Stakes high in Wilmington
For years, advocates of downtown Wilmington have argued that crime didn’t occur on the major corridors of commerce, that people coming to work in the towers or frequenting restaurants had nothing to worry about. Now, the business sector has had enough, and key leaders are openly warning that the city’s public safety issues are nearing a tipping point.
Government must seriously address the problem or risk losing the companies that employ office workers fueling commerce in Delaware’s largest city, business leaders and landlords say.
There are many stories of low-level crimes that haven’t made headlines, but they were traumatic for victims, who The News Journal agreed not to name. And the offenses add up to a troubling portrait:
• One evening last October, a downtown executive started her after-work walk along the Wilmington Riverfront a little later than usual, but it was still light out and her route was familiar to her. She felt confident about her safety so she put on her walking shoes and set out.
As she completed her daily exercise, a boy and girl approached her and asked for the time. When she pulled out her smart phone to check, the boy demanded she hand it over. The executive refused, and the boy pushed her to the ground, breaking her arm.
Fearing she would be badly hurt, the woman gave up the phone. A 911 call led to the teens’ arrest minutes later. The girl was 15 and the boy, 14. The executive is still undergoing rehabilitation for her arm.
• Last August, a hotel executive had her cell phone plucked from her hand by a teen on a bicycle while walking near Rodney Square. Security cameras showed four boys on bicycles positioned on each corner as she approached the crosswalk, she said, and the boy who snatched her phone held it up like a trophy as they all rode away together. “I lost all my photos and videos,” the woman said of the incident that teens refer to as “Apple snatching,” in reference to iPhones.
• A senior associate of Capital One was mugged downtown last summer, public records show. And Richard Gessner, Delaware liaison at Capital One, told an October meeting of the Council of Development and Finance that, when the bank is attempting to move jobs to Delaware from Virginia or Minnesota, “it doesn’t help to have a senior associate mugged in broad daylight.” He also said at the same meeting that the bank, with 2,400 employees in Delaware, has two primary concerns – public safety and the “perception of downtown Wilmington.”
•Another female employee of Capital One successfully thwarted a phone snatching attempt, public records show.
•Sheraton Suites Wilmington, on Delaware Avenue, has had cases of thieves attempting “to take luggage from people,” according to public records.
Marty Hageman, executive director of Downtown Visions, a public-private organization dedicated to improving the central business district, contends that Wilmington’s core is actually quite safe. But public disorder complaints, ranging from panhandling to public intoxication, reinforce the negative image, making people fearful.
Many business owners feel they must provide escorts for employees walking to their vehicles. Downtown Visions’ “safety ambassadors” conduct an average of 14 escorts daily, Hageman said. “A lot of female employees ask for escorts,” he said.
Concerns have even spilled over to guests at downtown hotels.
Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr. said in an interview with The News Journal that out-of-town lawyers were being warned about wandering too far from their hotels. John Reed, a partner at DLA Piper in downtown Wilmington, said he tells out-of-town lawyers staying in the city overnight to pick restaurants close to their hotel.
“And don’t go walking around the side streets in the evening,” Reed said he tells them.
When it comes time for leases to expire, such things can weigh heavily in a relocation decision. Some law firms have been looking to relocate outside the city, Strine and real estate agents said.
“Employers are concerned about the safety of their employees. It’s as bad as it’s ever been,” said Pete Davisson, a principal with Jackson Cross Partners, a commercial real estate brokerage firm. “I’ve never seen so many businesses making a serious effort in comparing the city office space to the suburbs.”
Added Mark A. Turner, chief executive of WSFS Bank, which employs 260 people in Wilmington, “The current perception of safety and actual impact on human lives is not good for our communities, and the citizenry. Leadership on public safety is the primary purview of the government.”
Cathy Rossi, vice president at AAA Mid-Atlantic in Wilmington and a longtime city resident, said she is disappointed in city government.
