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Milford poised to become Delaware’s next boom town
Delaware News Journal
Feb. 8, 2019
by Scott Goss

Already one of Delaware’s fastest growing towns, Milford is now on the cusp of a development boom that could transform the city into one of state’s largest population centers over the coming decade.

Milford has long been known as the gateway to southern Delaware because it both straddles the Kent-Sussex County line and marks the split between the two highways that run the length of eastern and western Sussex.

But with the recent opening of a massive new hospital complex and the future redevelopment of a 90-year-old medical center that newer facility is replacing, this town of 11,000 also is about to become ground zero for a major health care industry expansion designed to serve the retirees who have been moving into the area for decades.

Hundreds of new homes are slated to be built here in the coming years, many of which will target the doctors, nurses and other medical professionals employed by those facilities, as well as a new wave of aging transplants who want to live near those services.

City officials believe those residents — along with the visitors who will travel to those medical centers — also will drive a wave of commercial development, including ancillary health care businesses, hotels, chain restaurants and other amenities.

“I see a lot of growth for Milford,” said Mayor Archie Campbell, who was first elected last year. “Milford is going to be known as a medical center. Then all the rest will come after that because businesses will see the potential we have here.”

Some of that development is already underway.

The construction of the town’s second new hotel in a decade and a long-awaited brewpub are both slated to begin soon off Del. 1 — not far from the newest overpass that will connect Milford to the unincorporated and largely undeveloped farmland to the east.

Milford’s first Starbucks opened late last year, followed by the town’s second Dunkin’ Donuts.

Movie lovers who now have to drive to the closest theaters in Rehoboth Beach and Dover are eagerly awaiting the opening of the city’s first multiplex in an existing storefront that once housed the town’s first Walmart.

“You’re going to see some major changes coming to the city pretty quickly,” said former mayor and current state Rep. Bryan Shupe, R-Milford. “I’m excited because not only is that growth going to bring new construction but it’s also going to rehabilitate and reuse some of our existing commercial infrastructure.”

Milford is not the first Delaware town to undergo a transformation as the state’s population inches closer to one million residents.

Middletown, the southernmost town in New Castle County, has exploded over the last 20 years as suburban sprawl has crept south of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.

Smyrna, the northernmost town in Kent County, has seen its population double during that same stretch — growth fueled largely by the extension of Del. 1 about 15 years ago.

Milford has kept pace with those communities, with its population jumping by more than 60 percent since 2000. That boom has largely been thanks to a wave of retirees from outside Delaware who sought out Sussex County’s low tax rate but perhaps opted against pushing too deep into its rural countryside.

The coming boom promises to speed up that growth and push the jewel of the Mispillion River well past its Kent County rival. Some projections even show Milford challenging Middletown for the title of the state’s fourth largest municipality, behind only Wilmington, Newark and Dover.

“I definitely think you will see a difference between the Milford of today and the Milford of the future,” said state planning director Constance Holland. “But I don’t think that change is going to obliterate the character of the town. Milford has been planning for a long time to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Health care boom

The focal point of Milford’s growth is a gleaming, six-story monument of glass and concrete on the city’s southeastern border — a cornerstone of the coming boom that today looks out of place against a backdrop of open fields.

Possibly the most modern looking structure in a 30-mile radius, the new Bayhealth Hospital, Sussex Campus also marks the single largest private investment in Sussex County history at a cost of $314 million.

The new hospital, which officially opened Tuesday after nearly three years of construction, replaces Bayhealth’s former Milford Memorial Hospital — a 265,000-square-foot facility about 3 miles away in the heart of the city’s downtown corridor.

Milford has long hoped to push future growth into the now largely vacant, southeast section of town, having worked with the University of Delaware and the state planning office to develop a 2011 master plan for that nearly 1,000-acre area.

Bayhealth CEO Terry Murphy said the health care system — which also owns the Dover hospital once known as Kent General — saw an opportunity to anchor and mold that growth in a way that would meet the area’s health care needs for a half century or more.

“Initially, our plan was to redevelop our existing 22-acre site in downtown Milford,” he said. “But we knew that if we were going to make that kind of investment, it had to be for the long term. So we re-evaluated and settled on a 169-acre property that’s both closer to Route 1 and also gives us the room we need to serve this community for a long time going forward.”

Milford later annexed the property in a deal that allowed the hospital to tap into municipal water and sewer, while permitting the city to collect taxes and fees from the new development.

The new 440,000-square-foot hospital features an outpatient center for expanded diagnostic testing, a 30-room emergency department and 128 single-patient rooms upstairs.

The need to staff that new facility prompted Bayhealth — already the town’s second largest employer behind Perdue Farms — to add 115 jobs, bringing its total workforce in Milford to about 800.

The next phase of construction could add 100 more jobs.

