Rehoboth Beach, Delaware: The Year 'Round Beach Town

2009 Great American Main Street Award Winner

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Rehoboth
Downtown businesses and other community members fund the beach town's annual July 4th fireworks display.

Credit: Fay Jacobs

Rehoboth Beach used to be a typical seaside resort, opening for business on Memorial Day and closing up shop at the end of the summer. Now, thanks in large part to Rehoboth Beach Main Street, it's a year 'round beach town, with events and businesses that attract residents and visitors all year long.

Rehoboth Beach began life in the 1870s as a Methodist Meeting Camp, with one-room "tent houses" laid out in a fan shape and bordered by wide streets and parks. By the early 1900s, the town had become a popular resort attracting visitors from surrounding towns. Through the roaring twenties and the less-roaring thirties, the resort grew, with tourists arriving by train on Main Street and Hollywood celebrities like Tallula Bankhead partying at the Dupont Estate at the end of the boardwalk.

In 1952, the Chesapeake Bay Bridge opened and visitors from Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., flocked to the seaside town. A popular destination for Washington politicians and their staff, the town became known as "the Nation's Summer Capital."

As the 20th century drew to a close, however, Rehoboth Beach faced numerous challenges. An economic downturn and growing competition from big-box stores, outlet malls, and other area retail led the community to found Rehoboth Beach Main Street (RBMS) in 1996. While the fledgling group reached out to downtown businesses and began developing a concept for a streetscape improvement plan, its first major success, thanks to founding President Kathy McGuiness and hundreds of volunteers and donors, was to bring July 4th fireworks back downtown after a 15-year absence.

But that was just the beginning. Rehoboth Beach Main Street has been instrumental in promoting the community as an exciting destination all year round. Business during the "shoulder seasons" (spring and fall) is growing rapidly due to extensive regional advertising and co-op ads with the state. Even more rewarding has been the huge increase in winter tourism.

"Main Street's Mardi Gras Weekend and Gumbo Cook-off combine with the lure of Presidents' Day and Valentines Day to bring merchants February numbers that look like August," relates RBMS Director Fay Jacob with great pride. "Our slogan 'Year 'Round Beach Town' has stuck, and we are now known as a 12-month resort community."

Rehoboth Beach Main Street's programs have been a catalyst for attracting more than 3.5 million tourist trips that generate a $630 million annual economic impact on Sussex County's coastal region, says Scott Thomas, executive director of Southern Delaware Tourism. "The Rehoboth Beach Mardi Gras Weekend in February and the Chocolate Festival in March are two wonderful examples of these programs," says Thomas, adding that "it's great to see many Rehoboth Beach accommodations design vacation packages for these activities, giving their guests added incentives to visit."

These events do more than attract tourists, however. They give year-round residents compelling reasons to visit downtown Rehoboth Beach. Lynne Maloy, who lives in nearby Milton, is an ardent supporter of the beach community and its Main Street program.

"There is no place closer for me to take my daughter and her friends that is more friendly, safe, and culturally enriching," says Maloy. "Without Rehoboth Beach Main Street, there would be no fireworks, and my family would celebrate the Fourth of July with sparklers instead of the glorious fireworks display.  Mardi Gras would be out of reach to us without the Rehoboth Beach celebration. AND, we would be stuck with drugstore candies if not for the glorious Chocolate Festival."

Rehoboth Beach Main Street aggressively promotes its slate of year-round activities through regional television ads, initially supported by a state grant. Since the ads began in 2003, "we've seen increased hotel, restaurant, and retail business throughout the fall and winter seasons," says Jacobs.

Rehoboth Beach is also promoting itself as the "Restaurant Capital of Delaware," using its reputation for gourmet contemporary food and its Restaurant Week menus to attract visitors. "We are now looking toward making our mark as an emerging arts center as well," says Jacobs.

Saving Its Seaside Past

In 2000, Rehoboth Beach Main Street launched a matching sign and façade grant program to encourage preservation of the town's historic cottages and replacement of back-lit "box" signs. The program provides a matching $500 grant for signs and a $1,000 match for façade renovations. Since the incentive program was launched, more than $60,000 in grants has been awarded to replace 70 signs and renovate 22 façades.

