The sign advertises a shopping center, but the shabby buildings don’t appear to be a center for much and there’s little shopping going on.
The Nylon Capital Shopping Center in Seaford used to be a community gathering place, but drive past it now on Route 20 on the west side of Seaford and you’ll see a mostly empty parking lot. A few tenants hold on here and there, but the sign out front advertises, “Space for lease.”
There’s plenty of that. Row after row of empty windows line the once-packed sidewalks, some of them boarded over with plywood. Shingles and pieces of siding are missing.
There is, however, new activity stirring at the Center: A spruced up building in a cluster of open shops at one end of the plaza will be the home of a new Dollar Tree.
While Seaford leaders say they’d love to see the site of the shopping center thrive again and they wish the Dollar Tree success, they aren’t banking on the new store as a sign a comeback is afoot. Rather, they describe an economic comeback taking place in the rest of the city.
The name of the center alludes to Seaford’s history as a manufacturing hub for DuPont that earned it the nickname “Nylon Capital of the World.” Seaford got a long, slow gut punch when the thousands of jobs at the city’s main employer disappeared, with DuPont finally selling out in 2004.
The decaying old shopping center is a reminder of that loss for residents, officials say.
“When you run for elected office in the city of Seaford, that’s the first thing you’re always asked is, ‘What are you going to do to fix the Nylon Capitol shopping center?’” Mayor David Genshaw said. “And I, like probably a lot of elected people thought well, with my charming personality, I will surely be able to win this developer over and we’ll make some things happen. And you realize it’s a heck of a lot tougher than that. Every mayor before me has worked very hard on getting the Cordish Company (the owner) to do something different with the Nylon Capitol Shopping Center and most of them have been very frustrated.”
Genshaw said he’s not aware of any major plans afoot at the center, despite the new Dollar Tree, although he’s excited to see a new business. He said there have been a lot of “swings and misses” at the property over the past few years.
“We certainly believe that that property could be used for a much better purpose,” he said. “We’re willing to help support, encourage the Cordish Company redevelop, or anybody they would wish to sell to, that’s for sure.”
The city has tried to encourage the Cordish Companies to do something with the property like bringing in a grocery store, Genshaw said. But they don’t have a typical relationship like with other developers and the city is not kept in the loop on Cordish’s plans. The city was not involved in the process of bringing the Dollar Tree.
As of Tuesday, the Cordish Companies had not responded to questions about the future of the shopping center.
The shopping center's vibrant past
The Nylon Capital Shopping Center was one of the first of its kind in southern Delaware, local historian Jim Bowden said. Although it wasn’t owned by DuPont, like everything else in Seaford at that time it had ties: Its one-time owner was Louisa Carpenter, a DuPont heiress.
The rise of the shopping center actually contributed to the decline of another area in Seaford, the downtown, Bowden said.
“A lot of business went to this new shopping center … it was a great big hit,” he said.
“The entertainment for teenagers was to ride around in circles around the shopping center,” Genshaw said. “All those stores were full.”
After Carpenter died in a plane crash, the Cordish Company bought the center in the 70s while it was still going strong, Bowden said, and the company spent money to expand it (which incidentally pushed out the Little League fields and the Jaycees’ community pool that were at the site).
Why it went into a downward spiral
It’s tempting to tie the Nylon Capital Shopping Center’s fate to DuPont leaving as it makes a striking metaphor (reporters are suckers for a good metaphor). But Bowden and city leaders point to a more complicated scenario of changing economic tides and the fate of the shopping-center-as-destination in general.
“The mindset was that West Seaford was where everything was going to grow,” Bowden said. And while some of that happened, a lot of the retail growth actually shifted out along Route 13 where the Lowe’s and Texas Roadhouse and Walmart are clustered now.
Genshaw said vacancies started adding up. Peeble’s moved out to the highway (then recently closed, itself a victim of the woes hitting once thriving national department store chains).
When stores like Woolworth’s closed, that was a nail in the coffin, Bowden said, as that store had been a big draw.
