November 2007 Issue
Ohio's Best Hometowns 2008 - Delaware
This central Ohio community preserves and enhances its unique ambiance.
How do you measure the character of an eclectic hometown?
In a place as unique as Delaware, try gauging it in decibels.
You could start with the trill of the soprano that Winter Street Inn Bed & Breakfast owner Rodger Collom wakes up to some mornings –– the sound of a music major warming up across the street at Sanborn Hall on the campus of Ohio Wesleyan University, one of the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges.
Or, you could study the rhythmic ping-ping-ping that echoes from Delaware’s fairgrounds in autumn –– the sound of residents such as Norman Covrett, down on all fours with a hammer in hand, pounding stakes into patio furniture. In any other city, the sight of a 73-year-old man nailing the legs of a lawn chair into the backstretch of a horse track is at least worth a raised eyebrow. But this is Delaware, home of the prestigious Little Brown Jug, a tradition so revered, longtime residents like Covrett will happily kneel in dirt on a September afternoon to literally secure their seat in anticipation of the harness race’s 50,000 annual visitors. Never mind that it’s two weeks before race day.
“Just wait: This whole area will be 25, 26 chairs deep,” says Covrett, a machine shop worker who has attended the event for nearly all of its 62 years. “You’ll see the whole town here.”
Actually, Delaware –– which celebrates its bicentennial next year — has an appealing distinctiveness that’s hard to miss no matter where you go. It’s there on bustling Sandusky Street, where the Hamburger Inn diner, established in 1932, sits contentedly right across from Nova, a hip, cosmopolitan restaurant and “video bar” that wouldn’t look out of place in Manhattan. And it’s evident in a thriving arts scene that includes the Central Ohio Symphony Orchestra, myriad galleries and a bona fide castle, built in 1854, that hosts everything from drama workshops to calligraphy classes.
A visitor today might be surprised to find out that the bustling scene is the result of a concerted revitalization effort.
“There was a time when we had a 46 percent vacancy rate at the stores downtown,” says Joe Diamond, a city planner turned real estate developer. Diamond recalls how Delaware went through a cycle of struggle years ago, when big-box stores and shopping centers began making their mark on the former farming community. “You can’t really compete with those huge retail places,” he says. “You have to find a way to offer something else.”
So local organizations did just that, first by working with the city’s historic preservation commission to renovate many of the stately 19th-century buildings downtown –– 57 of them in just the last seven years, says Diamond, with more than $60 million in private money spent on the rehabilitation.
That re-energized look has spurred an influx of new businesses, adorning the historic district today with what local gallery owner Linda Shearer calls “fun retail”: everything from boutiques, coffee bars and cafes, to antiques stores, bike shops and an independent bookstore.
Still, despite its newfound status as a shopping destination for central Ohioans, the leisurely pace and singular personality of small-town America remains.
“You know that line from the ‘Cheers’ song: ‘Where everybody knows your name?’” says Shearer. “That’s Delaware.”