What does it take for a small town to overcome obstacles thrown in its path and eventually turn itself into an award-winning city?
Delray Beach is one prime example. The transition this municipality made from a village by the sea faced with several challenges to one of the most successful small towns in Florida is a noteworthy study in how to get the right things done.
All along residents believed they lived in a special place, and they passed on that belief from one generation to another. That mindset became the driving force to take some bold steps to revitalize the town and a philosophy to keep innovating and never stop making improvements.
Some residents will point to one particular period in the town’s history as an example of how this civic drive was able to push past several obstacles and take the city to the success it experiences today.
“(During this time) It had the bones, but no energy. You could have thrown a bowling ball down the middle of Atlantic Avenue at 5 p.m. and not hit anything,” said former mayor Jeff Perlman.
In fact during those years, Perlman said the town was known primarily as “Dullray Beach.”
Marjorie Ferrer, executive director of the Downtown Development Authority remembers the popular description then was “dirty and dangerous.”
For a few years between 1972 and the early 1980s the now thriving Delray Beach was hit with a moratorium. Construction and development was stifled and virtually brought to a halt in the fall of 1972, when state officials stopped construction in the city and surrounding areas pending the creation of a regional sewage treatment plant.
Coupled with the moratorium, was the introduction of the new parking code that restricted enlarging or expanding commercial structures within the downtown. This caused a department store and other retailers to move. These large vacancies created the impression that the downtown was virtually empty.
Another problem was that the lighting fixtures had been changed, which many residents felt was for the worse. Bulbs were switched from the bright metal halide/mercury vapor types to the yellow sodium fixtures which actually reduced illumination. With the darkened lights pedestrians did not feel safe venturing downtown at night.
Then the completion of interstate highway I-95 in 1976 brought with it the widening of Atlantic Avenue between Swinton Avenue and Military Trail, displacing some businesses and residences in that area. The highway introduced more traffic and more people, creating an atmosphere of unsettlement. Drug dealing in the area also resulted in an increased crime rate.
The town’s infrastructure was old and deteriorating. Property values dropped. Blight was plentiful. There wasn’t much to do downtown.
If those circumstances weren’t bad enough, the city was about to face a challenge that threatened to wipe out any small-town character and completely change its personality from a village by the sea to a major thoroughfare covered with asphalt.
The Department of Transportation created plans to widen Atlantic Avenue to six lanes and make it a highway to allow better evacuation in the event of a hurricane. That would have been the final blow to the town’s makeup. Most city residents believed the widening project would have destroyed whatever future the sleepy little town would ever hope to achieve.
As happens in most communities that face this type of challenge, a dedicated group of people rose to the occasion. They formed a group to stop the DOT project…and it was a success, resulting in the creation of two one-way, two-lane streets that direct traffic around the downtown and eliminating the need to widen Atlantic Avenue.
After their victory, this band of spirited individuals thought, “Why not keep the momentum going and turn the town around?”
“There’s no question this is a jewel of a community,” said Roy Simon, a local native who served on various municipal boards in Delray Beach for more than 40 years. “One thing the city of Delray Beach has is community-minded citizens who are loyal and dedicated to the city and the betterment of its lifestyle.”
Mayor Doak Campbell appointed a task force to study the Atlantic Avenue area between Congress Avenue to the west and Ocean Boulevard to the east. The group created a redevelopment plan, leading to the creation of the Community Redevelopment Agency for redeveloping the area and removing the blighted areas.
As a result of this effort, the next Mayor Tom Lynch, spearheaded a “Visions 2000” study. The mayor and town council drafted a $21 million bond issue to upgrade Atlantic Avenue between Swinton Avenue and Ocean Boulevard. It passed. Most of the money went into the ground to repair the aging infrastructure such as water and sewer, but a large chunk went into cleaning up the downtown area with improved sidewalks and landscaping.
