The Wilmington Renaissance Corp. will receive a $75,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to help support the Vacant to Vibrant Pocket Parks and Passages program.
The announcement of the grant was a highlight of the WRC’s annual breakfast meeting Tuesday at The Queen in Wilmington. The nonprofit is a public-private partnership between mayor’s office and the corporate community that tries to bring people into Wilmington by designing and championing projects and cutting through red tape to get them done.
One of its newest ideas is to establish a kitchen incubator, where people who want or need to use a professional kitchen would be able to become a member and have a set number of hours to bake and cook there. Similar kitchens exist in New York and Philadelphia, and it’s one of the ways that small food companies get going.
Receiving a sizable grant through the endowment’s Our Town program is a bit of coup, officials said. Wilmington’s request was one of 240 projects asking for part of $4.3 million. The Our Town program focuses on using arts to create beautiful and resilient spaces. That in turn is supposed to help make living and working in the area more attractive to continue the momentum of turning undesirable locations into desirable ones.
The parks and passages program is one aspect of the WRC’s Creative District, which is designed to bring creative people – artists, musicians, designers, tech innovators, makers and manufacturers – into the city by providing reduced-cost space to work and live in an area west of Market Street’s concentration of arts institutions. The underlying theory is that the people who make up that demographic will then patronize the area’s dining and entertainment establishments, strengthening the base of a livable city.
The first house in the program, at 413 West Fifth St., has been finished and will go on the market soon, said Dr. Carrie W. Gray, WRC managing director. That house is being managed by Interfaith Community Housing of Delaware.
The NEA grant will be matched with in-kind work and funding, Gray said.
The Pocket Parks and Passages program is working with Groundswell – a place-making firm in Philadelphia that helped create the Spruce Street Harbor Place park – to lead the community engagement process that will reimagine and redesign four vacant or underutilized parcels in the Creative District.
As that is happening, the WRC and district are going ahead with the 7th Street Arts Bridge. Its four areas include a “Be the Light, Spread Love” mural by Smashed Label located at Seventh & Tatnall streets, which should be painted soon; a “Musical Fence” temporary installation by New Wilmington Art Association artists Jen Hintz, Jessi Taylor and Anne Yoncha, proposed for Seventh & West streets; the Jefferson garden, an ornamental garden designed by Andre Hinton at Seventh & Jefferson; and the Windsor wall mural to be created by Terrance Vann at Seventh & Windsor. The garden and Windsor mural are still going through a community engagement process.
Speakers at the meeting included Gov. Jack Markell,. who was not dressed as Badass Jack like he was at the Gridiron dinner Saturday night. He lauded the WRC for helping to make Wilmington attractive at a time when it’s a recognized national trend that many young people want to live in urban areas, not suburban ones, to be close to work, dining and entertainment.
One of the cornerstones of the Creative District is to attract businesses such as the Kitchen Incubator and NextFab, a makerspace that brings together people who need to manufacture something from a piece of machinery to an entire new product. Gray introduced NextFab CEO Dr. Evan Malone, saying he had just signed a lease at 807 West St. Gray quickly backpedaled on that, saying that while he had indeed signed a lease, “an amazing opportunity” had just reared its head and the company may or may not end up at 807 West.
Rounding out the speakers was Tanya Menendez, CEO and co-founder of Maker’s Row, a website that identifies and links American factories. She had been a banker who went into business with a friend producing leather goods. When they tried to find an American factory, they found it difficult. Brokers wanted to sell them lists, and they had no way to know if the factory would take them on because they wanted small batches, not large ones.
Their solution was to start the website, which is open to anyone to use. People think manufacturing is dead in America, but it’s not, Menendez said. They found that there are still 10,000 factories in the country that handle all kinds of manufacturing.
Once the website started, Maker’s Row also helped a lot of the manufacturers raise their profile through social media, learning email and creating ways for people to be able to use them. Some of the big firms had to be coached into being willing to create small batches and doing it quickly so budding entrepreneurs could handle the costs and also be able to sell things quickly.
“The biggest thing I have to leave is that the maker movement is here to stay,” Menendez said. “People are creating new products and they’re creating new businesses.”