While some stores leave downtown Middletown, new ones are coming, but traffic congestion remains

Downtown Middletown used to be a destination spot, but that dissipated over the years, said Tony Immediato, chef and owner of Immediato’s Bistro on West Main Street for 12 years.

He sees downtown in a transition, but he isn’t sure what it’s becoming.

The U.S. Post Office, Delaware Trust, and the hardware store were once big downtown anchors, which drew people. But those anchors left.

Today, the Everett Theatre and the shops are the main attractions downtown, Immediato said.

Downtown is still unique because people can park and walk to restaurants which aren’t chain restaurants, but rather “mom and pop” operations, he said.

“Main Street is a cool, fun place and the 12 years we’ve been here, we’ve seen places come and go,” he said.

Sometimes, downtown is the victim of its own success, as businesses outgrow their downtown locations. Two recent examples, Femme Fatale Boutique and the cheese shop Fromage, have prospered but are moving up and out. Fromage has already left for a larger shop off of U.S. Route 301 on the west side of town while Femme Fatale will soon be moving to the same area.

Two new businesses have announced they are opening downtown, and buildings are being renovated for future businesses and apartments.

One of new businesses coming next month is CrossFit Petram. The gym will open in 5,000 square feet of space on Main Street next to Sully’s Irish Pub.

CrossFit Petram will move from its current location in the Bob Wagner Flooring building on Middletown Warwick Road and open in the downtown location on Aug. 19 to coincide with the Peach Festival, said Chris Townsend, one of the five gym owners.

Townsend said CrossFit is community centered and the downtown location was a perfect fit since it’s in the center of the community. “Obviously, it’s a great opportunity for exposure, being right downtown rather than tucked away in a building off of 301,” he said.

Besides Townsend, the business is owned by Nick Rybinski, Doug Schneider, Kevin Schneider, and John Marte.

The building where CrossFit is locating is owned by Megan Aitken and her husband. They renovated the structure.

“We purchased our building at 14 W. Main St. downtown with the full intention of giving back to the town in some way, shape or form, whether it was by its design/curb appeal or by helping a local business grow within its high traffic location. Turns out, we are able to do both,” Megan Aitken said.

She sees a positive future for downtown in general.

“I see the future of downtown being a great place to go to shop, eat and enjoy a stroll around on a nice afternoon or evening,” she said. “As a local Realtor that specializes in the Middletown market, it's been fascinating watching the downtown area transform over the last decade as the walkways have been refinished as well as walk signals for pedestrians. Events downtown have brought crowds much larger than in the past as our population grows.”

The other business coming to downtown is Stubborn Soul, which will open next month in a space previously occupied by the hardware store on West Main Street.

The owner, Sandy Dukes of Townsend, describes the store as a “country-flair boutique” which sells clothing for men, women, and children. The clothing is unique, she said, and the store will also sell western boots, western hats, jewelry, perfume, and goat soap.

Dukes said she choose Stubborn Soul as the store’s name because the merchandise is for people who have a stubborn soul and don’t give up on their dreams.

She liked the downtown location because of the warm feeling it has.

“It has the old wooden floors. It’s just the feel we want our store to be—very cozy and with great customer service,” she said.

Also, some buildings downtown are being renovated and businesses may be coming there. A restaurant is reportedly coming to the old bank location at the corner of Main and Broad streets, but that hasn’t happened yet.

The bank’s drive-through lanes were filled with entirely new building now under construction for residential and retail tenants.

Despite all the new businesses and renovations, downtown has plenty of criticism when it comes to parking and vehicular traffic.

Femme Fatale Boutique plans to move from its Main Street location to the Westown Business Park around the middle of August, said Kaleigh Kennedy, store manager.

The parking on Main Street isn’t as great as what the business park offers and the lack of parking downtown cuts down on foot traffic for businesses, she said.

Other business owners share her viewpoint.

“The parking downtown is definitely hurting businesses,” said Tammy Nichols, co-owner of Half Baked Patisserie on Main Street. “There’s not enough parking. The traffic is atrocious.”

Half Baked Patisserie has trouble receiving its inventory. When Nichols comes to work with groceries, she has difficulty finding a place to park nearby. She instead has to drive home with the groceries and find a convenient space later.

As for the traffic, most people don’t want to drive downtown because it’s so congested, Nichols said. It takes longer to get from one side of Middletown to the other than it takes to get to Newark, she said.

Downtown businesses are “struggling,” Nichols said, because of the traffic and parking. Also, the development of businesses outside of downtown is “taking away the small businesses that are on Main Street,” she said.

When it comes to the traffic congestion, there may be some relief coming. The new Route 301 is currently under construction. The purpose of the new roadway is to relieve local roads of through traffic.

“I think once the [Route 301] bypass is done and constructed, it will open some opportunities for growth,” Nichols said.

Ken Cimino, public outreach coordinator for the new Route 301, said the new road “should relieve congestion on Main Street in Middletown as all of the ‘pass through’ trips (Wilmington, Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York) stay on the new U.S. 301 mainline to S.R. 1 and points north.”

As for a general view of downtown, Christopher Everett, executive director of the Everett Theatre, said downtown is in a “growth curve” which the theatre has seen.

Three years ago, a total of 200 to 300 people attended the run of event at the theatre, usually two weekends in a row. Now those numbers have climbed to about 2,000 people over the course of multiple performances of a live musical – hundreds of people for each show instead of dozens.

For auditions, he said he had about six people audition for a show three years ago. Today, the average is 80 people auditioning per show.

That growth is helping the downtown area, as the theatre brings in actors and audiences who eat and shop downtown, he said. Right now, the theatre offers the only live shows on a monthly basis below the C&D Canal, he said.

If downtown has enough unique shows and places to eat, then it won’t struggle, Everett said.

“If you want to shop at unique gift shops and other local entrepreneurs, you need to shop downtown. You aren’t going to find it someplace else. You don’t,” he said.

What’s his biggest concern?

Everett said it’s the safety of people walking across the street to get to the theatre and how the constant stream of traffic makes that difficult.

"We care about our customers' experience. Safety is part of that,” he said.

Also, he said parking is always an issue. So far, the theatre has been able to use the parking that's provided by the church across the street and by the Town of Middletown including the town hall lot.