As Middletown grows, the Chamber of Commerce is paving the way
David Lewis with Roxane Ferguson and Peg Ryan of the Middletown Area Chamber of Commerce. His business, Moore Sealcoat and Striping, was named the 2014 Business of the Year.
Gallery: As Middletown grows, the Chamber of Commerce is paving the way [11 Images] Click any image to expand.
By John Chambless
When Roxane Ferguson and her family moved to Middletown about a decade ago, "we had to leave the area to go get clothing and other essentials," she said.
Today, she doesn't have that problem.
First as a resident, and then as the executive director of the Middletown Area Chamber of Commerce, Ferguson has seen Middletown transition from a sleepy crossroads with a moribund downtown to a place where businesses and corporations are lining up to be part of the explosive growth.
From her office in the historic Middletown Academy Building -- where she works with the chamber's only other paid employee, office manager Peg Ryan -- Ferguson acts as a connecting point between business owners and the public. Juggling the needs of a rapidly increasing population and an ever-expanding list of businesses large and small seems to come naturally to Ferguson.
The Chamber of Commerce was founded 43 years ago by the Middletown Rotary Club. Its activity has risen and fallen along with the fortunes of the town, but as anyone who has driven through town lately can see, things are picking up.
"When Peg and I first started working together three years ago, we were at 165 members. Now we're over 400," Ferguson said. "We've grown exponentially."
Ferguson credits the cooperation of Middletown, Odessa and Townsend with moving the whole region forward and attracting new residents who appreciate the quaint shops of Middletown, as well as the chain stores and restaurants that are expanding the east and west parts of town.
"There's a culture here," Ferguson said. "We're a part of New Castle County, but we're below the canal, so there's a small-town atmosphere. We're in the heart of everything. As a resident, everybody knows everybody. You can't go anywhere and not run into somebody you know."
Under the leadership of Middletown mayor Kenneth Branner, Jr., the outskirts of Middletown are becoming a major regional attraction. Ferguson ran down a list of the new businesses. There's a Wendy's on the way, a Marshall's department store, a Chipotle, a Michael's craft store, and a Texas Roadhouse restaurant is set to open in September. The Westown Movies location is a brand-new theater with the latest technology. There's a CVS pharmacy on the way. The Amazon distribution center brought 1,200 jobs to town and serves as a major hub for the online retail giant.
Closer to Route 1, there's the Christiana Care facility, and the HealthSouth building should open in late October. That facility will be "the major brain injury care center in Delaware," Ferguson said. Also on the east side, there's a CVS pharmacy under construction, and a McDonald's may be next.
There are homes popping up all around Middletown, with new developments in the works -- both entry-level housing and more upscale apartments.
"Together, we're all working towards economic development," Ferguson said. "For us, it's about creating a lifestyle. The mayor will say that the town took the 'Field of Dreams' philosophy that if we build it, they'll come. Well, they've all come. Now it's a matter of helping them while they're here. The chamber, Middletown Main Street and the town all serve as a resource for our community at large."
With all the growth comes the possibility of too much of a good thing. There are only so many acres that can be turned into housing or businesses. Ferguson said Middletown works with the state of Delaware to carefully plan economic development and job creation. The growth plan for 2015 is on track, she said.
"Based on what the mayor shared at a recent Rotary Club meeting, we don't expect the town to expand to more than 20,000 or 25,000 people," she said. "The town has built the infrastructure to support the commercial business that we're getting. In the next several years, when things are built up, we'll be where we expected to be when the town created the plan. What the chamber is working on now with the state is a business incubator for some of the smaller businesses, or even international businesses, that might want to come here. We're looking for a location for it, and looking at getting some grants through the state.
"On the west side of town, there's still quite a bit of development opportunity there," Ferguson said. "The infrastructure's in place for us to be able to accommodate growth. Right now, we can build new construction from the ground up, which a lot of areas don't have."
