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Creative Change: LOMA Design District Gives Wilmington Identity, Redevelopment it Longed For

Eight years ago, Lee Mikles had already started Insight Interactive Group in Wilmington, Del., moved it up I-95 to Philadelphia and sold his interest in what had become the country's ninth-largest independent interactive agency. Born in North Carolina but raised in Delaware and a proud University of Delaware alum, Mikles had a growing interest in more than "just building websites." He wanted to make something exciting happen in his adopted hometown.

So later that year, Mikles and colleague Patrick Callahan founded The Archer Group, first working in a beautiful but modest office right on the Delaware riverfront, just before a sweep of redevelopment turned the area into a multi-use attraction. It was just the two of them, and as they went about building their interactive marketing business, a bigger vision began to form.

"Philly's bigger with more people and more business opportunities, but there are definite benefits being here in Wilmington, and one of them is you can really make change," says Mikles.

It was less about swimming in a smaller pond and more about recognizing a creative undercurrent with scattered assets that were begging to be gathered, strengthened and branded. Business has boomed for Archer since moving to a larger office (some might call it a  playground with internet) just off Market Street in Wilmington in 2007. The company now employs 53 and it recently opened an office in Philly's Old City, just because it could. Mikles and Archer have also managed to help gather up those creative assets and hook up with others looking to make a change. The result is LOMA, an acronym for Wilmington's creative district on Lower Market that is very real, very active and very much a sign of growth in a town still known for bankers and big business.

"We wanted to set a brand name that would refer to the direction we were heading," says Christian Winburn, who left a dot.com career in San Francisco to join his father-in-law Don Meginley as a principal with Preservation Initiatives, an urban redevelopment group with a premium on preservation.

"Everyone here is interested in quality design, from marketing to buildings to businesses."

Feels Like Something Real
Mikles and Winburn have worked closely on creating LOMA, and the depth of their work is evident as they stroll up and down Market between Second and Sixth Streets, the heart of Wilmington's burgeoning creative district. Just about everyone waves or says hello to the pair - many are business owners, others are artists, some are longtime residents who like how their main thoroughfare has been converted from a large Main Street shopping mall (created in 1974 as part of a development effort and officially abandoned about eight years ago) to a diverse retail and arts district that maintains the area's rich architectural integrity.

Walk into the LOMA coffee shop on the corner of Market and Third and you quickly get a sense of creative place. Before you order your coffee you already have learned your barista moved here from San Diego, plays in a band and loves the vibe he found in Wilmington. Moments later, an impromptu afternoon jam session breaks out: sounds like Otis Redding with a thick-fingered bass player and mini-amplifier. Across the street, hard-hatted workers are putting the finishing touches on the old Queen Theater, which will become World Café Live at the Queen on April 1 thanks to Hal Real, originator of the WCL brand in Philly, and Buccini/Pollin Group, the hometown developer that  has its fingerprints on many of the most recent upgrades in town. Delaware College of Art and Design is just up the street, and a block off Market Street is Shipley Lofts, a 1916 collegiate style building that was put on the National Register of Historic Places, has been converted over four years into 23 artist lofts and gallery space and is almost entirely rented.

"What's happened is in the last 10 years we've been taking three steps forward, two steps back," says Rob Buccini, co-founder and co-president of Buccini/Pollin Group. "In the last two years, we started to see three steps forward and one step back.

"I think having Preservation Initiatives and the Lofts built by Ingerman, having those other developers involved is critical to success. It sounds counter my interest, but we need more people like that because there is a market for rental housing and the right type of retail here."

Homegrown Development
Buccini was born and raised here and after graduating from Cornell University in 1990, he lived and worked in New York City for 15 years. He spent a good chunk of that time working for the New York Economic Development Corporation, during a period when Manhattan's Tribeca and 42nd Street and parts of Brooklyn ushered in modern redevelopment, creating new swaths of housing and changing the faces of old, tired neighborhoods.