“I think it was just a coalescence of multiple things, to be honest with you,” Seaford Economic Development Director Trisha Newcomer said. “Because even prior to the downturn (when DuPont left), there was some movement afoot out toward the highway, out toward 13, the creation of some of the centers that are out there.” Businesses needed to be where their customers were shopping. “It all becomes one big snowball effect,” she said.
The loss of DuPont, of course, didn’t help. The city lost an income base, and also all that traffic with people shopping on their way to the plant, Bowden said. He recalled how traffic used to clog Seaford west of Route 13.
"Police would stand at two intersections during shift changes every weekday to keep traffic from snarling out of control as people flooded in and out of town," the Baltimore Sun reported in a 2003 article about the proposed sale of the DuPont Plant.
"You didn't want to be around here at 4," one local told the paper. "Bumper to bumper. It's almost like it just stood still."
Seaford's sales pitch for its economy now
The story of the decline of the textile industry and DuPont’s factory in Seaford has been told many times, with the official end coming in 2004 when it sold out to Invista. The plant had employed more than 4,000 people in its heyday but had been cutting jobs for years before the sale.
Genshaw called the Seaford of the DuPont era a one horse town, in the sense of relying on one business. “When things are good, they’re really really good. But when that one horse decides to pack up and go to China, you see the impact on Seaford. It was devastating.”
For decades, city leaders have been giving reporters hopeful quotes about how Seaford is diversifying and growing beyond DuPont. But Genshaw said he’s seen it happen in recent years.
“Ten years ago, we struggled to have conversations with any businesses. We weren’t getting a lot of attention and we were aggressively trying to reach out to businesses and bring them here.” But the last five years, he said, have brought an incredible change. “We’re having conversations (with businesses) on a fairly regular basis about coming to Seaford.”
Genshaw also mentioned the arrival of Amazon’s fulfillment center, investment in the downtown Riverfront and now developments with a planned Western Sussex Business Campus on city-owned property on the west side.
A Maryland company is set to break ground on extensive development at the business park in the near future, possibly this year. Newcomer and Genshaw hope for more than 1,000 jobs from the business park’s growth.
Newcomer also said development has returned to the downtown area, as businesses get incentives to move there and people increasingly focus on shopping locally. She said she’s only aware of one vacancy downtown, where a restaurant remodeled and created an extra space.
She’s a fan of relying on a variety of companies instead of one giant one. Instead of thousands of jobs in one place, “you may have 10 companies that have 100 jobs apiece. That’s great to bring the numbers back but not put all your eggs in one basket,” she said.
Genshaw touted the city's location as a community not far from the beach that still offers an affordable cost of living.
What that means for the Nylon Capital Shopping Center
Does the arrival of a Dollar Tree signify that the Nylon Capital Shopping Center is about to experience a similar revival? That’s not what Newcomer and Genshaw are suggesting, although they said they were glad to see the new store.
“I can tell you, pretty much every person you talk to in our community wants to see that (shopping center) revitalized,” Newcomer said.
Dollar stores in general have taken criticism for their effect on communities, with some saying that they compete with grocery stores in low-income communities without offering as many healthy options. Still, they remain a draw. And with inflation devaluing salaries, dollar stores are seeing an increase in higher-income shoppers, MSNBC reported.
Seaford already has multiple dollar stores.
The Dollar Tree is not the first time someone has tried to make a go of it at the shopping center in recent years, Genshaw said, recalling a high-end gym that failed to take off.
Of course, some businesses have stuck it out for years. Genshaw cited Sal’s Italian Restaurant as an example, which has hung on because of a “tremendous loyal following.”
There’s a lot of success happening on the west side of town, Genshaw said. Developers inquire about the property fairly regularly, he said. But of course the city can’t sell it – that’s up to the owner.
Still, Genshaw and Newcomer spoke highly of the location itself.
“I think it has a wealth of opportunities … ultimately, we would just like to see movement,” Newcomer said. “It’s looked the same for the last 20 years.”
“I believe it will redevelop,” she said.
“I’m really keeping my fingers crossed,” Bowden said.