“I do think the mayor needs to step up to the plate,” Rossi said. “Absolutely. Public safety is the chief responsibility of government. It’s very sad for me to see our city in this sort of state. “
The stakes are high for Wilmington, where approximately 54,000 work. If employers begin abandoning the city, the effect would be devastating for its finances. Wage and net profit taxes account for 43 percent of the city’s general fund revenues, the largest single source to the city’s coffers, according to City Treasurer Henry Supinski.
An unhealthy downtown in Delaware’s largest city also creates an economic spillover effect in New Castle County and the rest of the state, said David Ames, professor of urban affairs and public policy at the University of Delaware.
“Wilmington is a kind of secondary capital of Delaware when you look at the kinds of government it supports,” Ames said.
The downtown, with its transportation networks, goods and services, can support businesses in ways suburbia can’t, he said. But the perception of crime in the city can negate those advantages, making it difficult for Delaware to attract economic engines that need the kinds of support only a city can provide, Ames said.
“The entire state has a stake in businesses coming to Wilmington and staying in Wilmington,” said Attorney General Matt Denn. “When I travel around the state, people recognize that. Elected officials from around the state care about what happens in Wilmington.”
Wilmington Mayor Dennis P. Williams was not available for an interview last week. City Chief of Staff Cleon Cauley agreed to an interview with The News Journal, but canceled at the last minute, saying: “I rarely agree to interviews.” He referred calls to his “communications professionals.”
City spokeswoman Alexandra Coppadge provided a statement from Cauley saying the mayor and members of the administration meet quarterly with business leaders to discuss various issues, “including public safety,” and “maintains an open line of communication.”
“The city has a very positive relationship with downtown employers, and I appreciate the regular discussions I have with my counterparts in the business, nonprofit and arts community,” Cauley’s statement says. “While these meetings give me an opportunity to express firsthand the strides that Wilmington is taking with regards to public safety, it also gives us all an opportunity to work collaboratively to address existing issues.”
Sgt. Andrea Janvier, spokeswoman for the Wilmington Police Department, said in the past two years the department has stepped up the number of downtown officers and the number of arrests. She said when the police recognize crime trends, it sends out community alerts and tries to address the problem.
State takes action
As pressure builds for action, the state is stepping up. After the senior associate of Capital One was mugged in summer, Gov. Jack Markell’s administration quickly arranged for a $368,832 grant to Downtown Visions to hire eight people to serve as safety ambassadors along the Delaware Avenue corridor. Approximately 6,000 people work in a “target area,” according to the minutes of an October meeting of the Delaware Council on Development Finance.
Safety ambassadors get two weeks of training before donning yellow jackets and black pants and start walking beats downtown. The ambassadors, who carry two-way radios, are charged with deterring crime downtown and walk the streets until 9 at night, said Hageman.
“We are extremely fortunate to have a strong employer base in the City of Wilmington,” said Gov. Jack Markell. “But the issue of public safety impacts residents and businesses alike and remains a top priority for the state, which is why we continue to collaborate with local law enforcement and the City of Wilmington on efforts to address the concerns of those who live and work there.”
Denn said he is working on securing money for more foot patrols in the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods. He acknowledged that business doesn’t expect the problem fixed overnight, “but they want to see some real action.”
Hageman defended the city, saying Williams and the city police understand the importance of maintaining the downtown employment base and is “very sensitive to the business contingent.”
“I can tell you, Dennis Williams understands the importance of preserving the downtown police base,” Hageman said. “Our model of business improvement district is used in downtowns across the country and Canada. And it only works in close partnership with the police department.”
Too late for some
Murray Sawyer, president of Westover Capital Advisors LLC, an investment advisory and business-formation company, wasn’t willing to wait for things to turnaround.
Westover just moved to Greenville after 42 years in the central business district, citing a lack of faith in city government.
“There were a number of reasons, but they dealt with what I felt was the city’s lack of leadership from the mayor’s office,” Sawyer said. “They dealt with concerns with respect to public safely – there’d been a homicide committed within a block of our office building. They dealt with public cleanliness issues on Rodney Square – the pavements never get washed or cleaned. And just an overall sense the city’s direction is going the wrong way.”