For example, right in the heart of downtown were some old abandoned school buildings, the former elementary and high school, surrounded by a rickety, rusting chain link fence. When it was discovered that the Palm Beach County School District was proposing to sell it to a developer, the Delray Beach Historical Society approached the city commission and requested that the city seek the property for a museum and cultural center. The mayor appointed a committee of three, chaired by Francis Bourque, to proceed.
Rather than tear it down, the building was renovated. Now it is the home to Delray Beach Center for the Arts and the Cornell Museum of Art and American Culture. This became a prominent showcase for the spirit of the town. It was the impetus that positive change could be achieved with a bit of effort.
Local townspeople started to notice the progress. They wanted more. The drive escalated to keep making improvements. People began to take pride in the area and started to believe they could attract investments from builders, retailers, restauranteurs and new residents.
Fast forward to today and most people still don’t believe the transformation this town of 62,000 was able to accomplish. The renaissance of Delray Beach is, in a word, astonishing.
Today, visit downtown Delray Beach and it is bustling. Dozens of first class restaurants are in operation. There’s vibrant sidewalk dining. Retailers have joined the revival as well. Previously, retail leasing rates were $6 per square foot. Now some are close to $100. The day is alive with shopping and the nights are alive with dining and dancing.
A trolley, the Downtown Roundabout, picks up and shuttles people all around town for no charge. There’s plenty of parking with an enormous 500-car free parking garage just off the main street.
The city is extremely walkable, with bricked walkways and plenty of benches. An active group of bicyclists, Delray Bicycle Club, works with the city to add more bike lanes, bike racks and pathways for a growing number of people who would rather pedal than drive.
Not only has Atlantic Avenue seen a revival, but the city has expanded into other downtown attractions such as Pineapple Grove Arts District, Beach District, Historic Marina District, West Settlers and “Frog Alley” Districts, as well as the emerging SOFA District.
Arts are now a big attraction – there’s the Arts Garage, Art House, Artist’s Alley, Delray Beach Center for the Arts/Cornell Museum of Art and American Culture (located in the once decrepit and now revitalized Old School Square building), Vino Van Gogh (where you can sip wine and paint), Pineapple Grove Arts District, Crest Theater, Delray Art Foundation and Delray Beach Playhouse. Plus there are many private galleries as well.
For a relatively small place, amazingly the city is home to a gigantic 8,200 seat tennis stadium as part of the Delray Beach Tennis Center which annually hosts the world renowned ATP Champions Tour Event and ATP World Tour Event. Such legends as John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl and Andy Roddick have smashed serves on these courts. And it’s located right in the downtown area, which everybody has to pass by on their way to the stadium.
Major hotels such as the unique Sundy House (built by the town’s first mayor in 1902), Colony Hotel and Cabana Club, Seagate Hotel and Spa, Delray Beach Marriott, Hyatt Place and many others attract and delight tourists.
When it comes to retail, Urban Outfitters has a store downtown. Dozens of boutique retail shops have sprung up. Designers who once worked with such notables as Calvin Klein now call the town home. In fact, the city hosts its own “Fashion Week” to draw both sellers and buyers to the area.
The town has worked hard to retain its historical heritage – museums include the Delray Beach Historical Society Cason Cottage House Museum and the Archives, The S.P. Spady Cultural Heritage Museum, the Morikami Museum and Japanese Gardens, and the Sandoway House Nature Center,
Town is known for unique first-rate events
Once known as a place nobody wanted to visit, now people flock to Delray Beach regularly for a number of popular annual events.
These include the Garlic Fest (any town that can use garlic as an attraction has got to have something going on). There’s also the 50-plus-year-old Delray Affair which features hundreds of artists; Bacon and Bourbon Festival; First Night for families on New Year’s Eve; the many regular events such as The Green Market; book signings at Murder on the Beach Mystery Bookstore;” and more.
To give you an idea on how Delray Beach organizers try to do everything in a big way, consider their holiday promotions.