Buccini says things were slow-changing in Wilmington because of its conservative nature – Delaware's prudence helped keep its head above water throughout the recession, Buccini points out. His company has acquired or developed $3 billion in real estate assets, including office, retail, hotel and residential. Having already given life to the riverfront area, which now has several restaurants, apartments and abundant retail and recreation, Buccini and partners turned their attention to Market Street, renovating 233 King Street in 2007 (where Archer moved in), 214 Market Street in 2008 and the Residences at LOMA in the last year, all within a short walk of the train station, the riverfront, a variety of entertainment, and all in the heart of LOMA. Apartments are about 95 percent occupied and more restaurants are on the way, along with a 15-screen IMAX movie theater Buccini says will bring a couple hundred thousand visitors to the riverfront.

"Our hope is LOMA will connect the riverfront with the central business district," Buccini says.

LOMA Lowdown
That's music to Winburn's ears. His development firm partnered with Mike Schwartz, the "Mike" of Mike's Famous Harley Davidson fame in New Castle, and purchased 22 contiguous buildings on the 200 block of Market Street, including 86 upstairs apartments and 20 retail units at street level. Occupancy was 25 percent at the time, but a filmmaking co-op, design firm, marketing company and art studio all have since moved in. Its other Market Street efforts include mixed-use Lincoln Square (completed in 2008) at Third Street, Wilmington Dry Goods (about to break ground this spring) at Fourth, and both shopping and residential renovation projects up on Ninth Street.

"The city has been very active in encouraging and incentivizing all that's been happening," says Winburn, pointing out dynamic streetscape improvements in the last three years.

As the physical spaces changed, Winburn and Mikles were also gathering the human capital in LOMA, which was already fertile ground. The Broadway-esque Dupont Theater has long been bringing a variety of shows to Market Street. Renowned musician David Bromberg and his artist wife live above the violins shop they own at Market and Sixth, and he's scheduled to lead blues jams at the Queen on Tuesday nights. For the last couple years, Michael Kalmbach has been hosting art shows in vacant storefronts on Market Street and generally nourishing the town's artistic soul. He founded the New Wilmington Art Association and also played a role in making Shipley Lofts a reality.

Shipley Lofts was an idea "stolen," says Ingerman Group Director of Develompent David Holden, from similar projects by the Boston Development Authority, in Mount Rainier, MD and in Philadelphia's Kensington neighborhood (Coral Street Arts House). The 900-square foot studios go for $600 and Shipley maintains criteria for those who wish to live here, which include musicians, writers, jewelry makers and painters from their 20s to 60s. Each studio has high performance surfaces and ventilation, plenty of natural light and versatile layouts. The sinks even have traps in them (for paint) and the elevators are extra tall for whatever an artist might be lugging home.

Ultimately, Mikles and Winburn had a vision of connecting creativity and commerce, and that largely came together when Archer hosted the first Ignite Wilmington, a national program consisting of a night of five-minute presentations from inspiring game-changers, in June, 2009. Not knowing what to expect, 120 people crammed the space and the air conditioning faltered on a hot night, providing validation that indeed, Mikles and Winburn were not alone. The fifth Ignite is set for April 7 at the Queen, six days after it becomes World Cafe Live, because Hal Real overheard Mikles talking about needing a venue at the coffee shop and offered his new baby.

The slow burn in Wilmington is fast becoming an inferno of creativity and collaboration.

"We didn't want LOMA to just be a street sign," says Mikles. "We really wanted it to stand for something."

JOE PETRUCCI is managing editor of Flying Kite. Send feedback here.

Lower Market has whole a new vibe
Lee Mikles and Christian Winburn

A look inside the Archer Group's well-appointed office

With 53 employees, including about a third from Philly, Archer's office is always buzzing

One of the units in the Shipley Lofts building for artists

David Holden, Ingerman Group's Director of Development, inside Shipley

Shipley is home to a variety of artists ranging in age from 20s to 60-plus



The Archer Group

All photographs by MICHAEL PERSICO

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