A beaming Gov. Jack Markelll welcomed Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen and other local dignitaries Tuesday morning to celebrate the naming of a 220-acre parcel of the city as a state Downtown Development District.

The designation means the city can tap into a $7 million fund for programs to help bring new business and residential activity to the area. The announcement, first made on Jan. 11, also established development districts for Wilmington and Seaford.

“We are here because we recognize that we want to drive more of our future growth to our downtown areas across the state,” Markelll said. “This is the way it should be. We want the growth to take place where the infrastructure already exists.”

A recent trend has seen the return of people from the suburbs to the cities, which is a good sign, he said. “We want our cities to be vibrant places with a lot of action, and we want people to be able to live, to work and to have fun in these urban areas.”

Christiansen said Markelll called him two days before the designation was announced.

At first, Christiansen joked, he thought Markelll was calling him because he was in trouble.

The mayor said anticipation turned to delight once Markelll delivered the news.

“As you can imagine, as mayor, I am elated and quite pleased to see the city of Dover has been chosen as one of the initial Downtown Development Districts. We’re very humbled that Gov. Markell has chosen us for this honor,” Christiansen told the Dover Post in a separate interview.

Dover Director of Planning and Community Development Ann Marie Townshend, whose office was primarily responsible for assembling the 302-page application, said there already are strong partnerships with a number of local groups that should make the program a success.

“The program will make a number of incentives available to developers, property owners and business owners for improvements to their properties,” she said before Markelll’s visit. “These could be large and small improvements, including renovating or building a house, making renovations to an existing commercial space or building a large, mixed-use building.”

The most significant incentive is a rebate of up to 20 percent of construction costs to a builder, she said. This is on top of rebates from Kent County, priority for other state funding and a number of building incentives approved by the city, she added.

The program will be administered through the Delaware State Housing Authority and the city will work with the Downtown Dover Partnership to make sure as many potential users of the program are aware of it, Townshend said.

“I’ve talked to a number of potential business owners who are hoping to use the program to renovate commercial spaces and open new businesses,” she said. Townshend said she also talked with other property owners who are interested in residential construction.

In his remarks, Christiansen credited former Mayor Jack Richter with foreseeing the eventual decline of the downtown as businesses moved out. Richter began revitalization efforts more than 25 years ago.

“He had the realization that a healthy downtown, like a healthy heart, means that you will have a healthy city,” Christiansen said.

He also noted the contributions of NCALL Research, which is an affordable-housing specialist, and its 2014 Restoring Central Dover strategic plan. He said they provided a significant amount of background information for the application.

“I see these funds being able to assist in the creation of new economic ventures in the downtown area, as well as bringing a renewed vitality to the area,” the mayor said. “I believe that a strong downtown will not only be beneficial to that area, but ensure economic prosperity for the entire city.”

A complete copy of the application is available at http://tinyurl.com/DDD-Dover.