Like a lot of small towns, the town whose zip code I reside in is looking to expand. Recently a developer came to the town with a proposal to add several hundred dwelling units behind a group of retail shops fronting along the major highway that runs on the eastern outskirts of town.
Come to think of it, this could apply to any of the four communities in Sussex County along the U.S. 13 corridor. In each case, Bridgeville, Seaford, Laurel, and Delmar have an older downtown area which was bypassed when U.S. 13 was rerouted around those towns decades ago. Now all of them have development along the new highway to some extent, with grocery stores, restaurants, shops, and convenience stores clustered in varying degrees along that major north-south route. (Despite the traffic lights, it’s generally considered a lower-hassle alternative to taking I-95 through Baltimore and Washington, D.C.)
Now I’m not sure just when the current four-lane U.S. 13 was constructed, although I know its predecessor route is still extant from Delmar, Maryland up through a point north of Seaford, and again through Bridgeville where it met up with SR404. But with the exception of Delmar, which centered its downtown around the railroad track that runs just west of 13, all these towns once had the highway serve their central business district. There is still quite a bit of commerce in these areas, but (with the exception of Seaford) nowhere near as much as there is along the newer highway.
Anyway, back to my point about Laurel, which is the subject of this essay. Here’s what I wrote about this development to a local message board:
Interesting that some of the other Laurel message boards seem to be filled out with the NIMBY crowd. But let me add a couple pennies here.
One thing I haven’t seen (it may be in subsequent news coverage, though) is what the buildout schedule is. People think “omigosh, we’re getting all these housing units” but not all of them are built at once. If it’s a popular development then buildout is still probably 3-4 years, and if it’s like Heron Ponds in Delmar they may take 20 years. So the new population will come in gradually.
And to speak to (a local citizen’s) concern, there was a random Friday a few months back when I drove through North Towns End and I counted 15 houses in various stages of construction. In just the couple years since we moved out here we’ve seen several houses put up on Mt. Pleasant (we looked at one of the new ones before we bought ours) so someone must like our end of town.
Maybe it’s a function of what I do for a living, but I’ve always said that if an area doesn’t grow it dies. East side of Laurel could use some construction, too.Message on a local social media group board.
Yet a lot of the messages have a different but legitimate complaint: Laurel needs better jobs, more retail options and things to do, and less crime. The fear seems to be that the new development will bring less of what’s already lacking and more of what we don’t want, so I want to use my forum to revise and extend my previous remarks.
First off, I’m an outsider looking in. I really never dealt much with Laurel before I moved here except for driving through it, either on the main highway or occasionally the alternate through town. I actually still don’t do a lot of business there because I work in Salisbury and my wife works in Seaford, so any quick shopping is more likely to be done in those two towns or in Delmar since that’s on my way from work. But we often have occasion to eat out in Laurel and when we are home it has the closest grocery store.
By geography, we live closer to Sharptown, Maryland, but there’s nothing much there that I’m aware of except a convenience store and a Dollar General. That’s a town which is really off the beaten path, so very little commerce occurs there and the population has remained remarkably steady over the decades at around 650 people. (The same goes for Bethel, Delaware, which is also pretty close to us but even smaller.) So Laurel or Seaford it generally is, despite the extra distance.
In the case of many rural communities, their approach to job growth is as follows: set aside a plot of land with improvements and parcels of several acres and call it an industrial park. Promise some sort of tax abatement and then apply the Field of Dreams mantra: if you build it, they will come. I’m not saying that idea doesn’t work, since there are several industrial parks around and some are rather full, but a town can’t put all its eggs in just that basket.
So here is Laurel, with an investor who wants to put his money into the town but is getting grief from the NIMBY crowd. Ignore them. Presuming the developer will pay for the improvements required on the side road (up to and including the traffic signal that may be necessary at 13) this is a pretty good idea, at least in concept. I may be inclined for a smaller mix of townhouses to single-family, though, because one thing the area needs is property owners who will presumably take pride in their surroundings.
Once this development is underway, what the town needs to do in my opinion is create a way to make investment in its older areas just as worthwhile. Let’s look at one pivotal block of downtown Laurel as an example, the block on the southeast corner of old 13 and SR24. (Central Avenue and Market Street.)
From what I can gather, if you look at the block from the park across the street, there is a Chinese restaurant, a storefront church, a thrift store, and a building whose storefront I think is vacant but used to be a Mexican grocery. Thanks to the magic of Google Maps images, I found out that block was amputated sometime around the beginning of the last decade to accommodate extra parking for the Laurel Public Library. (At least now it owns the parcels.) The other two sets of parcels are owned by private individuals, one living in Laurel and another living in another town in Sussex County. But if you go back into the state archives, you’ll find that these two streets were completely built up in the early 20th century. Now the only corner left relatively the same is the one with the bank – the other three corners are either parking or the small downtown park.
Of course, I don’t know the back story of how all that came to pass, but it just seems from my perspective that, in the most recent case, the library could have worked out a deal with the bank on parking and left the buildings there, unless they had fallen that far into disrepair. (I’ve seen some references to a fire so I’m wondering if that had anything to do with this puzzle, too.)
But don’t you think it would make efforts to revitalize Laurel’s downtown better if that little bit of parking were moved across the street and someone invested in that corner with a mixed-use project of a storefront and apartments above? Build something new and fresh, but with the look of a historic structure, and maybe that encourages the neighbors to spruce up their buildings. Now perhaps that may not happen, but just like those who are down on the proposed development, if you do zero to improve things there’s a zero percent chance of improvement. I realize it’s nowhere near all that we need, but someone has to take the leap and I’m glad there’s a person out there who does.
Make yourself available and receptive to people who want to invest in good ideas and you just may find prosperity in something that benefits all parties involved.