Dover council talks pros and cons of allocating ARPA money to a potential riverwalk

By Leann Schenke
Posted 10/14/21

DOVER — When first presented with the knowledge that the city would receive $6.9 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, city officials pitched investing a portion of the money …

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Dover council talks pros and cons of allocating ARPA money to a potential riverwalk

Posted

DOVER — When first presented with the knowledge that the city would receive $6.9 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, city officials pitched investing a portion of the money into a riverwalk that could both serve as an economic driver and expand Dover’s recreation areas.

While the deadline for cities to have ARPA money committed to projects is a few years off — December 2024 — the Dover City Council is in the process of determining how best to use the funds it received from the federal government.

During a Tuesday meeting, some suggestions for spending the money included a riverwalk, a shelter for unhoused people or funding more mental health counselors to work alongside the Dover Police Department.

Dover’s $6.9 million sum has been a point of contention for the city, as Newark will receive $17.1 million and Middletown will receive $11.5 million despite having lower population totals. The 2019 U.S. Census puts Dover’s population at 36,166, Newark’s at 33,515 and Middletown’s at 18,896.

The amount of money each city or town gets is based on a formula used to determine Community Development Block Grant funding — a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development program that finances community growth.
County aid, in comparison, is decided by population totals.

During a Tuesday Legislative, Finance and Administration Committee meeting, councilmen Ralph Taylor and Gerald Rocha spoke in favor of a riverwalk — something Councilman Taylor originally brought to the council in April as a positive way to use the ARPA funds.

As it was pitched in April, the riverwalk would start across South State Street, near Bayhealth Hospital, Kent Campus, and move along the St. Jones River toward Legislative Hall.

Councilman Rocha said a riverwalk could be a way to clean up the area around Silver Lake.

“I am 100% for it,” Councilman Rocha said. “(I am) willing to lend my hand in helping and trying to figure out how to spend the money wisely and enhance our city even more.”

Councilman Fred Neil, who noted he served as the mayor’s press officer when the city of Baltimore was beginning its restoration of the Inner Harbor, said creating a riverwalk will not have the same effect on businesses downtown as Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.

“The riverwalk is not the Inner Harbor in the center of Baltimore,” he said. “The fact is, what can you do with it, has to be tied into whatever else is happening as far as the downtown area and opening it up, so that, when you do that, the passion is there.”

Though he voiced his support for the riverwalk, Councilman Neil cautioned against using it to push tourism rather than investing money toward better marketing of Dover. He suggested investing money into website improvements.

“I absolutely agree it could be a gem for the city,” Councilman Neil said. “If you want to spend your money and reinvent the wheel, you’re wasting some of that when you already have mechanisms in place.”

Councilwoman Tricia Arndt too said the city’s website could “speak more to what we have here.” She also suggested more robust social media.

Jonathan Contant, who is a member of the Legislation, Finance and Administration Committee, agreed with the suggestion of improving the website when he spoke later in the meeting.

Mr. Contant was a harsh critic of the riverwalk.

“I think I’ve previously stated, I’m not for a riverwalk,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a huge waste of money when we have other things to do that could benefit the city more.”

Mr. Contant said a riverwalk would be beautiful, noting he grew up running and playing along Silver Lake and the river. However, he said a riverwalk would likely not be profitable for the city unless land on the river is able to be developed for businesses or restaurants.

“I don’t see spending $1 million to put sidewalks in over the course of what would probably be less than a mile worthwhile,” Mr. Contant said.

He suggested investing a similar sum of money into improving the health of Silver Lake as part of a parks and recreation plan.

“I remember when I was kid actually playing in the water there. I wouldn’t touch it today,” Mr. Contant said. “I’d go there and I’d walk around and take my kids to the park, but I think we could spend the money better elsewhere.”

Councilman Andre Boggerty, who noted he was not elected to serve yet when the riverwalk was first pitched, asked about the return on investment of the riverwalk.

