Delaware in 2021: City sets sights on diversity, planning and infrastructure improvements

Paul Comstock
ThisWeek
During a meeting before the pandemic, members of Delaware city's new comprehensive plan steering committee – Harry Hart, from left, Katherine Gharrity, Jacqueline Luzar and Stefanie Hauck – identify areas of focus for the plan that will be unveiled in 2021.

What's Delaware City Manager Tom Homan's outlook on the New Year?

"I'm more optimistic now than I have been in the last several months," Homan said as he looked forward to 2021.

He based that assessment in part on economic assistance the city has provided to local businesses, particularly small businesses, to help soothe the economic ravages of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

"Early on, we recognized our small businesses are more vulnerable than larger businesses, and we needed to direct as much effort to helping them as possible," Homan said.

That assistance has taken the form of a city loan program and small-business grants totaling about $480,000, he said. The city also distributed nearly $2.8 million in federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds.

The CARES money is used to help the city meet internal costs associated with the pandemic. It also is providing grant money to local service agencies, the Delaware General Health District, local courts and small businesses, Homan said.

The pandemic's financial impact on local businesses "is personal for us," said city community-affairs coordinator Lee Yoakum.

"These are our friends and our neighbors that are business owners. We know these people. ... We kind of take it personal. When they struggle, we struggle. If there's a way to facilitate this city government to assist them, that's what we try to do," he said.

As small businesses struggle to stay open amid declining income, "their efforts are as heroic as the efforts of public-service people out doing their work," Homan said.

Another cause of optimism is the development of COVID-19 vaccines, he said.

"I think that helps psychologically. It's going to help us medically, as well, to get to the point where we can someday all gather again and not have to worry about getting out a tape measure and putting on a mask," Homan said.

2021 will bring with it plenty of work for the city, Homan said.

The city expects to complete a new comprehensive plan. It will be the first revision of the plan since 2004 and has been in the works since 2018, Yoakum said.

The new year also will see the continued work on inclusion, diversity and equity, Homan said, and continue planning for a major traffic project at "The Point" intersection of William Street and Central Avenue, as well as a development plan on Spring Street.

A call for diversity

In July, groups including the Delaware African American Heritage Council, Second Ward Community Initiative, the Ujima Consortium and Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church called for increased diversity, inclusiveness and equality in city government.

Homan lauded the groups for that effort and said city leaders hope to maintain a community conversation on diversity in 2021.

Another goal for the first quarter of the year is to hire a consultant specializing in areas of improvement, including hiring and purchasing practices.

"It helps to have a third party with an eye on those kinds of things," Homan said.

In 2020, Homan gave City Council a report that lists those steps and that examined diversity initiatives in other cities. Delaware also held several meetings of city employees who recommended training on implicit bias for all city workers, among other steps for 2021.

The Delaware Police Department, Homan said, will continue its community efforts enacted earlier by Chief Bruce Pijanowski.

A long look at planning

A steering committee of 31 citizen volunteers began work in 2018 to revise the city's comprehensive plan. It was predicted the plan would be finished in mid-2020, but the pandemic slowed progress, and completion is expected in 2021, Homan said.

Yoakum has said the plan is "an ambitious long-range ... effort to establish a vision and policies for how and where the city will grow and change over the next decades."

The purpose of the comprehensive plan, he said, is not to itemize a number of objectives to be achieved and scratched off a list.

Instead, he said, the plan's goals are used to frame and influence decisions on recurring issues the city will face many times over a period of years.

Homan said it's hoped the plan could be completed in the first quarter.

It will be "a tool for the community as we continue to grow and develop, and it's got a lot of pieces," Homan said.

Among other topics, the plan will look at future demographics, development, annexation, the downtown, city parks, the city trail system, environmental sustainability, social cohesion and equity, Homan said.

The widening of most of East William Street to create a middle turn lane was completed in 2020 after a year of work, and all of 2021 will be needed for the preparatory stages of a more ambitious project – widening East William to four lanes under the railroad bridge east of Central Avenue. That will involve tearing down the bridge and building two new ones – one temporary and one permanent.

A long-term ambitious project

In 2020, the city completed more than a year of work needed to widen East William Street between Lake Street and Foley Street – a step taken to add a center turn lane, designed to reduce traffic congestion.

In 2021, Homan said, planning will continue on a more ambitious project – widening East William under the railroad bridge just east of the end of Central Avenue. 

The project will require building a temporary railroad bridge, demolishing the existing bridge, widening the road there to four lanes and building a permanent bridge, Homan said.

The Ohio Department of Transportation is expected to need all of 2021 to obtain the rights of way and easements needed for the project, Homan said.

Construction isn't expected to start until late 2022 or 2023, he said.

Spring Street development

In 2018, Columbus-based Indus Hotels announced plans to build a 6-story hotel with up to 118 rooms at 7 and 27 Spring St., followed by a NAPA auto-parts store and repair shop.

The pandemic scuttled that plan, Homan said, and the city has a plan designed to attract another hotel to the site in 2022.

The city bought four adjacent parcels, including two empty lots and 7 and 27 Spring St., for $750,000.

Time will be spent in 2021 on the planning to make that happen, Homan said. The buildings there will be razed, and free municipal parking will be allowed in the lots.

The site, which is close to the Ohio Wesleyan University campus, has great potential for a hotel, which could be an institutional anchor and attract other businesses to the area, Homan said.

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