When other city negatives such as parking costs and the 1.25-percent city wage tax are factored in, a move to the suburbs can seem like a sound business decision, Sawyer said.
Last week, Fidelity Investments and its 25 employees began its move to Greenville after 10 years at its most recent location on Delaware Avenue. In August, the company told The News Journal the relocation will give the business room to grow.
But Wilmington landlord Denis O’Sullivan, whose company owns the former Fidelity office building, said there were other reasons. Fidelity’s top management had described the downtown to him as a “horror show,” he said. Pete Van Bemmel, manager of the Fidelity office, did not return a call or email asking for comment.
“They would have stayed, but both their clients and personnel feel threatened,” O’Sullivan wrote to City Councilwoman Loretta Walsh in 2013. “Something needs to done.”
Some have wondered if the DuPont Co. is moving to Greenville because of unhappiness with the city, although company officials said the relocation would provide for better coordination of its business. The company’s newly spun-off specialty chemical firm, Chemours, will move into the DuPont Building once the core company moves to its Chestnut Run Plaza campus. While Chemours expects to move 800 to 1,000 employees into the building, with approximately the same number departing, many wonder if the firm is committed to remaining downtown.
Tom Baker, president of the Triangle Neighborhood Association and a former DuPont accountant, said it’s been a struggle for local businesses to get access to Mayor Williams to better understand the policies affecting their operations. He said he’s unsure if DuPont’s executives got that same treatment.
“I took it as a vote of no confidence on the city and this administration,” Baker said about the DuPont move.
Hageman said in October that he has had numerous conversations with businesses, and acknowledged several “are considering relocating.”
“We can’t afford to lose some of our major employers,” Hageman said last week. “We do everything we can to ensure that the environment exists that would be welcoming to employers and employees.”
A long simmering issue
Crime in the central business district is nothing new to Wilmington employers – or their employees.
What’s changed over the years is the decline in large numbers of office workers on the streets as major employers have downsized or relocated outside the city. DuPont, for example, once had thousands of employees in a handful of buildings near Rodney Square.
With changing workplace habits, fewer people leave the office to shop and eat during the business day.
At the same time, in recent years, crime, including shootings, in other parts of the city has escalated, earning Wilmington the name, “Murder Town USA” in a recent Newsweek article. Even if the nickname is undeserved, as Williams said, perception can be reality for employers when it comes to hiring and keeping workers.
“Here at Downtown Visions, we’re always fighting this negative perception of Wilmington,” Hageman said.
According to Hageman, Wilmington’s central business district is actually quite safe, but public disorder complaints, ranging from panhandling to public intoxication, reinforce the image of the central business district as the Wild West.
In 2013, Daniel Krapf, a partner in Saul Ewing LLC at 222 Delaware Ave., complained to building owner O’Sullivan that he was “panhandled at least once a week” when he went out at midday, according to an email obtained by The News Journal.
“Other folks in my office tell me they experience similar occurrences,” Krapf wrote to O’Sullivan. “Hopefully the city will do something about this problem.”
Krapf did not return a call for comment last week.
Eric Jolikko, general manager of the Sheraton Suites, said at a public meeting in October that his business has had trouble with handbags and cell phones being stolen, loiterers and “people bumming cigarettes.” Jolikko did not return a call last week for further comment.
Nuisance panhandling and people loitering is “really damaging to retail businesses,” said David Shepherd, manager of Delaware Offices LLC at Ninth and Tatnall streets, which owns office buildings and parking lots.
“It certainly makes it very difficult, whether it’s actual crime or the perception of crime,” Shepherd said. “People won’t move into the city because of the crime. It does seem like the initiatives talked about by the city have not taken hold. I wouldn’t understate how difficult a fix it is.”
For employees who have never worked in an urban environment, these public disorder violations are culture shock, Hageman said. That can make recruitment and retention of top talent challenging for employers, particularly in operations that keep later hours, he said.
