Executive Message

Developing “Place”: A Case for Economic Development

By Brian DiSabatino • May 28, 2024 • 5-10 MINUTES

What is old is new again.  Back in 2013 I wrote on this very subject.  Since then, our firm has launched the Whitehall project and local companies like the BPG group have unleashed their talent on downtown Wilmington and suburban New Castle County.  But despite those efforts, we’ve yet to reach our full potential of placemaking and the topic has retuned as part of the Delaware Business Roundtable’s Investment Agenda.  Why do I remain so passionate about this topic?  Because place matters very much to attracting young talent and lucrative jobs, simultaneously.

Regions, towns, cities and small municipalities are looking for the “brass ring” of economic development to get them off of the merry-go-round of replacing tax burden and increased costs with an expanded tax base. Missing the ring requires leaders to raise taxes, eliminate important jobs or to throw “incentive’ money at potential employers. Maybe what we should look toward are areas that already have the brass ring because, well, they are great places. Maybe in addition to trying to find great employers, we ought to be spending our time and treasure creating economic development through envisioning great places.

What are good places and what are great places?

I won’t name names, as not to offend. But Delaware has a mixture of:

  1. Great places
  2. Good places that could be great
  3. Really weak places that could stand for revitalization
  4. New places and developments that need to be inspired to become great.

I’ll leave the definition of “great place” to the reader, but let me ask, “How many places in Delaware would someone from Nebraska come to visit because they wanted something fun to do?”, and “How many places would the next Mark Zuckerberg find cool enough to locate the next Facebook?”, and “How many great places is Delaware supposed to have? Do we have a limit?”

Great places attract intellectual capital:

Take a look at Cambridge, Massachusetts and you will understand. Billions have been spent catering to graduates of Harvard and M.I.T, who are in high demand by the world’s smartest companies and who have chosen a lifestyle that includes commuting on an elevated train, buying chai tea on the way to work, being able to stop for drinks on the walk to a ballgame and getting Wi Fi no matter where they go. Boston, New York, and San Diego are just some of the culture rich “cool” places that are attracting the best and brightest. And according to Forbes Magazine contributor Peter Cohen, “capital flows to talent.”

Great places improve the experience and reduce the burden to the average family:

Ever been on a great vacation? Why did you like the place so much? Of course the weather or a specific attraction should be on the list. But my guess is that if you were offered the ability to walk from your room to dinner, to a cultural attraction, for a run or walk, or to get the paper and a cup of coffee, your experience was memorable.

The idea of walkability has an equally dramatic effect on the family. If your family can walk or bike to school, to the ball field, to the library, to work, to the corner store, etc…. their quality of life is improved. Better yet, walkability can reduce the cost to families, according to the National Center for Housing Policy.

The impact of housing related costs are a growing burden for the family. They report that housing and transportation costs consume approximately 50% of income for those who earn a moderate income. Great places, reduce the need for large land purchases, share open space, and position employment, recreation and shopping in close proximity to households. Vibrant city neighborhoods or mixed-use villages in suburbia are key to improving the experience and reducing the burden.

Great places are attractive to employers (the other brass ring): 

When considering locations, corporations are looking at people. As stated above, capital (and jobs) will flow toward the talent. But once the talent pool is established, companies want to make sure that their workforce is fulfilled and productive. Hence, we have seen a gravitation of corporations to “complete” communities where crime rates, art, recreation, and environment are as important as education and transportation when evaluating site selection.

Cynthia Kincaid completed a report on this subject for Area Development. In her article, she interviewed Dennis Donovan, principal at Wadley, Donovan, Gutshaw Consulting:

Quality of life still matters, and you can’t take your eye off the quality piece,” says Dennis Donovan, principal at Bridgewater, New Jersey-based, Wadley, Donovan Gutshaw Consulting. “When the economy improves there will be strong competition for labor, and being in an area where a company can recruit critical talent from around the U.S. is going to be important. “You have to assume we are going to return to full labor markets,” he adds. “It may be five years from now, but when you are making a location decision, you have to look five to 10 years down the road. Quality of life still has meaning in site selection.” and attractive.

