzzy Q, Sayers Jewelers, and Smyrna Cards and Gifts, the town is hoping to attract more, while also creating opportunities for mixed-use developments and redevelopment. An example of redevelopment in downtown Smyrna is The Painted Stave, the first standalone small batch distillery in the State of Delaware. Converted from an old theater building, the distillery serves cocktails and local wine and beer.
As developments like this continue to draw people into the downtown, work continues on what Haines describes as “the not so glamourous pieces.” He notes, “We have to make sure we have sufficient parking, while considering how we lay that all out to make sure everybody has a good high quality of life.”
Working with a small town is a benefit for those who are trying to open a business or start the land development process. “We have staff that will work hand in hand with applicants to get them to the finish line,” says Haines. “Also making sure they’re aware of the state downtown development districts program, or helping businesses that qualify with their applications for state funding. Even things as simple as making sure there’s always a ribbon cutting, or cross-promoting a local promotion to our followers on social media, because we want to see the success.”
The town works with landowners and landlords to understand their needs and create appropriate programs. Owner of its own public utility, Smyrna has considered offering utility grants to targeted industries as a start up incentive. Through the Redevelopment Authority, the community also offers a façade grant program, and other redevelopment subsidies for businesses. To ensure a skilled workforce, the town partners with the Kent Economic Partnership (KEP) and the Kent Chamber of Commerce to promote skills training opportunities. Vocational technical programs through the high schools and Delaware Technical Community College are also instrumental in job-specific skills training.
Spanning 206 acres, Duck Creek Business Park is positioned to bring new industry and up to 4000 new jobs to the community. Haines acknowledges, “The park is set up so it could be a smaller facility, or it could be a larger one. It could be flex office space, which is in demand more than conventional office space, or fulfillment centers. We are conveniently close to Delaware Rte 1, and then quick and easy over to Baltimore, Maryland within an hour, and Philly or New York within two hours. Our positioning is really nice, right in central Delaware, on more affordable land.”
Attracting pharmaceutical and medical companies to the employer mix is on the town’s wish list. After conducting a study through KEP, Smyrna is hoping to bring more medical services to the community, keeping residents from searching for healthcare elsewhere. The hope is that the KEP report will also be an incentive for established healthcare options – BayHealth and Christiana Care – to expand their offerings in Smyrna.
Mayor Robert Johnson notes, “The Town of Smyrna is also seeking to attract more restaurants to provide the citizens with a more diverse food selection. We are hoping that the restaurants and incoming business will go hand-in-hand to provide Smyrna with a more attractive appeal for people willing to relocate to here.”
With a projected doubling of the population over the next decade, Haines has high hopes for the Town of Smyrna going forward. He shares, “We want to see smart development, without losing the Smyrna Strong, close-knit fabric that does exist and is a real thing for the community. The key part is that we are maintaining this Smyrna culture, so that quality of life isn’t lost while we continue to expand.” With over two centuries of fascinating history, and a strong future of possibilities, Smyrna has much to look forward to in the years ahead.
AT A GLANCE
What: A growing historic community; population 12,000
Where: Kent County, Delaware