The announcement that Wilmington University will build a new campus on 41-acres it has purchased in suburban North Wilmington has largely been seen as a standard positive economic development gain for Delaware. But you might also characterize it as a crucial missed opportunity for the college’s namesake city.
After all, innovation ecosystems need an outward-looking school of higher education to serve as magnet and incubator for new ideas. Wilmington University, with its celebrated gaming program, could have been that for Wilmington city, which is Delaware’s best shot at tapping into nationwide urbanism trends.
Aiming to serve 20,000 active students next year, the university has seven locations in Delaware, including its primary one in New Castle, among others in Maryland and New Jersey — an impressive feat for a university founded in 1968 in an old motel.
The university’s new location in Brandywine Hundred at Concord Pike and Naamans Road will have three new academic buildings that could support more than 150 full-time jobs. Construction on the first, 50,000-square-foot anchor will begin in the next 18 months, according to the News Journal.
A crucial missed opportunity for the college's namesake city?
The move is billed as a chance to make easier the driving commute of many of its students, nearly two-thirds of whom are part-time, adult learners and 45 percent of whom live in North Wilmington.
“[Our students are] adding to the I-95 back ups and getting through that traffic just to be able to get to their classes on time,” university spokeswoman Laurie Bick told WDDE.
And this expansion will influence the college’s next decade, said university President Jack Varsalona. It comes at the same time that a network of civic, property development and volunteer groups are agitating for new life in the Wilmington city core.
That’s caused a fair bit of consternation among those who are wrestling for the Wilmington innovation corridor, like graduate student and urbanist David Curtis, who led a petition to increase SEPTA service to Delaware’s largest city. He said Wilmington University is trading short-term gains for longer-term impact, calling the school myopic.
One economic development executive told Technical.ly Delaware that he was “disappointed” by the news.
Varsalona said he had been looking for five years for the right property to expand, to continue its plans for blanketing New Castle County, but it’s not clear if Wilmington city was ever seriously considered.
Creating a campus from a patchwork of existing buildings near the Wilmington train station, for example, would have perhaps been more expensive, and it certainly would have been more complicated. But the lasting impact might arguably be greater, if the promise of urban preferences for the next generation hold true.
More tellingly, the idea of building on Delaware’s best example of urban density may likely have not even been seen as an option, said an attendee of last week’s Tech2Gether event on Wilmington’s future. That shows how much more education of state leaders needs to happen before there will be true understanding of what Wilmington could be.
Instead of Wilmington University being a spring board for city activists, efforts to get the University of Delaware to invest in there must continue, They might, too, lead a rethinking of the city campus of Delaware Technical Community College. Either way, this is seen as a major miss.
Over coffee on North Market Street, that economic development executive, who spoke only for background, said, “Too often Wilmington [city] is seen as something to overcome, not as an asset.”