The story of Milford begins and ends with the Mispillion River.
The waterway that now meanders through the heart of its downtown, dividing Kent from Sussex counties, gave birth to Milford and will undoubtedly play a key role in its future.
The first settlers to arrive in what is today Delaware's sixth largest city used the Mispillion to power the grist and saw mills that gave Milford its name.
A thriving shipbuilding industry later developed on the river in the 1700s and became the economic backbone of the city for nearly 200 years.
Over the last century, the river helped to propel Milford's rise as a commercial center for southern Delaware's agricultural community and, in conjunction with nearby major highways and railway lines, helped it to develop the strong manufacturing sector that continues to provide much of its employment opportunities today.
In more recent times, incremental improvements along the banks of the river have been the driving force behind the ongoing resurgence of Milford's downtown area, which in turn has helped spur the larger economic and residential growth the city has experienced in the last 10 to 15 years.
"The bottom line is that river is the magnet that has attracted people here for centuries right up until today," local historian Dave Kenton said. "It's what created Milford and still continues to drive the town to this day."
RIVER TOWN, BOOM TOWN
While the rest of the nation has struggled through difficult economic times, Milford has not only withstood the test, but continued to thrive.
"We've added 65 new members in the last year," said Jo Schmeiser, executive director of the Greater Milford Chamber of Commerce. "I think we've been very fortunate in attracting several brave people to bring their operations here and employ people, which I think shows that we're moving in the right direction."
Schmeiser said Milford's long history of supporting major industry has helped the city keep those businesses while attracting new employers.
"We're close to beach resorts and all the major cities, but far enough away that we still have that small town character and an excellent quality of life, all of which I think businesses want to help them attract a strong workforce," she said.
It's those same amenities that drove a major boom in the city's population during the last decade, which in turn continues to attract new business to the area.
In 2000, Milford was home to about 6,700 residents, but the housing boom over the ensuing years caused that number to jump by nearly 50 percent to close to 10,000 residents today.
"In the boom years between 2004 and 2006, we were adding about 200 units per year, compared to the 70 units we've been adding each of the last few years," City Planner Gary Norris said. "At that time, we had a lot of people moving here from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, who I think were attracted by the fact that the city is close to the beaches and mid-sized population centers like Dover and Wilmington, while still being affordable."
Page 2 of 4 - Norris said he thinks that unique balance between big city amenities and small town flavor is what has made Milford so enticing to new residents.
"While most of the development in Sussex County occurred in area 10 to 15 miles outside of the population centers, people moving here can still enjoy the rural character on our outskirts with the added benefit of being close to Milford Memorial Hospital and other medical centers, our strong mix of retail stores, our excellent parks and recreation system, our schools and our thriving downtown," he said.
THE REBIRTH OF A DOWNTOWN
Milford's downtown hasn't always been lively, however.
Like many small towns in America, Milford witnessed a decline in its downtown shopping district as many stores, and their customers, migrated to shopping centers on the outskirts of the city.
"In the 1970s, there were two department stores in downtown Milford that both moved away," said Irv Ambrose, the president of Downtown Milford Inc., a private-public partnership dedicated to improving and sustaining the city's 30-square block commercial and historic district. "When they left, it created an exodus of businesses that couldn't survive without the foot traffic. Suddenly downtown wasn't such a nice place to be anymore."
Ambrose said the resurgence of downtown began when the city and state partnered to undertake a series of beautification and improvement projects along the Mispillion River that today are collectively known as the Riverwalk.
"A group of dedicated residents realized that if the Riverwalk was going to bring people downtown, there needed to things that would keep them coming back, and that was sort of how DMI got started," he said.
Over the last decade, the group has become a certified national Main Street program, hired a full-time executive director and launched a series of successful events and promotions aimed at invigorating the downtown area's main thoroughfares.
"Our successes have been a direct result of our very dedicated group of volunteers, all of whom have a dedicated sense of enthusiasm for improving Milford," DMI executive director Lee Nelson said. "We put a strong emphasis on collaboration and I think there is a general sense among the people here in Milford that they want the city to be a good, fun and enjoyable place to be."
Ambrose said a key component of downtown Milford's revitalization also has been a focus on encouraging specialty shops and businesses that can't be found anywhere else.
He and Nelson pointed to the city's bustling farmer's market, unique collection of boutiques, high-quality eateries and constantly evolving arts community, including the Riverwalk Theatre, Mispillion Arts League and local artist galleries.
"Our motto of 'River Town. Art Town. Home Town,' is something we take very seriously," Ambrose said. "The arts community is a major part of our downtown and is only getting bigger and better. I'm pleased with where we are, but we still have a long way to go, so what's important is that we just keep plugging along."
Page 3 of 4 - LOOKING FORWARD
As many look to for the national, state and local economies rebound in the coming years, Milford stands posed to start the next chapter in its lengthy history.
One of the people responsible for ushering in Milford's next phase is Steve Masten, who last year was hired as the city's new economic development director.
"I think Milford is in a very good position to capitalize on the next wave of economic growth," Masten said. "The city has a long history of being very pro-business and I think our local government has done an excellent job of offering good, quality services at a relatively low cost while anticipating future needs through the growth and expansion of water, sewer and other infrastructure."
Masten said a big part of his job in the coming months and year will be to promote those advantages to both existing companies here and those considering a move to Milford.
"There are currently between 9,000 and 10,000 resident here, but if you look at the outlying areas, there are more like 25,000 potential customers within 10 miles and nearly 100,000 in a 15-mile radius," he said. "Advertising that fact will help us attract some of the big stores and restaurants the residents say they really want."
Masten said he also believes Milford must do more to attract shoppers from outside the city limits.
"We're very lucky in that we're served by two major highways, but a lot of times people pass right by Milford and don't even know what we have to offer," he said. "The city is looking at adding new welcome signs at the northside of town and at Wilkins Road on Route 1 that I think will make a big difference."
The new Kent County Regional Sports Complex being developed south of Frederica also will have a big impact on Milford's retail economy.
"We already will soon have two new sporting goods stores, where before we had none," he said. "The sports complex and First State BMX here in town are going to start drawing big crowds to Milford with national sporting events. Those people are going to need places to eat and shop, and all of Milford is going to benefit from that."
One project Masten said he'll be pushing for that might not be on the minds of many Milford residents is a possible dredging of the Mispillion River, which he said would have a vital impact on recreational opportunities.
"Hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on the Mispillion Riverwalk over the years, but the boat traffic that was once the life of Milford has come to halt," he said. "The river and the 10 lakes it supports all used to be big spots for anglers but the water is so shallow now that the fish just aren't there anymore."
Page 4 of 4 - Masten said deepening the river also would help protect the city's downtown from damage by future flood events.
"The Mispillion is the greatest natural resource we have," he said. "I feel like it's our responsibility to take care of it, not just for ourselves, but future generations, as well."