For Tony Martina, the president of the Chamber of Commerce and the owner of three Tender Loving Kare childcare centers, the chamber has been an indispensable boost to his business.
"My family and I moved here 11 years ago to join the family business," Martina said. "I joined the board of directors at the chamber in 2009." At that time, the growth of Middletown was demanding a full-time executive director of the chamber, but the chamber members weren't sure they could afford to pay someone, Martina said.
Luckily, Ferguson's children were enrolled in area schools and she was a huge booster of the region, so she came on board.
Martina's daycare business has grown along with the area's population of young families. In 2007, he said, there were eight competing daycares in town. Then came the housing bust, which cut that number. "Some of them are still here," he said.
Tender Loving Kare caters to infants up to children the age of 13, and employs 35 people at its 10,000-square-foot building on Route 301, which has been expanded as much as it can be.
"I do attribute the success of my business to my involvement with the chamber," Martina said. "It got me more involved in the community. I get to meet other business people and community leaders, it gets my name out to the community, and there's a great web presence."
All it takes for a prospective business owner to be sold on Middletown, Martina said, "is to drive around and look at all the activity. ... This area is, for Delaware, the next center of growth. There are plenty of young, working families moving in. There's no better place to start a business."
The Middletown Chamber of Commerce is a relentless booster for businesses, starting with connecting prospective owners with the tools they'll need, holding ribbon-cutting ceremonies for each new business, and giving businesses a robust online platform that can be updated easily.
Each year, the chamber selects a Business of the Year. For 2014, it's Moore Sealcoat and Striping, owned by David Lewis, who bought the business from its previous owner in 1999. "In my industry, there are a lot of not-so-desirable people," Lewis said. "I want to be associated with other professionals who took their business as seriously as I do. In 2009 or so, I met Peggy at the chamber's spring expo and I signed up. I took advantage of everything the Middletown Chamber has to offer.
"People now see that we're the Business of the Year. We are legitimate and people know we'll do a good job," Lewis said. "I have to make the chamber look as good as it makes me look. My business has doubled this year. I used to have two guys, and now I have six full-time guys. ... My advice to any business owner is to get involved with the chamber and make those relationships. Our Middletown business has grown by leaps and bounds, and I attribute much of that to the chamber."
In the lobby of Westown Movies on Commerce Drive, general manager Scott Waugh explained how the 12-screen theater combines state-of-the-art technology with a hometown atmosphere. The huge mural in the lobby, first of all, showcases Middletown's past and present. The concession stand sells food provided by local businesses, including Pat's Pizza, Pretzel Boys soft pretzels, and Brewster's Ice Cream. Instead of Dasani at $4 per bottle, Waugh said, the theater sells Crystal Geyser spring water for $2. Prices are kept as low as possible so families can enjoy a movie more often, he said.
"We could have gotten frozen pizza and made more profits, but people love that it's local businesses providing the food," he said. "All of our concession prices are about 40 percent less than at the big movie chains."
One day a month, there are showings of family films where the sound is turned down and the lights are left on slightly, letting toddlers share the fun of a big-screen film. Area non-profits are welcome to set up in the lobby to spread awareness or raise funds. Movie tickets are donated as prizes for non-profits as well.
During a driving tour of Middletown, Ferguson pointed out successes such as the Amazon headquarters as well as places that are still in transition -- the large MOT Park, for instance, which has a sign but never got developed, and a couple of empty storefronts downtown that need to get new tenants.
But as she stood at the main crossroads downtown, Ferguson beamed with pride that Middletown has flourished, and is continuing to expand.
"It's a very sports-minded area, it's a very family-minded area, and the school district is amazing," she said. "We are an economic hub for the state of Delaware. There's still a lot of opportunities for residents, and still a lot of opportunities for businesses. ... I've been blessed to make a difference for my community," she said.
For more information about the Middletown Area Chamber of Commerce, visit www.maccde.com or call 302-378-7545.
To contact Staf Writer John Chambless, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.