“I mean from a monetary standpoint,” Councilman Boggerty said. “Is there something that we’re selling? Can vendors go there? Are there activities that can take place along the riverwalk besides just walking?”

Saying he is an avid walker and would be grateful for a new path to stroll down, Councilman Boggerty asked what would bring residents to the riverwalk.

“We have to have a return on investment,” he said.

Councilman Boggerty also asked which agency would be responsible for monitoring the riverwalk and what plans would be in place to prevent unhomed people who “refuse to receive the help that we’re offering,” he said.

Councilman William Hare also commented on unhoused people already in the area near the proposed end of the riverwalk at Legislative Hall, saying, “that’ll be good.”

“Then they can see the homeless guys the state won’t do anything about sitting there,” Councilman Hare said.

Calling it a “massive expenditure” but a brilliant idea, Mr. Contant said copying New Castle County’s Hope Center would be worth Dover looking into. He noted New Castle County has more money at its disposal than Dover.

“If you’ve got the money to spend buying a hotel to turn into a homeless shelter — it’s a great idea,” he said.

Mr. Contant said there are complications that come along with the city operating a shelter in that it would “essentially become a landlord.” However, he said there is a need for it in Dover.

“With this money, there is something we can do to help these people,” Mr. Contant said. “I’m willing to bet the number of people who are currently homeless, are homeless because of what happened over the last year and half.”

Mr. Contant also suggested ARPA money would be better spent expanding the number of mental health counselors acting alongside the Dover Police Department.

“If we want to talk about the crime issue, and while we want to tell people the city is safe, we know that there are areas that are not. We know there are problem areas,” he said. “When we talk about how to deescalate and deal with people, the primary population that law enforcement is going to deal with probably, to some degree, have a mental illness or substance abuse issue.”

He said police often have some training to deal with mental health crises or substance abuse or both, but “on average, they’re not equipped properly to do so.”

He said using the ARPA funds for mental health counselors could tie into COVID-19 related spending because substance abuse issues “skyrocketed” during the pandemic. Earlier in the meeting, Councilman David Anderson had raised concerns whether a riverwalk would be an eligible use of ARPA funding.

“We could easily tie this back to COVID,” Mr. Contant said. “I’d love to see more spending on training. I’d love to see more spending on getting counselors or people who could help to deescalate these situations.”

After Mr. Contant’s comments, Councilman Neil said a riverwalk could be an investment in the future of Dover. He said the benefits a riverwalk could bring to the city likely would not be seen by the current panel of council members. He noted the riverwalk would not be “a waste of money.”

Councilman Anderson said the city doesn’t need to scrap the idea of a riverwalk altogether, but funding for it might not be available with ARPA money.

He spoke in favor of the riverwalk as a way to attract people to Dover’s downtown area. He said Dover is missing a tremendous opportunity by not building on its proximity to the St. Jones River.

He praised Milford’s riverwalk as an enormous success and a “major engine to revitalizing their downtown.”

Councilwoman Ardnt also said the council shouldn’t rule out a riverwalk. She said there is community support for it and said it could be constructed in phases.

She did ask about the process the city will use to determine what projects can be achieved with the ARPA funds. Councilman Anderson said a subcommittee is working on gathering suggestions for how to use the money. Those will be presented to the council in December or January.

Interim City Manager Matt Harline said that, while the city is getting a smaller amount of money compared to its neighbors, Dover does have the opportunity to partner with the state on projects.

“We need to recognize the fact the state received $932 million and is willing to partner with cities with good projects,” Mr. Harline said.

Mr. Harline said staff have identified more than $11 million worth of projects that could benefit the city. He said the state would be more likely to partner with Dover for projects that support improving public health or addressing negative economic impacts of COVID-19. Another priority area is investments in water and sewer or broadband infrastructure.

Mr. Harline said water and sewer improvements, like decreasing brown water, will be easiest for the city to pursue with the state. He said that pursuing the “easier projects” might not be as glamorous as a riverwalk, but will help get as much money as possible into the city.