Kincaid goes on to say “Indeed, quality of life can be the deciding factor for many companies in the final – or even beginning – stages of the site selection process. Larry Gigerich, managing director for Indianapolis-based, Ginovus, LLC, emphasizes the importance that many companies are continuing to place on quality-of-life issues for their employees. And according to Emily McMackin of, University of Minnesota economist Ann Markusen calls this asset the “artistic dividend” — and there is plenty of sociological research to back it up, says Richard Florida, author of “The Rise of the Creative Class.” Florida’s research shows how artistic and creative movements that spring up from the streets make cities more energetic, divers.”

Great places are tourist attractions:

Great places bring people in from other areas to spend money without the burden or social cost to the community. Some attractive places are new, some are old and some are revitalized. Take a look around our region, from Alexandria, VA to Kentlands, MD, to Manayunk, PA to Chesapeake City, MD, people like spending time and treasure in these villages. Who said Delaware only gets to have beaches as our tourist destination? And who said we had to have an artificial place like Jersey’s “Six Flags” to attract outsiders? We should be building greatness into our new and existing communities in a way that would inspire the traveler to come, spend the night and leave part of their paycheck with us. Maybe they’ll like it so much they’ll start a business here!

Want an easy first step?

Delaware should leverage the “almost there” infrastructure already in place.  If a $100MM investment in Wilmington’s riverfront has paid multiples, why stop there?  Research by the Gibbs Planning Group shows that $22MM of retail sales in 60,000 s.f. of new development can already be supported in the Northeast of Wilmington.  This area has an incredible walk score and could easily thrive with modest retail investments with quick returns.  Downtown Wilmington benefits much in the same way.  The infrastructure already exists within our downtown, so modest placemaking elements could quickly lift the current investment.  Imagine creating an entertainment zone from 4th Street to Rodney Square on Market Street.  Provisions for safe outdoor dining, outdoor entertainment, periodic cover from the elements, parking and branding could make Wilmington rival Memphis.  Communities would beg for assets like we have in the Queen, The Grand, The Playhouse, the Wilmington Public Library, and Rodney Square.  We are hundreds of millions of dollars ahead and a concentrated investment would accelerate the sense of place.

And let’s not forget Dover. The investment in downtown should be met with additional investment tying the walkable village, with Legislative Hall.  Dover has the unique ability to suddenly transform itself to a most desirable place to live, work and play.

The Greenville Example: 

Greenville, South Carolina’s transformation is a standout example of urban revitalization and economic development. The city, once known as the “Textile Capital of the World,” has successfully diversified its economy and is now home to a mix of industries, including manufacturing and technology firms like Michelin and Scansource.

According to prominent urban planner Ennis Davis, AICP, the transformation began in earnest in the late 1970s when Greenville embarked on a plan to revitalize its downtown area. Instead of removing the street grid for pedestrian malls as many cities did at the time, Greenville adopted a “Complete Streets” approach, balancing the needs of pedestrians and automobile traffic. This led to the conversion of a four-lane arterial roadway into a landscaped, two-lane, pedestrian-friendly thoroughfare. The city also utilized creative public-private partnerships to develop anchor projects in critical locations, serving as catalysts for further development​.

Economically, this revitalization has yielded significant benefits. In 2022 alone, Greenville saw near-record investments and the strongest job growth in eight years. This was facilitated by the Greenville Area Development Corporation (GADC), which helped 22 organizations—ranging from manufacturing to office-based firms—to locate or expand in Greenville. These efforts resulted in $470MM in new capital investments and the creation of 2,326 new jobs. Over five years, these efforts have culminated in $1.8 billion in new investments and the creation of over 9,239 jobs. Such initiatives have made Greenville a vibrant community with a high quality of life, drawing businesses and residents alike, according to the GADC.​

It is time that we took the idea of “Creating Great Places” in our economic development strategies seriously. It is not mutually exclusive with other strategies but should sit right alongside them. It’s an investment that will pay dividends, create jobs, and leave our great grandchildren with a beautiful legacy.