For Christmas, most cities put up lights and banners. Delray Beach puts up a towering 100-foot Christmas tree. A Christmas tree you can walk through, by the way, and then visit with some elves. This attracts thousands of visitors (and shoppers) every December.
The tree also has another purpose in addition to attracting shoppers. Every year it is created with the help of seventh and eighth graders who work alongside a group of volunteers, many of them retirees.
“The tree brought the whole community together,” said Ferrer. It’s this involvement of the entire community of all ages and races that she said has resulted in children turning away from criminal activities and opting instead for a more positive direction. Creating jobs in the areas helps.
Developers added hundreds of condos and townhomes close to the downtown, making it an attractive place to live for young professionals. Construction is underway on more units.
Since that first group came together and stopped the road expansion, Delray Beach has literally boomed.
This resulted in some major accolades and awards. Twice Delray Beach received the All-American City Award distributed by the National Civic League.
But the big honor that literally put Delray Beach on the map was in 2012 from map maker Rand McNally and USA Today when it named the city the “Most Fun Small Town in America.”
This was a game-changer for Delray. As part of the search for “The Second Annual Best of the Road Competition” five traveling teams visited 30 small towns that made the final cut. They were looking to designate small town winners in these categories: “Best Food,” “Most Beautiful,” Friendliest” and “Most Fun.”
To say the whole town put out the red carpet for the judges is an understatement. Local organizers turned on the charm like a hurricane. They treated the visiting judges to sunrise yoga on the beach, a tour of historic Delray, a dive on a 100-year old shipwreck, mixology lessons at a local tavern, a country music concert from homebred sensation Amber Leigh, a tour led by pirates at the museum followed by a road rally. That was just the first day.
The next day’s agenda included a visit to sea turtle hatching sites, paddle boarding, a sailboat ride and massages capped with a nighttime drive down a sparkling Atlantic Avenue in a vintage convertible 1957 Chevy they managed to dig up.
The result? They won the national title of “Most Fun Town.” The publicity gates flew open. Delray Beach was televised nationally on the Travel Channel, highlighted in the 2013 Rand McNally United States Road Map and featured in dozens of periodicals both in the state and around the world.
Yes, Delrayites will say that award put the town on the map, figuratively and literally. Stephanie Immelman, executive director of the Delray Beach Marketing Cooperative which applied for the award, says she receives about one to two inquiries a week from travel writers or reporters either in the US or abroad.
The town was featured in The NY Times, NY Post, Southern Living, Conde Nast, Huffington Post and hundreds of other media outlets. You cannot buy that kind of publicity.
“We won it when we needed to win it,” said Immelman. “It was so amazing.”
To keep that awareness alive, the town continues to be heavily involved in promotions and “destination marketing,” said Immelman. The Delray Beach Marketing Cooperative created a website called “VisitDelrayBeach.org” that highlights all the things to do, places to visit, where to eat and when to attend the myriad events put on by the town.
Since then, Delray has also been named one of the Top Ten “America’s Happiest Seaside Towns”– “the best coastal places to call home – for a weekend or a lifetime.”
Here’s some data that shows the incredible transformation that has taken place in Delray Beach.
Retail and restaurant sales figures from 2008-2013 were $237 million, a $62 million INCREASE. What’s even more impressive is that during that time frame, America was hit with the “Great Recession” where property values dropped and the economy came to a halt. While the rest of the country was struggling, Delray Beach sales grew 35% over the prior five years.
Those numbers don’t lie or exaggerate. They certainly show a town on the move.
The formula for civic success
What’s incredible about this story is that the accomplishments can’t really be attributed to one individual or even a handful of individuals. Rather the progress can be attributed to a citywide “frame of mind.” An attitude that this town always had promise.
Residents here knew this was a special place with many attributes. The location was perfect – close to an unspoiled beach. The beach is unique as it has two miles of untouched sand without any high-rise condominiums to block the sun and blue skies. The Intracoastal Waterway runs through the town.
