Rehoboth Beach: When zero is a good thing

July 13, 2021

Last week brought some exciting news. In their June newsletter, Rehoboth Beach Main Street announced that the city has a zero percent commercial lease vacancy rate. Wow! This is such incredible news in light of what we have all experienced in the past 15 months. When we were agonizing over shutdowns this time last year, who would have thought we’d be celebrating this milestone today? 

In addition to the pandemic restrictions, the past year has seen changes, with several iconic businesses moving out of town, including Nicola Pizza and The Pond. Many people worried who would be next. 

But those businesses didn’t shut down. They left town because they outgrew their small space in our small city, and they needed more space or wanted to relocate near other properties they own. In other words, they are successful. 

It’s important to remember that they got their start here in Rehoboth Beach. Change is hard, but rather than mourn the loss, we should celebrate their success and be proud that it was our town that facilitated their achievements. 

Now, new businesses are here to start the cycle over again. We are also grateful to have many small businesses who choose to stay in town and stay small, working within the code limits of a one-square-mile city. 

Smart legislation and effective city management over many years have served our small business community well. A look back over the past 30 years illustrates how Rehoboth Beach became a small-business-friendly town.

In 1991, commissioners passed an ordinance to limit the size of restaurants to 5,000 square feet, ushering in an era of small, non-chain restaurants. It was the beginning of the city’s identity as a fine dining destination, a reputation that continues today. 

A major streetscape project was completed on Rehoboth Avenue in 2006, with wider sidewalks, planting areas and underground utilities. The City of Rehoboth Beach created an attractive business district and public spaces to promote shopping, dining, strolling, biking and entertainment. 

In 2012, Rehoboth Beach became the first beach community in Delaware to offer a mobile parking solution, providing a convenience to visitors to pay meter fees by phone and eliminate searching for quarters when they visit our businesses.

Commissioners recognized the need to update the restaurant regulations in 2016. Revised code provides flexibility for restaurants to expand their area for kitchens and storage while maintaining the small size that has become a key part of our brand image.

At the same time, an ordinance was passed for a new permitted use in town in response to its growing popularity - brewpubs.

The COVID-19 pandemic last year brought the greatest challenges the city has ever had, as sudden shutdowns led to business closures that lasted for several months, followed by openings under severe restrictions of social distancing. City Manager Sharon Lynn and her staff quickly put a plan in place to allow for outdoor dining and for merchandise racks to be displayed outside on public property.

The mayor and commissioners recently extended this benefit into October 2021. 

Another recent innovation intended to help our small businesses is Meterless Mondays, where the parking meters are suspended each Monday from 4 to 10 p.m. Commissioners also voted recently to continue this benefit through the 2021 season. 

Rehoboth’s post-pandemic recovery is off to a great start, but we not resting on our laurels. Currently, plans are underway for a streetscape project on Baltimore and Wilmington avenues, and First and Second streets in the downtown area to improve commercial viability of those streets and enhance safety in the commercial district. This project has long been a goal for Mayor Stan Mills and was recommended by the comprehensive development plan. 

The state of emergency finally ends today, and the road to normalcy for our city presents challenges for the businesses, the residents and city government. Rehoboth Beach is at a critical crossroads.

This summer, we are full nearly every day, as occupancy rates in hotels and rentals approach 100 percent, and thousands come into town for the day. Increased crowds lead to traffic and safety issues. The city is also undergoing major redevelopment, with multiple hotels planned. 

My fellow commissioners and I, and the hardworking city staff, have our work cut out for us to assure that the city meets the needs of our community. We must continually examine our policies and the services we provide. We must also ensure that our infrastructure – stormwater system, roads, and utilities – is built and maintained to support our growth and serve residents, businesses and visitors.

Our unique sense of place is the key to our success. Our town is authentic. No place stays the same forever; we must evolve. But we must never lose sight of the fact that it’s our scale that helps keep the small business district booming. Visitors and residents are allied in their love of Rehoboth’s charm. We must do everything in our power to retain our local flavor.

If we can achieve these goals and effectively balance our dual personalities as a residential town and a thriving resort, the future looks bright for small-business-friendly Rehoboth Beach!

Susan Gay serves as a commissioner in the City of Rehoboth Beach.
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