A look at Georgetown's history, present and possible future
Georgetown, in ways unlike almost all other Delaware municipalities, owes its existence entirely to location.
In response to Sussex County residents tired of making the expensive journey to the original county seat in Lewes, the Delaware General Assembly on Jan. 29, 1791 ordered the creation of new courthouse and jail on a low, swampy, but centrally-located, piece of ground then known only as James Pettijohn's Old Field.
Later renamed in recognition of either King George, George Washington or George Mitchell, a strong advocate for the relocation of the county seat, the new hub of law and government in Sussex County soon added the churches, schools and sense of community that today remain the central pillars of life in Georgetown.
"Whether you live here, work here, play here or are just travelling through, the number one things people put their finger on as Georgetown's greatest strengths are its small town charm and strong sense of community," said Karen Duffield, executive director of the Greater Georgetown Chamber of Commerce. "What also makes us unique is our rich history, strong rural character and the fact that we're not just a municipality or the county seat, but also a vital thoroughfare to one of the most popular resort areas in the Mid-Atlantic."
While the presence of county government, multiple courthouses and various state agencies continue to be the foundation of life and commerce in Georgetown, the draw of economic opportunities in those nearby beach towns, combined with the steady business migration to local highways, have posed growing challenges to the county seat's once thriving downtown.
"It used to be that you could get dinner, buy a suit or a dress and then go to the movies, all in the same block," chamber president and Sussex County GOP chairman John Rieley said. "The outlets and mega-theater in Rehoboth and greater economic opportunities on the outskirts of town have changed that and the economic realities of those changes have eclipsed what was once here in downtown."
In recent years, however, multiple efforts have been launched to restore the appeal of downtown Georgetown, as well as its ability to sustain a vibrant retail presence.
In 2011, Georgetown joined the Blueprint Communities initiative, a wide-ranging partnership between member communities, FHLBank Pittsburgh and the University of Delaware's Center for Community Research and Service.
The project has provided training to community leaders, as well as access to public and private resources, including loans and grants for businesses and affordable housing projects.
"The Blueprint Communities team is working with the town to develop a program of actionable steps to improve our downtown," Duffield said. "We're now in the process of designing what the downtown might look like with the addition of new planters, trash cans and light posts."
Georgetown Arts & Flowers, a new civic group that sprang out of the Blueprint Communities initiative, is planning to add new planters along East Market Street this spring, while Georgetown Town Council recently approved a community-developed proposal regarding new municipal trash cans along the same blocks.
In the meantime, a town-backed committee is in the process of raising funds to develop a $147,000 municipal playground on North King Street.
This month, town council also began the process of applying to join the state economic development office's Downtown Delaware Commercial District Affiliate program as a part of its ongoing effort to fill vacant downtown shops with a mix of sustainable businesses.
"Rebuilding a downtown is hard work and it will take time," Mayor Mike Wyatt said. "It's not easy to convince people to invest in a downtown business when they see the challenges we have with parking or the demographics they're looking at might not support it."
Wyatt said he believes the town needs to do a better job of convincing prospective businesses that Georgetown is more than it appears.
"We're like a resort community year round, in that our population almost doubles during business hours when state, county and court workers come to work," he said. "Those people want a place to eat, they need a place to get their vehicles worked on, and they will do their shopping here."
THE CHANGING FACE OF GEORGETOWN
In his 1975 book "16 Miles From Anywhere," which chronicles the history of Georgetown, William Wade says much of the town's early existence was marked by factionalism, first between social classes and religion, then over private versus public education and and later over attitudes regarding secession and the Civil War.
Today, many see a similar division along racial and cultural lines sparked by a steady growth among the town's Hispanic population over recent decades.
Attracted largely by the availability of agricultural jobs – particularly in the nearby poultry processing plants – Hispanics now make up nearly half of Georgetown's 6,500 residents, according to the latest U.S. Census figures.
"The difference is not always perceived as a good thing," Rieley said. "But what people have to realize is that these families are here to stay, and our focus needs to be on knitting the Hispanic community into the fabric of our town, because regardless of where they come from, their children are going to grow up identifying themselves as Sussex Countians."
That type of welcoming attitude is vital for helping to integrate the Hispanic migrant community, said Claudia Pena Porretti, executive director of La Esperanza, a 17-year-old Georgetown-based nonprofit dedicated to serving Sussex County's Spanish-speaking residents through free immigration assistance, victims' rights services, as well as education and family development programs.
"I realize things are different in Georgetown from what they were before," she said. "But it's important to remember that this nation prides itself on being a melting pot and a nation of immigrants. These people have come here because they want what we all want, which is better paying jobs, affordable housing and healthcare and the opportunity to raise their children in a better way of life."
Duffield said she believes the town's respective cultures are not as far apart as some might believe.
"The town's Hispanic population is by and large very faith and family oriented," she said. "To me it makes sense for the new culture to be embraced by the old culture, because when you look at it in that sense, they fit together perfectly."
Wyatt said he believes concerns among some of the town's older residents about the immigration status of its Hispanic residents are moot.
"Immigration is a federal government issue and unless the federal government steps in, it's our responsibility to work together as a united community," he said, adding that includes ensuring the town's Hispanic population feels comfortable reporting crime. "The way I see it, whether illegal or not, these people have come to Georgetown to make a better life for themselves and their families, and I don't know how you can hold that against anyone."
Despite the challenges, many in Georgetown say they see a bright future ahead.
"People often look at the town and see what is not happening," Rieley said. "What we want to do, instead, is look at the opportunities we have and focus on what we can do. It has to be a process."
He pointed to the recent growth of medical facilities in the Georgetown area as a positive economic indicator that receives little attention.
"La Red just opened their brand new facility here in town, while Beebe (Medical Center) and Nanticoke (Memorial Hospital) will soon be opening new medical centers here, as well," he said. "We're quickly becoming a destination for health care operations."
He also noted the presence of numerous nonprofit organizations working to improve the lives of residents in the Georgetown area, such as La Esperanza, Easter Seals, Sussex County Habitat for Humanity and First State Community Action Agency.
Duffield said she also sees opportunity for Georgetown as a destination for tourism, thanks in large part to the town's museums and historic attractions, such as the Old County Courthouse, the Nutter D. Marvel Museum, the Brick Hotel, The Circle, the 135-year-old Georgetown Train Station, and the nationally-recognized 200-year-old tradition of Return Day.
"We can't compete with the beaches, but our central location and history provides their own advantages," she said. "Our geographic location makes Georgetown an ideal place for people to stop and visit, even as they head to other parts of the county."
Or, as Wade wrote in concluding his history of the town, "It seems probable that Georgetown will continue in the future to exhibit the same characteristics it has in the past. Time may work some change … but it is unlikely that the character of the town will change."