Continuing with location, Delray Beach is sandwiched between two major cities - Fort Lauderdale to the south and West Palm Beach to the north. Both are only about 20 miles away. Major universities – Florida Atlantic University and Lynne University are nearby. Access to the city is easy as it is located just off the major I-95 artery which stretches from Miami to Maine.
The key elements were always there. A group of people just had to put it all together.
“There was a desire to turn things around. You could see it had potential. It always had a beautiful beach, had the grid system,” said Perlman. “It just needed a tremendous amount of polishing and planning and public investment to convince the private sector that the city was serious about getting successful.”
According to Perlman, the changes began with Mayor Doak Campbell (whose grandfather is honored with his name on the Florida State University football stadium in Tallahassee).
Then along came Mayor Tom Lynch who continued the progressive mindset. Perlman said he did a great job bringing “stability” to city hall where permits could be expected in a reasonable amount of time, interactions with businesses were better organized and business people had a sense of certainty with the various processes.
Perlman became mayor in 2003 and said “Those guys did a great job and we said, ‘Let’s build on what they were doing.”
His team created a Downtown Master Plan with the help of business people, local residents and other stakeholders. The town then proposed another bond issue, this one for $24.5 million. After a ton of town meetings and publicity campaigns from door hangars to news releases, the community passed the bond and the plan.
It’s not just city hall that makes things happen. It’s a combination. Perlman said an active Community Redevelopment Agency was crucial to the revitalization of downtown and Delray in general. With its $14.8 million annual budget the CRA continues to fund and encourage economic activity as it acquires more funding from tax revenues.
The Delray Beach CRA has had a significant impact of the growth of the city. It is one of the most active in the area and the state. First created in 1985, in 30 years the CRA has invested $213 million in the development of the city. That investment resulted in the creation of an estimated 3,600 jobs.
The agency was first established with funding to eliminate blight, create a vibrant and sustainable downtown and spark economic growth. The target district has eight sub-areas totaling 1,961 acres. Funding comes from tax increment financing where a portion of property taxes are allocated to the CRA. In this case, it’s a classic example of success breeding success. As the CRA helps foster improvement in the town, private investment then comes in and the overall tax base increases. That in turns provides more funding for the CRA.
When the CRA first started, the taxable value within its district was $245 million. Now’s it’s $1.6 billion. What’s more incredible, that’s for an area less than 2,000 acres in size.
For their accomplishments, the CRA team and City of Delray Reach received the Roy. F. Kenzie award for Creative Organizational Development and Funding in 2015 from the Florida Redevelopment Association.
The Downtown Development Authority was a powerful force as well. An aggressive campaign to expand the downtown backed by a solid, continuous marketing campaign to support those retailers and restaurants made an enormous difference. Chamber of Commerce members are also crucial players with their support for various projects and their investment in marketing the town.
With this concerted effort more revitalization went into effect. More businesses and people saw the growth taking place in this once sleepy town by the sea.
Perlman said a key part of the process was to continue to let businesses know that the city paid attention to business. Town officials let it be known they had “the political will” to help businesses succeed and get through the permitting and building processes that are trying for any enterprise.
“We told the staff it is okay to be entrepreneurial. We want to be civic entrepreneurs,” Perlman said. “Money is going to go where it is welcomed and we wanted that investment in Delray.”
Growth supported by intensive marketing
Perlman said the town’s pro-business attitude worked. This attracted investments from developers, retailers and restaurants.
Those dollars turned into tax revenue. Tax revenue that could be reinvested back into the downtown and surrounding areas. Success bred success.
Ferrer said the city decided to focus on four key elements – special events, arts, restaurants and then retail.
Remembering the lesson from previous years when the town had a poor reputation and high crime rates, she said everybody involved also pays close attention and continues to emphasize an underlying theme of “clean and safe.”
Event marketing is an enormous contributing factor
Once the town was back on its feet, their events were a major draw to get people to check out the new Delray and perhaps move here or open a business. It worked.
