Downtown Dover Partnership funds help save building vacant for 16 years

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The Downtown Dover Partnership recently presented a check to Doug Ferris owner of Coney Island Grill on Loockerman Street to mark the opening of a business in a long-vacant building.  

Ferris is the first recipient of the funds made available to downtown business owners who are improving their old buildings. The goal is to make the improvements in preparation for leasing alongside new construction that will come in the next few years due to the new downtown Dover master plan.

Last June, in anticipation of receiving the completed master plan, the DDP received $1.2 million from the State of Delaware Community Reinvestment Fund. With the funds, the DDP created the Critical Improvements Program, the purpose of which is to help current property owners in the Downtown Development District bring their buildings up to current standards in life safety and ADA compliance, and even to install commercial kitchens so that more restaurants can locate in the business district. 

These improvements will help to move vacant and underutilized buildings to occupancy, as the funds will be dispersed only after buildings are improved and leases are in place with qualified, sustainable tenants. In Doug Ferris’ case, the building was vacant for 16 years.

Ferris, the owner of 108 W. Loockerman St., was the first recipient of funds from this new program and received $50,000 for completing a full renovation of the first-floor commercial space into a Coney Island style grill complete with a visible commercial kitchen, ADA-compliant restrooms, a marble slab bar style counter, and a take-out window, resembling the traditional grills of the namesake.  He also renovated two upper-story apartments that were leased before completion, attesting to the need for residential apartments in central Dover. 

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“The story to opening a Coney Island Hotdog Grill began more than a decade ago when my friend and I agreed that when we retire, we would open,” Ferris said. “I was more interested in the real estate and as I inquired about a vacant property downtown, I was told to speak to the DDP.”  As a result, DDP Operations Manager Tina Bradbury advised Doug on processes and funding opportunities over several years’ time and until completion of the major overhaul of the property. 

According to Bradbury, Covid and post-Covid issues with availability and inflated cost of building supplies, lack of labor to do the construction, changes in code requirements, and infrastructure issues made for a challenging renovation.   “Projects on older historic buildings here in Dover often require both patience and adaptability throughout the process. Original funding sources may not come to fruition, or they may be stretched, but it’s necessary to ensure the project is fully capitalized,” Bradbury explained.  “Secure funding makes a challenging project a lot less challenging!”   

To lessen debt service and in addition to the Critical Improvements Program funds, Tina was able to help Doug use multiple funding sources including private capital, Downtown Development District (DDD) rebates, a county match to the DDD, city incentives, and several DDP grant programs.  In some cases, philanthropic and federal grants or subsidies can also help. Ferris said the Critical Improvements grant lessened the blow when the extensive work necessary to bring the building up to code caused the project to be over budget.

“The DDP Board of Directors recently approved allocations totaling $1.185 million to qualified applicants representing ten properties on Loockerman Street and nearby in the designated Downtown Development District,” Executive Director Diane Laird said.  “These funds are vital to encourage reinvestment into this district, which is considered the City of Dover’s high-priority target area for redevelopment due to disinvestment over time and the resulting challenges, such as high vacancy and old buildings that are in great disrepair.”

Each dollar allocated from the Critical Improvements Program is expected to leverage over $5 from private/other sources and will result in a total projected investment of $5.7M by a target date of December 2024.  Additional property owners have expressed the need to continue this important program, thus the DDP is seeking additional funds to rehydrate the nearly $1.2 million allocated to date .  

Documents relating to the Critical Improvements Program and the Downtown Dover Strategic Master Plan can be found at:  www.DowntownDover.com

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