Delaware business leaders from Wilmington and beyond spent Wednesday morning answering one question: How can the city attract 5,000 new residents in five years?
A panel of guests — including leaders in commercial and residential real estate, technology and development — shared their thoughts on how to energize and invigorate the downtown Central Business District (CBD) during the Wilmington Business Leaders Network event.
The event, which is an initiative of the 1,400-member New Castle County Chamber of Commerce, hosted nearly 150 leaders from across the state at World Cafe Live Wilmington.
“This [event] is exactly what we need,” said Vicki Duchene, membership manager with the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce. “[The community] needs to rethink. We’ve been dormant for 10 years.”
Much of the discussion, moderated by Chamber President Mark Kleinschmidt, centered around the idea of new construction and repurposing old, dormant buildings to create more space for potential residents in downtown Wilmington.
During the commercial real estate panel discussion, Blaise Fletcher of Jones Lang LaSalle and Neal Dangello of Newmark Grubb Knight Frank discussed the escalating vacancy rate in the city.
“New Castle County, as vacancies go, there’s been eight quarters in a row with a decrease,” Fletcher said. “But in the CBD, there’s been eight quarters straight of vacancy increases.”
Both Fletcher and Dangello discussed the need to attract more young 20- and 30-somethings to downtown Wilmington with better transit, shops and restaurants.
“We need a place where people feel safe and want to live,” Dangello said.
On the residential side of real estate, Gerry Doherty of Doherty Associates and Chris Buccini of The Buccini/Pollin Group echoed the sentiments of the previous panel, saying the city needs an influx of young professionals to help ignite Wilmington’s future.
Buccini said 1,000 units have been added in the last decade, with 300 more opening this year. Buccini/Pollin is also currently working on approximately 300 additional units, he said.
“There’s a huge untapped demand in this market,” Buccini said.
Buccini said attracting 5,000 more residents is an ambitious goal, but outlined his ideas for how to go about increasing the population downtown.
He said the city has to give residents a product they want. The city, he added, also needs to rein in more small and midsize companies, not just the large employers. And third, he said, Wilmington needs to become a 24/7 city. To do this he said, he’d like to see more millennials (18- to 33-year-olds) living downtown, with access to bars, restaurants and shopping.
“To get to 5,000 people in Wilmington, you need all our neighborhoods in Wilmington to flourish,” Buccini said.
Tech leaders at the event also weighed in on how to make Wilmington a more vibrant community.
“When you have success in the technology ecosystem, not only does it grow, but it creates new opportunities,” said John Kirk of the Wilmington-based startup MUNI-Tech. “And the social dynamic has a much larger impact.”
Patrick Callahan, a cofounder of Wilmington’s Archer Group, whose offices we visited this week, shifted gears to San Francisco with CompassRed, a social media data and analytics agency with space in Wilmington, as well. He named a few reasons why Wilmington is ripe for an increase in tech startups.
“Seeing San Francisco, compared to this — here it’s a much smaller pond,” Callahan said. “But you have access to decision-makers being right between Washington and New York.”
Many at the event said they believed an initiative to attract young professionals to Wilmington — whether it’s from tech, business, education or so on — would be a boon to the city’s overall growth.
“You need a vibrant community, a young community,” said the Chamber’s Frank DeSantis, manager of the Emerging Enterprise Center. “It infects everyone.”