Immelman jokes that now when a travel writer or other interested party visits their office, they wager how long it will take for the person to say, “Hey, I might want to move here.”
It usually takes about ten minutes, she said. The next stop? A local Realtor’s office.
When the master plan for Delray was first researched, the townspeople also checked out other towns such as Orlando, Tampa and other areas.
They decided they wanted to do something different. They already had a base of artists in place. Why not focus on the arts?
Immelman said this was a crucial turning point as the city came together and “recognized arts as an economic driver.”
Fashion is another. Unique boutique shops continue to move to the area, attracting shoppers…and publicity.
“We’re very big on fashion. Younger retail has now moved in to replace the flannel nightgowns and pajamas that were once sold here,” said Ferrer.
Small wins help. Like the awards.
“An early win will galvanize a team,” observed Immelman. “This really brought the community together.”
The city invests quite a bit in marketing. The Delray Marketing Cooperative heavily promotes its site. The Downtown Development Authority produces its own marketing with videos, print ads, TV commercials, social media, billboards and visitors to www.DowntownDelrayBeach.com
The future for Delray – more bike racks and pedestrian infrastructure
What’s next? “Go West” is the new mantra as the city is looking to expand on the other side of I-95 near Congress Avenue which they believe has enormous potential. Everyone recognizes the key is to keep pushing, keep adding more amenities, keep those tourists and investors coming to town.
“City investment has to be consistent,” Perlman explained. “You can’t be complacent. You can’t say the downtown is done because it’s never done.”
Ironically, town organizers are actually looking to perhaps cut back on some events, there may have been too many.
That’s okay. The lesson here is to be aggressive. Create a myriad of festivals and promotions. Hold them in different parts of town. See which ones work and which ones don’t and then make adjustments. Most small towns have their set list of events they stick to and that’s it. Delray likes to experiment. That’s why they keep attracting people.
Emphasis on mixed use, walkability and bikeability
With all this development, officials admit space is getting tight. That’s why they are looking to expand to Congress Avenue. That’s also why there is a real emphasis on “walkability.” Find a way to attract fewer cars, less congestion and give more people the opportunity to walk and bicycle around town.
“I think the future is walkable. Mixed use. Compact and vibrant. That’s what people want,” said Perlman.
An organization has sprung up in Delray called Human Powered Delray to address those issues. Chairman Jim Chard said city officials have been open to the group’s mission to “make it safe, easier and more fun to walk and bike in this All-America city.”
The town has agreed to a Bike and Pedestrian Master Plan presented by the group. Human Powered Delray representatives are included in planning sessions and have been given official recognition as participants in the city’s planning and transportation developments.
“It’s exciting that the city is supporting everything Human Powered has done,” he said. “They agree every street should be a ‘complete street’ (designed for safe access for all users – motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians and transit riders) and that is a radical and progressive posture to take.”
The city even has a “Historic Delray Beach Bike and Walk Tour” with a map to check out historic points of interest. The town is also introducing some very unique bike racks to popular locations. There's are custom bike racks shaped like a coffee cup and a coffee press in front of the Starbucks on Atlantic Avenue. At the "505" Teen Center and Hobbit Skate Park on SE 5th Avenue there is a bicycle parking rack in the shape of "Pac-Man" video game pieces.
John Morgan, sustainability officer for the City of Delray Beach, said a master plan was first developed in 2003 to include more pedestrian and bicycle access to city streets. That plan is a “work under construction” with more and more emphasis on street use by all segments of the population.
“We need to change the way we think about roads,” he said. “Roads are public spaces and should be thought about in that way for all uses whether it’s biking or walking.”
His first priority however, is to make sure the streets are safe for this type of activity.
Morgan said active and organized local groups such as Human Powered Delray, The Delray Bicycle Club and SAFE (Safety as Floridian Expect) help to show city leaders and decision-makers that there is a broad, genuine public interest in making streets less car-centric and that people will use alternative means of transportation if provided.