Bayhealth plans to begin work on a second building slated to open in mid-2020 that will house Nemours/A.I. duPont Hospital for Children, along with office space for dozens of specialists and primary care physicians — a class of medical professionals currently in short supply in southern Delaware.

But Murphy said he is most proud of what will happen to Bayhealth’s old hospital in downtown Milford.

Rather than level the former Milford Memorial Hospital or leave the property vacant, Bayhealth vowed to find a buyer who would convert the facility for a new use that could provide additional services and jobs for Milford’s residents.

That search led to Nationwide Health Services, a Wilmington-based health care management company that operates two skilled nursing facilities for seniors in New Castle County.

The company agreed in early 2017 to purchase the property and invest $20 million to convert it into a mixed-use facility that eventually will be known as the Milford Wellness Village.

Nationwide Health Services will operate a 150-bed senior nursing center there, while Kidz, Ink Academy — a Delaware-based child care provider with five locations in the state — has signed a lease to open an 11,000-square-foot center in the building.

Bayhealth also is expected to operate a pharmacy on site while future tenants are slated to include more primary care doctors and others.

That facility is expected to create another 300 jobs over the next five years.

“The whole makeup of Milford is now focused around Bayhealth and Nationwide,” Campbell said. “We still have a lot of manufacturing here but a good portion of our future will be wrapped up in those good-paying health care jobs.”

Milford’s tipping point

Developers also are banking on those health care jobs driving demand for housing.

More than 4,000 single-family homes, apartments and townhouses are approved for construction in Milford and waiting to be built — a number roughly equal to the entire existing housing stock in the 10-square-mile city.

“A lot of these subdivisions were approved before 2008 during the housing boom,” said city planning director Rob Pierce. “Several of those developers are now looking to modify their existing plans because the economy is strong and they see this development from the hospitals get underway. It hasn’t been too crazy so far but we’re definitely starting to see an uptick in our building permits.”

The town had been averaging 30 new single-family homes per year since 2010 but saw those numbers spike to more than 100 in each of the last two years. After seeing no growth in other forms of housing stock for years, Milford recently has recorded a jump in the number of townhomes, villas and multi-family units.

“That’s what we need are apartments,” Campbell said. “A lot of the technical people coming to work at the hospitals might be young couples who can’t afford a house or there might be some nurses who want to split the cost of rent. Young people want apartments.”

Several large-scale projects could provide that housing stock in a relatively short time.

Town officials are currently weighing final plans for a community of more than 100 apartments called Mispillion Landing near the city’s downtown.

Another project called Windward on the River off Beaver Dam Road would add a mix of roughly 265 apartments, 30,000 square feet of retail space, 4,000-square feet of office space and a pair of restaurants.

Simpson’s Crossing, a long-approved yet still unbuilt project off the east side of U.S. 113, is authorized for 450 single homes, 340 townhouses and 230 apartments. Cypress Hall on the other side of the highway is approved for nearly 290 apartments and close to 100 townhouses.

And that’s just what’s already in the works, Pierce said.

He estimates another 6,000 homes could be built if all the vacant and agricultural property that now makes up 40 percent of the land area in town limits were converted to housing.

“There’s a potential for 10,000 new homes in Milford without us annexing a single piece of property,” he said. “If all that were to get built, we’re talking about 25,000 new residents.”

That’s an extreme scenario, of course.

Some new businesses are already moving into town in anticipation of at least some of that growth.

Greenhill Pharmacy, a Delaware-based company with a pair of stores in Wilmington, recently skipped over New Castle County and most of Kent County to open its newest location in the Plaza at Milford shopping center off U.S. 113 — one of seven pharmacy chains now located in the town.

“Milford is the new hot spot, for sure,” said pharmacy co-owner Jay C. Patel. “Our market research told us Milford has a lot of physicians, a lot of geriatric patients and a lot of potential for growth because of these new medical services. We wanted to be ahead of that curve.”

Murrie Zlotziver is hoping that growth also proves to be a boon for Milford’s downtown.

A year ago, he become the executive director of Downtown Milford Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to the city’s main shopping corridor, including the Riverwalk that borders the Mispillion River that runs through town.

Like most downtowns, Milford has struggled to maintain its core shopping district of small, local businesses given the strong pull of national chains, which tend to locate in strip malls along major highways.

In just the last year, the city has lost its only fine dining restaurant, a candy shop and bakery that were core to its Walnut Street shopping district. A long awaited Italian restaurant might not ever open. A nearby middle school and a former state building also have been shuttered for years.

A turnaround is just around the corner, according to Zlotziver and other town officials. They point to the more than $9.4 million in private investment made in the downtown district since mid-2016.

“What we need now is a critical mass of people who are willing to shop local and support our community,” Zlotziver said. “So the fact that these hospitals are coming and bringing plenty of good jobs, we see that as nothing but positive.”

Contact reporter Scott Goss at (302) 324-2281, sgoss@delawareonline.com or on Twitter @ScottGossDel.