How embracing Hispanic businesses, culture could transform Georgetown
Picture a street in Latin America with festive flags, archways, street art and fountains. Smell the authentic cuisine. People go in and out of shops and dine outdoors, families stroll the street and friends gather.
Now picture it on North Race Street in Georgetown.
A soon-to-be formed nonprofit group led by Mary Dupont, a powerhouse in community and economic development in Delaware, is asking the Georgetown Town Council to provide a letter of support for "Plaza Latina."
Plaza Latina is a multipronged initiative that organizers say will beautify the area, as well as help business owners with training, technical assistance, financial services, business coaching, marketing, networking and social services.
By taking advantage of financial incentives offered to Downtown Development Districts and federal Opportunity Zones, Dupont and others hope to help Georgetown Latinos by sparking a niche tourism site.
“A lot of people love Latino culture. We go to Mexican restaurants. We take vacations to Mexico,” Dupont said. “A lot of people who come to southern Delaware as tourists, as well as many of the retirees moving here from other states, would welcome a new opportunity to go for lunch and shopping at Plaza Latina and also see the rest of Georgetown. It’s an opportunity for the whole downtown area to receive a new influx of visitors.”
It seems like a no-brainer for some, including Mayor Bill West.
“It’s free money,” he said.
Others, like Councilwoman Angela Townsend, are wary of making changes.
“I just think it’s really going to change dynamics of the town and how people look at the town,” she said. “To me, we’re going to lose some of our historic appeal.”
At a March 24 Town Council meeting, council members voted 3-2 to table the Plaza Latina issue in favor of learning more.
Georgetown's strong Hispanic population
Georgetown was founded in 1791 out of the need for a more centrally located Sussex County seat.
Its biggest claim to fame is likely Return Day, the 200-year-old parade and celebration that happens the Thursday after Election Day every other year.
In the middle of town is The Circle, home to courthouses, municipal and county offices and other brick, Greek revival-style buildings. Over the past two centuries, offices, shops, restaurants and homes have spread out on the surrounding blocks.
As time marched on, housing developments sprung up on the outskirts of town and Route 113’s farmland became the favored site of many new businesses.
The U.S. Census Bureau estimates Georgetown's population at about 7,500.
In 1990, the Census Bureau noted 54 people of Hispanic origin living in Georgetown, accounting for 1.4% of the town’s population.
By 2000, that number increased to 32%. By 2010, Hispanics were about 2 percentage points away from comprising half of Georgetown’s population.
Since then, the number has declined slightly, at least according to Census data, which depends on the participation of its subjects. Georgetown was an estimated 39% Hispanic in 2019.
North Race Street
Race Street lies one block east of The Circle. North Race Street has been home to many notable Georgetown businesses over the last 100 years, and today, it’s a center of commerce for the Latino population.
Restaurants like Little Mexico, Mi Laurita and La Mexicana, numerous mini-markets, barbers, a laundromat and other businesses bustle with activity, even during the COVID-19 pandemic.
North Race Street is also home to Festival Hispano, which drew about 40,000 people annually in the years before the pandemic restrictions, according to its website
Members of the Town Council and Plaza Latina organizers seem to agree that some of the business fronts could use improvement.
“The first thing Plaza Latina will do is remove blight, and nobody wants blight right in their downtown,” Dupont said. “If you go to Race Street now, it looks kind of run down, and it’s not good for the town.”
"Now is the right time"
Dupont lives in Lewes and she served as the state director of financial empowerment for about eight years. Under Gov. Jack Markell, she created “Stand By Me,” an initiative that provides low- to moderate-income Delawareans with financial services.
She has a long history of working with and for nonprofits and providing financial services to communities in need.
Years ago, she had a meeting with Charlie Burton, owner of the Delaware and Maryland i.g. Burton car dealerships and, at the time, president of La Esperanza.
La Esperanza is a nonprofit that provides services for Hispanic families in Sussex County and is located on North Race Street, where Dupont and Burton found themselves having lunch.
They marveled at how good the food was and took note of all the small businesses surrounding them. They chatted about helping the business owners, sprucing up the streetscape, making the area more attractive to diners and shoppers and what it would take to make that happen.
Dupont is retired now but had kept that idea in the back of her mind.
“What I’ve learned in life is a lot of good ideas come down the path. You think about them, you talk about them, you put them in an incubator in your mind. When the time is right, they come out again,” she said. “Now, the time is right.”
Dupont and Burton have pulled together a 13-person advisory board, to include Georgetown town manager Gene Dvornick, Delaware Community Foundation's Mike DiPaolo, M&T Bank’s Randy Kunkle, marketing specialists, financial consultants and multiple members of the Delaware Hispanic Commission.
They’re in the process of forming a 501(c)3, Dupont said. At the moment, any funds raised are being kept by the Greater Lewes Foundation.
Cautious optimism by Latino business owners
Dupont said a survey was of all 67 Latino-owned businesses in Georgetown was conducted, by phone and in Spanish, to gauge their interest in Plaza Latina.
“One thing’s for sure, we didn’t want do this unless the businesses want to be involved, and they do,” Dupont said. “They were all very excited about it.”
Tania Roblero is the sole member of the Latino business community on North Race Street who is also on Plaza Latina’s advisory board.
She manages Georgetown Mini Market, which is owned by her mother, at the corner of North Race and Depot streets. They’ve been in business for about 15 years.
“I think we all look for food, that will be the No. 1 attraction. We need a space for them, for people using Route 9 to stop for food, to get a drink, walk around,” she said.
Few North Race Street business customers and employees were aware of the Plaza Latina initiative when asked about it by Delmarva Now.
Luis Rodriguez owns El Mercado grocery store, a block away from North Race Street, and owns several properties on North Race Street that he leases out. He’s been too busy to consider Plaza Latina, though he said he’d been contacted about it. Like the Town Council, he wants to learn more.
“A lot of people come in with good intentions, start something and then they bail out,” he said.
His son, Jonathan Rodriguez, runs La Mexicana taqueria on North Race Street.
“It sounds good,” he said. “As long as the town’s on board.”
Dupont presented the Plaza Latina plan to the Georgetown Town Council, hoping they would vote to grant her a letter of support.
“We’re not asking for money, just support,” Dupont said. “Without it this would not be feasible.”
Mayor Bill West and Councilman Stephen Hartstein voted in favor of the project.
“They’re offering us a lot of money to fix up Race Street,” Hartstein said. “To me it just makes sense.”
West said 71 people, far more than usual, attended the online meeting, and many of them were investors.
“I saw that this is going to be done right,” he said. “Not only will it clean up the area and make it more productive, it will bleed over to the living areas and get them cleaned up, too.”
Council members Rebecca Johnson-Dennis, Penuel Barrett and Angela Townsend voted to table the discussion.
“We didn’t have enough info to vote for it or against it,” Barrett said.
“The council hasn’t discussed it as a whole and not a lot of residents are aware of it,” Townsend said. “I just wasn’t comfortable making a decision on the spot.”
Council members now plan to have a workshop in which they, Dupont and possibly others can further discuss the proposal. It will likely happen later this month, followed by another vote on Plaza Latina at a future Town Council meeting.
Should the town vote to offer its support, Dupont said the next steps would be putting together a detailed plan, obtaining architectural renderings, holding workshops for residents and raising money.