Former Rehoboth Beach City Commissioner Patrick Gossett credits the grant program with bringing small-city charm back to the downtown. "We have few unsightly back-lit box signs now," says Gossett. "In their place are new custom-made signs with softer more attractive lighting that fits the small-town charm of Rehoboth Beach. These signs enhance, rather than detract from, the architectural features of our businesses and add to the special sense of place we cherish here."

Main Street's sign grants have been so successful that they led to the rewriting of the town's sign ordinance, which now bans all future back-lit signs while still giving merchants the flexibility to choose a design that complements their business.

The Rehoboth Beach Cottage and Town awards offer an added incentive to preserve the town's seaside past, embodied in its pedestrian-scaled historic cottage architecture. Uniting the residential and commercial communities, these awards have helped encourage a preservation ethic in downtown Rehoboth and are highly sought by building owners. The program, run by RBMS, hands out awards for Preservation, Renovation, and New Construction.

Rehoboth
New housing designs complement the town's architectural heritage.

Credit: Fay Jacobs

"The winners of these awards not only create their own beautiful places, but inspire others to follow their example," says Gossett. "Over the years, dozens of conscientious commercial and residential property owners have worked hard to improve the 'curb appeal' of their businesses and homes and have been recognized by Main Street for their accomplishments."

New construction has benefited from Rehoboth Beach Main Street's strong preservation ethic as well. In recent years, developers have constructed infill buildings, including a bank, a hotel, and new city offices that blend seamlessly with the downtown's historic architecture. Main Street worked with the city to strike a balance with a new "floor area ratio" that preserves a reasonably sized building footprint while making sure that businesses are not penalized for storage and kitchen space.

"We are currently suggesting changes to older zoning rules to make them compatible with good design and land use as well as beneficial for merchants," says Jacobs.

In 2002, the city, in conjunction with the state department of transportation, finally launched its streetscape project, using Main Street's initial concept. RBMS advised on the design and served as communications liaison among the merchants, the city, and the contractor. During this inconvenient and disruptive four-year project, the city funded Main Street's print and radio campaign to bring people downtown despite mud and parking woes. One local newspaper donated space and a nationally known photographer collaborated with Main Street staff to create lighthearted weekly ads to attract shoppers.

"We spoofed Survivor, Ghostbusters, The Village People, and other pop culture icons in the ads, which won state and national recognition," recalls Jacobs.

By 2006, the $33 million streetscape was complete, with almost all merchants surviving the massive disruption. Main Street then added lamppost banners and raised $50,000 for Rehoboth's first outside sculpture, a 12-foot bronze dolphin. The city is now rebuilding the boardwalk and Main Street has developed a wayfinding sign plan that awaits city funding.

A Beacon for Business Success

Revitalization Statistics – 1996-2008

  • Population: 1,200
  • District Size: 7 blocks
  • Year of Incorporation: 1996
  • Net jobs gained: 95
  • Net new businesses:16
  • Number of rehabilitation projects: 56
  • Number of new buildings: 8
  • Vacancy rate when program began: 10%
  • Vacancy rate today: 3%
  • Public investment: $38,000,000
  • Private investment: $41,000,000

Rehoboth Beach Main Street has not only been a lifeline for preservation of the downtown's unique character; it is also a beacon for local business success. From its inception, RBMS reached out to educate all merchants, property owners, and residents about the Main Street concept. Over the years membership in Rehoboth Beach Main Street has grown from 60 to 300 members, with local businesses embracing the Main Street approach both philosophically and financially.

To maintain operating revenue, RBMS developed its Hometown Partner program, which has five local businesses, from five separate business sectors, pledging to donate $5,000 a year for five years. In exchange, says Jacobs, "their logos are all over our website, in every ad, on brochures, and more. They get well over $5,000 in actual value and visibility."

Along with the chamber of commerce, the homeowners association, and the preservation group Save Our City, Rehoboth Beach Main Street has worked diligently to educate the public about the importance of a thriving downtown business community.

"We have stressed the importance of keeping our post office, bank, and convention center in town," says Jacobs. "We want to make this a 'real' hometown."

