Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Wilmington Diary, Day Five

A break in the pace of documents to review gives me a little time to catch up. Note to self: Beat up on SEPTA for not taking a page from Amtrak's book and offering wireless Internet access on Regional Rail. This is a frill, and not central to SEPTA's mission of moving Philadelphians 'round the region, you say? Perhaps. But judging from the number of Regional Rail riders I see working on their laptop computers every day, I suspect that there are many who might be willing to tack a little extra onto their TrailPass fares in order to get Internet access on board.

On the job: The job is going well. The bosses are pleased with my work. I'm happy, and tired. I like everything about this job but the commute. Getting up at 5:30 a.m., leaving Philly at 7 and not getting back home until 7 p.m. puts a crimp in my style, even if it means I can finally catch up on reading while on the train. But I now understand why many Americans buy frozen entrees or pick up take-out meals on the way home in the evening. This regimen leaves little time to cook right.

Today's observation: Well, actually, this one's from Monday, when I came in for a half day when the office was closed (my mentor asked if I could use the extra hours--do you think I'd turn her down?).

While killing time in downtown Wilmington in the early afternoon, I wandered through the Ship's Tavern District--a two-block stretch of Market Street that Wilmington's city fathers are trying to turn into a yuppie magnet. The east side of the street remains, like most of Market Street, a faded shell of its former self, with a few businesses surviving among the empty storefronts. On the west side, spruced-up structures boast signs announcing new merchants to come, and others tout loft apartments. In the middle of the central block of the district sits a sandwich shop with checkered tablecloths and faded signs on the east side and a brand-new Subway franchise on the other.

This rankled the owner of the sandwich shop, a Greek gentleman in what looked like his early 60s who had been there for decades. He told me a classic David-and-Goliath story, in which the city played Goliath, using every tool at its disposal short of eminent domain to encourage him to sell the building, close up shop and move on.

"If the city wanted to revive businesses in the area, why didn't it just give you a low- or no-interest loan so you could rehab your place yourself?" I asked.

I don't remember exactly what he said in response, but it boiled down to, That might make too much sense.

Certainly, the city--and New Castle County--found ways to help the company where I am currently working build a grand international headquarters right in the heart of downtown as opposed to expanding its offices in Newark, Del., where it was founded, even more. I'd be curious to know how much it cost them to acquire the handsome 1914 New Castle County Court House from the county, for instance. Maybe there was a tax abatement of some sort for the new construction--all four city blocks' worth of it. And maybe the thousands of people working in these buildings help boosts Wilmington's municipal coffers through local taxes they pay (I will learn more about this when I get my first paycheck this week).

But the little guys like the sandwich shop owner, it appears, see very little benefit from all this. The workers don't lunch in the local eateries, for instance, and at the end of the day, they all clear out of downtown--like I do--headed for their homes outside Wilmington. In the meantime, the small businesses which are supposed to be the backbone of the economy--whether it's local, regional or national--get hassled and bypassed in favor of mega-projects and national chains, when perhaps just a little seed money and a few more customers would do wonders for them.

It's almost enough to make me want to become a Republican, except that the GOP would only deliver more of this same stuff were they in power at the local level.

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