SEAFORD — History, heritage, nature and economic development united Thursday along the banks of the Nanticoke River, as a partnership began that relives the city’s past through revitalization.
Sussex County, state of Delaware and federal officials joined city representatives, the Chesapeake Conservancy and other project partners for the dedication of phase one of Oyster House Park, at the site of the once-bustling J.B. Robinson Oyster House, along what is now the Seaford Riverwalk.
“This is a special day for Seaford,” said Mayor David Genshaw. “We’re very excited. We’re excited of what’s happening today in Seaford.”
The first phase of the planned four-phase project focused on enhancing access to the Nanticoke River. It included bulkhead reconstruction to stabilize the shoreline, the planting of a living shoreline, an extension of the Seaford Riverwalk an additional block, a performance deck, boat-docking facilities and a kayak launch.
Sussex County Council President Michael Vincent, a lifelong Seaford resident, recalled the history of the property.
“A neighbor of mine, when I was a very small boy, brought me down here because he worked at the oyster (house). I watched him shuck oysters,” said Councilman Vincent. “Certainly, the Nanticoke River is very important to this side of the county. We want to see it preserved. It’s a great project — a great thing for Seaford, for Sussex (County), and we’re happy to be a part of that.”
Seeds for the project were planted in 2018, when the Chesapeake Conservancy, a nonprofit based in Annapolis, Maryland, purchased the Oyster House Park property, with the support of the Mt. Cuba Center, and donated the waterfront parcel to the city.
The conservancy then worked with the city in a yearlong planning and public-comment period to seek community input, which was incorporated into a draft master plan for Oyster House Park.
Construction on this first phase of the park began in December 2020 and worked to enhance access to the Nanticoke River along the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail.
Chesapeake Conservancy Board of Directors Chair Randy Larrimore has personal ties to Seaford and the Nanticoke.
“I was raised in Seaford and started this project to bring people back downtown and help with the revitalization of the city,” said Mr. Larrimore. “The project is also personally rewarding. When I was a child, the river was so polluted, we couldn’t swim in it. Sixty years ago, my father was mayor of Seaford and led the effort to build a sewage-disposal plant. I am so proud to be helping provide greater access to the pristine Nanticoke River that my father helped clean up.
“This park is part of our mission to protect 30% of the Chesapeake Bay — which is now 22% protected — by 2030 to meet President (Joe) Biden’s challenge. Thirty-three percent of the Nanticoke River corridor down to Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge is protected, so we know it can be done,” Mr. Larrimore added. “This will be a powerful example of how communities can leverage conservation and public access to natural assets like the Nanticoke River in order to provide new economic opportunities for outdoor recreation and tourism and, in turn, help to transform communities themselves.”
Mayor Genshaw talked about the turnaround at the site.
“Some of you may not know this, but you are sitting on a piece of property that was once the J.B. Robinson Oyster House. Many of us don’t remember this. We remember this property as being on a rundown road, … and the water was eating away at the shoreline. We had dreams of what this property could be,” he said. “It was a few years ago when the Chesapeake Conservancy approached the city of Seaford, (asking) how we can help? How can we come alongside your community? So thanks to Randall Larrimore for his dedication and commitment to our city and his love of our city.”
The total cost for phase one was $1.2 million, which was funded through a mix of private and public resources.
Contributors included state transportation funding allocated by Rep. Danny Short, R-Seaford, and Sens. Brian Pettyjohn, R-Georgetown, and Bryant Richardson, R-Seaford. Additional funding came from the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, the Crystal Trust, the Longwood Foundation, the Franklin P. and Arthur W. Perdue Foundation, the Welfare Foundation and REI.
“Places like the new Seaford Oyster House Park are the backbones of our communities and the ground that grows the next generation of conservationists,” said Chesapeake Conservancy Executive Vice President Mark Conway. “We are grateful to the many funders who made this project possible.”
Kim Nechay, executive director of the Perdue Foundation, said Perdue Farms shares the Chesapeake Conservancy vision to preserve agricultural farmland and environmental habitat in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and along the banks of the Nanticoke River.
“The new Oyster House Park serves as a launching point to the Nanticoke and some of the most ecologically important unspoiled habitat along a 40-mile river corridor from Seaford to the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County in Maryland,” said Ms. Nechay. “We’re proud to support our neighbors in the Seaford community.”
Subsequent phases are planned over five years, with each portion focused on providing benefits for the community that can be enjoyed immediately upon completion. Plans include:
As a prelude to Thursday’s dedication, Chief Dennis Coker of the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware offered a “land acknowledgement.”
“I first must acknowledge that the land from where we speak today is traditional homeland of the Nanticoke peoples who occupied this land for thousands of years prior to the European contact. And they are still with us today,” said Chief Coker. “We have gathered as we look upon the faces around us. We see the cycles of life continue. We have been given the duties to live in balance and harmony with each other and with all living things.”
Sen. Richardson added, “The future look of the properties along the Nanticoke River will be influenced by this great addition. The beauty of the river has been hidden for a long time and is now the focus of efforts by visionaries in our community that will bring more people to its shorelines to enjoy this peaceful setting.”
Delaware’s U.S. senators — Democrats Tom Carper and Chris Coons — also offered comment.
“This first phase of the Oyster House (Park) project gives access to an amazing amenity to all residents — the Nanticoke River,” said Sen. Carper. “Using the river as a centerpiece and preserving the environment around it, so that the public can use it for generations to come, makes Seaford more attractive to residents, businesses and folks traveling through. That’s a win-win for our environment and the economic vitality of Seaford.”
Sen. Coons continued, “Seaford and the Nanticoke River are important and intertwined pieces of our state’s maritime history. The inauguration of the Oyster House Park honors that rich history, while promoting the environment and making much-needed improvements to public access at this picturesque river. Thanks to Mayor Genshaw, the Chesapeake Conservancy and everyone who helped with the launch of such a worthy endeavor.”
Mayor Genshaw marveled at the project’s initial beauty.
“I am just blown away at how beautiful this is. Again, I saw this property before, and to see it today and to know that there is going to be public access, with educational parts to it. This is just phase one of something we’re hoping is going to be much greater,” he said. “This was all created with the community in mind. It’s all meant for public access and a place where people will be able to come and enjoy the water in whatever format they’d like. Seaford is connected to the Nanticoke River for everything. It is so critical to us in so many ways.”
The mayor hopes phase one will spur continued financial support for the project.
“The next couple of phases are big dollars. They’ve got to reload,” he said. “Hopefully, this will help them get this out and promote what is already there and what could potentially be there and the value it is to the community and tourism and all of those things.”