“We’re blessed with citizen advocates who are passionate about the quality of life and try to help Delray become more walkable and bikeable,” he added.
The bike-pedestrian master plan is not just limited to city limits. Morgan said the group is working with the county as well to expand access to other areas outside city limits-. This could conceivably create bike paths from the Everglades west of the town to west of Interstate I-95 and then all the way to the beach.
Delray’s story is quite a tale. How a group of people changed the community from a sleepy town to a thriving mini-metropolis. A town that is envied by many others. A town that continues to strive to be likeable, sociable, walkable and bike-able.
Delray’s success was such a phenomenon, that Perlman decided to write a book about it. The title, “Adventures in Local Politics: How Leadership Brought Delray Beach Back.” It’s certainly a study in how to do things right.
The lesson here is that a turnaround for any town can be done. It’s hard, but it’s not rocket science. Focus on creating a decent downtown. Periodically give people a reason to visit and they will come. (And keep returning.) Get aggressive with investments in public improvements, marketing and festivals. Let businesses know they are welcome and will be supported by the town. This formula can work anywhere.
“It’s not a matter of one person or one personality doing everything.” Ferrer said. “It’s because all the entities came together to work on it together. Everyone left their egos and logos outside the door, which is very hard for communities to do.”
Well, they did it. In a big, award-winning way.
An ancient pledge for small town growth
Side note: Many of those involved in the revitalization of Delray Beach probably never read the Athenian Oath, first adopted by the citizens of Athens, Greece, 2,000 years ago and featured on the National Civic League website as a motto for town officials to embrace.
But Delray residents certainly practiced it with a passion.
It reads “We will never bring Disgrace on this our City by an act of dishonesty or cowardice. We will fight for the ideals and Sacred Things of the City both alone and with many. We will revere and obey the City’s laws, and will do our best to incite a like reverence and respect in those above us who are prone to annul them or set them at naught. We will strive unceasingly to quicken the public’s sense of civic duty. Thus, in all these ways, we will transmit this City not only, not less, but greater and more beautiful than it was transmitted to us.
Delray Beach Case Study takeaway points
Here are some takeaways for other cities that might want to duplicate Delray Beach’s success:
- Find a dedicated group of townspeople passionate about making improvements. A crisis can be an opportunity in disguise. Once that core group is developed, keep the momentum going.
- Be sure that group consists of stakeholders from different facets of the community, e.g. city council, city planners, chamber of commerce, HOA presidents from residential and other key leaders
- Make your wins and projects highly visible. Refurbish a building downtown or add an interesting work of art everybody will see. Success breeds success (and tax revenue). These developments snowball into future improvements.
- Instruct your city departments to be receptive to business. You can still have regulations regarding growth, but let businesses know if they adhere to those guidelines the city will support them.
- Be creative with marketing. Create events and capture awards that generate their own news stories.
- When it comes to events, be experimental. Don’t just put up Christmas decorations, but create something unique to attract shoppers. Test different themes for festivals.
- For bond issues, involve the community at the start so they essentially vote for their own wish list. Send out door hangars, schedule frequent interviews, contact key leaders in different segments of the community from pastors to presidents of homeowners’ associations.
- Focus on making the city “walkable” and a pleasant place for citizens to walk, bicycle or hop on a trolley. This reduces congestion and attracts more housing because residents see how easy it is to walk or bicycle downtown.
- Develop and promote cultural assets. Preserve historic buildings. Encourage artistic people to move to the area and find them space where they can work and display their creations.
- Address any negative issues head on. If you have an area with a problem, meet with residents to address issues and participate in solutions. They will then have buy-in and work harder to resolve those issues.
- Make your downtown area a showcase and economic engine for the community.
- Meet one-on-one with those opposed to growth or various projects. Explain to them the overall benefit to the community while agreeing to be considerate of their individual concerns.
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