Milford, now branded as “River Town. Art Town. Home Town.,” following the efforts of organizations like Downtown Milford, Inc. and Downtown Delaware, is moving ahead at full speed to not only foster established artists, but to attract new creative energies as well.

Nearly a century after the last of the great white oaks fell and the shipbuilding industry came to a halt in Milford, the city still prides itself as a river town, but has taken a more artistic spin on its river-town roots.

Milford, now branded as “River Town. Art Town. Home Town.,” following the efforts of organizations like Downtown Milford, Inc. and Downtown Delaware, is moving ahead at full speed to not only foster established artists, but to attract new creative energies as well.

“We’ve always been a river town, we’re just not an active shipyard town any more,” explained SaraKate Hammer, president of DMI. “There’s a definite sense of purpose and place in terms of home town. And the arts has grown and grown and grown, even since 2007.”

The branding of the city has created a unified motto, color scheme and identity to attract newcomers and passers-by en route to the Delaware beaches or the state’s capital.

“They branded the town because of the healthy arts community that was here and I think the idea was to pick an economic driver, and that seemed to be working,” Hammer explained. “A lot of collaborative parties came together to make that happen. It helps us build Milford as a destination, not just a stop along the way.”

Chamber of Commerce for Greater Milford Executive Director Jo Schmeiser said that she has seen a steady increase in business memberships in the last five years, with at least 50 new members each year. Currently, the chamber has 350 members, which include home businesses and those in surrounding areas, including Milton.

Schmeiser said that with those new members, and the city’s branding efforts, that she has seen a greater focus on the arts in recent years.

“Each community has to have a niche to get people there, and it is the arts for Milford,” she said. “Along the river, there’s a quaint charm, and with anything charming, you think artsy, too.”

Flourishing downtown

Schmeiser said she credited the growth of the Mispillion Art League, as well as veteran artists, like Scott Angelucci and his downtown business, Angelucci studios, and newer galleries, like Gallery 37, as pivotal points that contribute to an increase in artistic endeavors within city limits.

“In Milford, people have taken a chance,” Schmeiser said. “They like the community, they like the people, the quaint charm, and they see that people are opening [stores] downtown and in the greater Milford area. They’re seeing that it’s working for other people, and they’re coming in and making it work.”

At least 12 new businesses have opened downtown within the past 18 months, according to the Delaware Economic Development Office’s Downtown Delaware State Coordinator Diane Laird. And Laird noted that the branding of Milford has contributed to the recruitment and expansion of both the arts and recreation within the Milford community.

“While capitalizing on arts and culture is a strategy that can increasingly be supported by a regional market, many types of non-arts businesses will be successful because they support the shoppers and travelers that come for arts and recreation; [businesses] such as restaurants, specialty home goods and apparel shops, overnight accommodations and recreational retailers that sell, for instance, bikes, kayaks and good walking shoes,” Laird explained.

In 2010, non-profit arts and arts organizations and audiences had an economic impact of $142.3 million in Delaware, she said.

“There is significant, proven economic impact as a result of arts activity in this state,” Laird added. “Based on these findings, it would appear that Milford has wisely chosen to create an economic strategy largely centered on the arts.”

MAL President Judy Struck said that it’s a mixture of old and new arts in all forms, from the Second Street Players’ Riverfront Theater and First State Dance Alliance to some of the newer niche businesses downtown, like the Irish Rose and Coolspring Cottage, that bring new people and a new level of arts.

“It’s a nice change that we’re seeing folks come in these days, even attracting folks to come in off the highway and see what we have to offer,” Struck said.

MAL, which relocated five years ago to a large, downtown storefront that also offers artists’ lofts, now boasts 246 members.

April Abel, MAL’s former marketing chair and a fine art photographer, said that even since she’s moved to Milford in 2007, she’s seen an increase of local artists becoming active and committed to fostering the arts within the community.

“[The Milford arts community] is very welcoming and it’s something where people of all ages and all skills levels are welcomed,” Abel said. “There’s not any pretentiousness about it. It’s very community-oriented. It’s about the learning experience and to grow as an artist.”

On the cusp

Both Abel and Hammer compared Milford to the boom in beach communities, like Lewes, predicting that Milford is on the cusp of becoming a staple for the arts and tourists.

“There’s definitely a nice flavor to Milford that reminds me of Lewes about 20 years ago. We’re on that same sort of growing edge,” Abel said. “With each new business that comes in, it builds the anticipation for new clients and it raises the bar. It makes people want to come to Milford to shop and enjoy the art.”

For new gallery owners Marcia Reed and David Pickrell, Milford was reminiscent of the arts communities found in Massachusetts. After opening their shop a year ago, they’ve been impressed at how other artists and the rest of the Milford community has accepted their high-end gallery.

Pickrell said it’s the relationships not only between the artists in town, but with city officials, DMI, the chamber and other businesses that lend a cohesiveness to the mutual success of all downtown locations.

“It’s a growing community and from a business standpoint, it’s a ground-floor opportunity,” he said. “The town will succeed, you can feel it. It’s that “let’s camp here” attitude. The people in town and town managers, they’re willing to help and it’s just a great location.”

And even though Milford has shifted its business focus from ship-building to agriculture and now to the arts, the artists and organizations are clinging to their roots and have found a way to embrace their past with a new approach to highlighting that river-related history through DMI’s ART project.

Reed, who is also a practiced artist and art educator, said that she believes the ART project, which calls artists to design boats that are placed throughout Milford’s downtown and along the Riverwalk, will bring more people downtown.

“The arts bring people in, which then helps other businesses,” she said. “And I think all these new businesses are going to spark even more interest.”

Hammer agreed that investing in the city’s branding and focusing on projects like the boats within the ART project is helping the theme to stick. She explained that a consultant with the National Main Street Association has used Milford as an example time and time again for success in downtown development.

Filled store fronts, renovations to streets and a focus on downtown development put Milford in the national spotlight in October when North and South Walnut streets were named as a 2013 Top 10 Great Street by the American Planning Association.

Hammer said she sees a focused support of downtown businesses that encompass any type of arts, from painting to dance to music and food, as a key economic driver for downtown Milford.

“A healthy arts community can drive a community. It’s a good spark. It’s a good catalyst,” Hammer said. “People respond to arts in their town, and visitors respond, too. If you say ‘River Town. Art Town. Home Town.’ in Delaware, there’s a good chance someone will say, ‘Oh, that’s Milford.’ I think it’s really sticking.”