Employers voicing concerns
Employers who are invested in the city are not standing by idly, but making their concerns known to the government, businesses say.
Soon after Williams took office, businesses were calling meetings with him to voice concerns. Cauley acknowledged that he has met with many business leaders since taking over as chief of staff.
Downtown building owner O’Sullivan said in a September letter to the leasing director at Fidelity Investments that he had arranged a meeting in July 2013 that included Van Bemmel of Fidelity, the mayor, the city’s then police chief, Christine Dunning, and other top city officials to “ensure that Fidelity’s customers feel safe and secure as they visit Fidelity’s office.”
Paul Hartwick, spokesman for J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., which has 3,500 employees in Christina Gateway and 8,000 in New Castle County, said “the safety and security of our employees is a high priority, and we are in ongoing communication with local officials and authorities, such as the Wilmington Police, Downtown Visions and the Attorney General’s Crime Strategies Unit.”
J.P. Morgan Chase recently invested $1 million in a project on Wilmington’s East Side “and have been deeply involved in other revitalization efforts throughout the city, including the recent redesign of Christina Gateway Park,” Hartwick said.
“These projects improve the quality of life within the city, and are also aimed at reducing crime,” he said.
Buccini/Pollin Group, one of the biggest property owners in the city, said it has seen some positive developments.
“We have noticed a great improvement in the environment in the downtown since the deployment of the police in the central business district in October of 2013. This improvement is reflected in both strong leasing of our office, residential and retail spaces downtown as well as in the comments from our tenants,” said Michael J. Hare, senior vice president in a statement.
Glenn Kocher, WSFS chief credit officer, has lived in the Midtown Brandywine section of the city for decades. He walks to and from work, as well as to restaurants and events. While he’s not afraid, Kocher is cautious, trying not to talk on his cell phone while walking the streets.
“You need to stay on the right streets,” he said. “You need to be aware of your surroundings.”
Martin Lessner, a partner at Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, said downtown is safe for lawyers with city offices and visiting attorneys. He said lawyers often walk at night to downtown restaurants. Out-of-town lawyers are sophisticated people who are familiar with urban centers and know not to wander the streets at night, he said.
State steps up
State officials in recent months have not be shy about their efforts to help Wilmington.
After Delaware Economic Development Director Alan Levin learned of a string of summer incidents on Delaware Avenue “it was decided something had to be done,” according to meeting minutes of the Council on Development Finance. That’s when the state provided a grant for Downtown Visions for the safety ambassadors.
Denn said in his swearing in remarks last week that “it’s time to get some things done.”
In an interview, Denn said he’s had a number of businesses speak to him about crime in the city. He said there have been cities and states with much bigger violent crime problems than Wilmington “and they were able to fix them.”
“New York City is the prime example,” Denn said. “College courses are now taught on how New York City fixed its violent crime problem. A big part of what New York did was dedicate foot patrol officers to high crime areas.”
To that end, Denn has presented a proposal to the city’s elected leaders that the city and the state Department of Justice apply jointly for $650,000 from the state’s Neighborhood Building Blocks Fund to pay for six additional foot patrol officers to walk the streets of Wilmington’s most dangerous neighborhoods at night from March 1 through the end of the summer.
Officers from New Castle County and Delaware State Police would help city police provide coverage for the patrols and provide advice on tactics, he said.
“Six officers can and will have an impact on violent crime,” Denn said. “It is real action that can put police on the streets where they are needed. The county is ready to help, the state is ready to help, so when the city signs the application, we can put in motion a plan to give the people of this city’s most dangerous neighborhoods the added police protection that they have rightfully demanded.”
Reducing violent crime won’t happen without high levels of cooperation among government, the newly elected attorney general said.
“This problem didn’t get created overnight. But experience tells us if you do the right things, it helps.”
Staff writer Jeff Mordock contributed to this story.
Contact Maureen Milford at (302) 324-2881 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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