To assist the business community, Main Street works closely with commercial realtors, the city's Building and Licensing department, sign companies, and others to streamline the start-up process and provide counseling to new business owners on selecting a location, merchandising, signs, and other business enhancement issues. The program also hosts Small Business Administration (SBA) workshops, retail seminars, and individual meetings between merchants and retail consultants.

"Rehoboth Beach Main Street works tirelessly as a liaison for the downtown business community," note John and Keith Riley-Spillane, owners of a local carry-out. "They seek input from local business owners on legislative and government issues … and have helped us navigate government channels as we explore the expansion of our business."

One of Rehoboth Beach Main Street's most successful and important business ventures is its Buy Local campaign, through which it has sold more than $25,000 worth of gift certificates to drive business downtown. The program doesn't cost retailers or restaurants anything, says Jacobs. "We reimburse 100 percent of the cost and have convinced people that the best gift is a Downtown Gift Certificate."

"The Downtown Gift Certificates are a perfect way to keep dollars in the city and increase our business," says Pam Cozey, owner of The Coffee Mill. "Many people come to our shop with the coupon and then return for the independent coffee shop atmosphere."

 Its business development goals have earned RBMS not only local support but outside recognition as well. Last May, SBA honored Rehoboth Beach Main Street as its Delaware Small Business Community of 2008. RBMS was chosen because of the programs and incentives it has created to attract and retain small businesses; its contributions to local small business success; and its ability to leverage its economic development resources with other local, county, state, and federal programs to benefit the town's small business community.

"The days of Rehoboth Beach being a seasonal beach town are long gone," said Jayne Armstrong, district director of SBA's Delaware District Office. "Today, it is a year-round destination for small business success."

Room for All

Rehoboth Beach Main Street has worked tirelessly with other downtown organizations and business leaders to create a cohesive brand and message about what Rehoboth Beach has to offer—both as a resort and as a real hometown.

Part of that message, says Jacob, "has been celebrating the diversity of our community, which has a large number of gay and lesbian (GLBT) residents and merchants."

CAMP Rehoboth, the GLBT center in Rehoboth Beach, has worked with the city, Main Street, and many other organizations to promote the town as a place with "Room for All," which is the literal meaning of "Rehoboth."

Main Street's leadership in bringing key groups and people together has been central to this process. "RBMS provides the coordination that allows very busy individuals, businesses, and nonprofits to come together, discuss ideas, and decide how to best serve the community," says CAMP Rehoboth Executive Director Stephen Elkins. "Their leadership in this area serves all of the community."

Rehoboth Beach Main Street "connects people of like-minded vision with a 'can-do' attitude and a 'will-do' follow up," add local innkeepers Sharon Janis and Lois Pelligrino. "They help folks keep perspective by lending a strong shoulder and an attentive ear when needed."

Weathering the Economy

That attentive ear ensures that RBMS focuses on its constituents' needs. "We had plans to expand staff and programs," says Jacobs. "But we have changed direction to concentrate instead on aggressive marketing and providing sector-wide assistance to our small business members."

To bring even more people to the community, RBMS is working with Mosaic, a collective of 12 fine arts galleries, to brand Rehoboth Beach as an arts community. Main Street has collaborated with Mosaic on monthly art walks, highlighted the galleries on its website, and launched an extensive PR blitz.

"Main Street's support and collaboration has been essential in getting us established and known—not just in Rehoboth but throughout the area," says Lee Wayne Mills, owner of the Coastal Frameshop and Gallery and a member of Mosaic. Main Street has been integral to the success not just of our community, adds Mills, "but to the entire county as well!"

Rehoboth Beach Main Street's future plans also include an expansion of the Buy Local initiative to encourage residents to shop and dine locally. "Our 'Use It or Lose It' campaign will continue to expand and be critical to the economic health of our downtown for the future," says Jacobs.

Whatever the future holds for Rehoboth Beach, Main Street and its supporters and members will face it together. "Rehoboth Beach is why we settled in this area," says Lynne Maloy, "and Rehoboth Beach Main Street is why we continue to live here."