Last month, the American Planning Association (APA) announced it had selected Historic Downtown Delaware as one of four “Great Neighborhoods” on its 2019 “Great Places in America” list.
How does an entity go about celebrating such an honor?
Well, according to city Communications Director Lee Yoakum, it consists of city officials being nationally recognized in Washington, D.C., and, of course, involves a celebration in the very location honored as a “Great Neighborhood.”
“We thought it would be more fitting to recognize our awesome downtown in our awesome downtown,” Yoakum said during a celebration ceremony held Thursday near the Rutherford B. Hayes statue at the southwest corner of Sandusky and William streets.
The ceremony, which was attended by city officials and staff, downtown business and building owners, and members of the community, included the unveiling of a “Great Neighborhood” plaque, which will be placed on permanent display at a downtown site yet to be determined.
The “Great Places” list, which began in 2007 and is released annually by the APA, recognizes three categories: neighborhoods, streets, and public spaces. Downtown Delaware was one of 13 total places recognized on the 2019 list.
During Thursday’s ceremony, many individuals were recognized as key contributors to Historic Downtown Delaware, including Dave Efland, who has served as the city’s director of planning & community development for 14 years.
APA Ohio Chapter President Chris Anderson, who was in town for the ceremony, said he first met Efland two decades ago when Efland was employed by the City of Cincinnati.
“You have one of the very best planners not only in the state of Ohio, but across the nation,” Anderson told the crowd in attendance. “It’s Cincinnati’s loss and Delaware’s gain.”
Efland used his time in front of the crowd Thursday to shine a light on those responsible for the honor bestowed upon Historic Downtown Delaware.
“We put in place plans and physical infrastructure, and owners put in money and investment, but this organization literally brings the downtown to life every year, every month, every week, and every day. That’s Main Street Delaware,” Efland said. “(It’s the) one entity, without which we literally would not be winning this award.”
He added downtown Delaware has become a place worthy of national recognition because of the institutional anchors that surround it and the community that supports it.
“We have anchors of our community,” he said. “Anchors around which we can plan and build this great place. Those are the county (buildings) on the north; the city and our complex in the middle; the library and the Strand on one side; the city schools on the other side; and without question an anchor of the entire community and downtown — Ohio Wesleyan University — on our south side.”
As for the Delaware community, Efland said, “At the beginning and the end of the day, our community is what makes us a great city and our downtown a great place in America. We thank them for supporting our efforts and our downtown every day. It’s the community that has made (the downtown) the unquestioned heart of this city through generations.”
While admitting there wasn’t enough time in the day to thank every individual who has made downtown Delaware what it is today, Efland did take a moment to address his “incredible planning staff,” including the “incomparable” Julie Harding, Chief Building Official Jerry Warner, and Dianne Guenther, development planner.
Also recognized were the early investors in the downtown area who helped with its recent resurgence, including Vasili Konstantinidis, owner of Bun’s Restaurant.
“Bun’s had a catastrophic fire (in 2002),” Efland said. “Vasili, in the early days, decided to reinvest and bring Bun’s back. That was a huge moment for our downtown.”
Efland also acknowledged Joe and Linda Diamond for investing in downtown businesses and buildings, including the Strand Theatre.
“They did it at a time when it wasn’t a sure thing,” Efland said.
Roger Koch, former chairman of the Delaware Historic Preservation Commission, was recognized by Efland as being a “longtime investor in our downtown” and an “early preservationist.”
In his closing remarks, Efland said, “This is a time for us, and we are not good at this in the Midwest, to puff our chests out a little bit and show how awesome we are,” Efland told the crowd in attendance. “So, puff your chests out a little bit and then get back to work to ensure the best city, the best community, and the best plans are yet to come.”
Other speakers during Thursday’s ceremony including longtime City Manager Tom Homan and Mayor Carolyn Riggle.
Homan recalled a time when downtown Delaware was far from being a happening place.
“I can remember standing here on this corner with our current mayor, previous mayors, Joe Diamond, and a few others when it was a Christmas celebration,” Homan said. “There were probably 10 of us, including somebody from The Delaware Gazette. Today, there are thousands, and we are closing off the streets. There is no better indicator of how far we’ve come than just the incredible vibrancy that we feel today. The city is the heart of the county, and it’s strong.”
Riggle echoed Homan’s words, recalling how when she moved to Delaware in 1985 and opened a downtown business, the downtown was “vibrant.” The mood changed, however, when Polaris was developed in the southern part of the county and big businesses and chain restaurants opened, threatening to wipe out Historic Downtown Delaware.
Downtown business owners, however, with help from the community, withstood the punches thrown their way and persevered.
“I’m so proud to be mayor in this city today with all of our downtown buildings, with restaurants, with wineries and with breweries,” Riggle said. “When I go to a restaurant and I don’t know anybody in the room, and I know a lot of people, that tells me that everyone around Dublin, Columbus, and Powell are finding us. I think the word is out. We are truly the best city around.”
Joshua Keeran is the editor of The Delaware Gazette. He can be reached at 740-413-0900.