“I’ve lived in many of the cities of the Northeast, but I always looked at Delaware and Dover as a little piece of small-town life nestled in the Northeast,” says Rishi Sawhney, MD, a medical oncologist who moved here last year. He has found the city’s charm, culture, and historical background comfortingly similar to that of Charleston, where he studied at the Medical University of South Carolina. “But Dover is closer to Rehoboth Beach,” he smiles. Sawhney is a self-proclaimed “water person” and Rehoboth, one of several popular seaside destinations, is his favorite beach.
Other cities on the Eastern Seaboard may have played more noted roles in U.S. history, but Delaware has roots as deep and significant as any of the original colonies. Renowned as the founder of Philadelphia, William Penn was the prime mover behind Delaware’s capital city as well. In 1682, the Duke of York, brother of Charles II, added Delaware to Penn’s domain, and before long the doughty Quaker leader had drawn up a plan for the city of Dover. Naming the city after England’s coastal town, a nostalgic favorite of his, he made The Green its dominant feature. As one Dover resident says, “History oozes out of every blade of grass on The Green.”
An island of tranquility filling two large city blocks, The Green is still an important part of city life, especially thanks to the fact that the Legislative Hall (a.k.a. the “new capitol”) sits on a second large grassy mall just to the east. The old capitol, now used for government archives, dominates The Green itself.
The Green has become symbolic of the kind of friendly, small-town life that appeals to Michael Zaragoza, MD, one of five urologists in a practice founded by his father in 1963. Even with this quintupled staff capability, says Michael, “we’re trying to keep up with a growing population in the area.”
Although they’re not affecting the hometown ambience, retirees are arriving, if not in droves, at least in higher numbers than in other Eastern and Middle Atlantic states. In fact, according to Chuck Parsonson, the physician recruiter at Bayhealth Medical Center, the area is growing at twice the national rate. Cities Ranked & Rated recently listed Dover the 25th best place to live in America.
Marilyn Hill, the director of physician services for Beebe Medical Center in Lewes, points out that Delaware ranks top in other lists as well. For example, the University of Massachusetts’ Political Economy Research Institute placed Delaware first on its Work Environment Index, which measures job opportunities, job quality, and workplace fairness.
There are good reasons why Delaware is so highly rated: low housing prices, low property taxes, and no sales tax at all. Many a billboard in neighboring states proclaims the latter, which produces a certain expected outcome, whimsically illustrated by Zaragoza. “People from Delaware take the ferry from nearby Lewes (pronounced “Lewis”) across Delaware Bay to Cape May, New Jersey, to revel in the Victorian charm of the seaside town. But New Jerseyites on the boat coming from Cape May are on their way to gorge themselves on tax-free merchandise in Delaware.”
In fact, New Jersey’s tax losses were Delaware’s gain long before brilliant politicians ever engineered revenue from people buying dresses and shoes. The Garden State passed America’s first business incorporation laws in the late 1800s, providing attractive incentives for companies to establish headquarters there. But thanks to maneuvering by then Governor—and presidential candidate—Woodrow Wilson, New Jersey backtracked in 1912, enacting restrictive corporate measures, such as antitrust laws. It was an invitation for businesses to jump ship—or to board the ferry for Delaware. And they did.
In Delaware, pioneering 1899 legislation had opened the door for businesses to organize without having to wait for passage of a special law. “One thing led to another,” according to Rick Geisenberger, Delaware’s current assistant secretary of state, “and officials continued increasing their expertise in easing companies through the incorporation process.” The biggest boon, adds Geisenberger, is the Court of Chancery, renowned for its fairness, protection against unreasonable punitive damages and ability to handle increasingly complex corporate issues. In fact, the legal system is so revered that it’s been rated Number One by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for the last five years, with a top five standing before that.
Professor Eleanor Craig of the University of Delaware’s economics department says, “We’ve dumped a lot of resources into making sure the state supplies good and timely information (to businesses).”
The bottom line for Delaware residents is lower taxes across the board. Today, says Geisenberger, 61 percent of Fortune 500 companies and more than half of all publicly traded firms are incorporated here, although not all with large physical presences. Their fees and taxes provide 22 percent of state revenue.
The resulting “triangle trade”—business-friendly laws, to lower resident taxes, to greater population—seems to benefit everyone. The result is an increasing work force because employers such as Playtex International, Kraft Foods, and financial services industries are growing, as well as credit card and catalog fulfillment centers.
But even with burgeoning development, neighborliness thrives. “There are a lot of people out walking, walking their dogs and jogging at all times of day,” Zaragoza says. “We even do things as old fashioned as borrowing milk from each other.” He does admit that this homey setting may not be exactly what the younger, unmarried crowd is looking for, although married physicians find it ideal for family life.
Even Delaware’s politicians work at sociability. Returns Day has been a long tradition. After elections, both winners and losers gather in nearby Georgetown for an all-day event aimed at burying the hatchet. “This is really such a small state that they can’t afford to act hostile,” says Ed Perez, the executive director of Main Street Dover.
With a symphony, ballet, and theater groups, among other cultural attractions, Dover provides interesting leisure activities, as well as various dining and entertainment options. The well-respected Biggs Museum of American Art adds another dimension to the city’s art scene. However, the beaches and wildlife are perhaps the strongest attractions.
The Delaware climate is as welcoming as the neighbors. As newcomer and family practitioner Andrea Arellano, MD, puts it, “The winter is really mild, but we still have four seasons.” The ocean currents keep the temperatures moderate. Dover is a mere six miles from the Little Creek Wildlife Area set amid coastal marshes of Delaware Bay and close to where it flows into the Atlantic. In fact, the state’s whole eastern border is watery, from the Delaware River flowing south to Delaware Bay and into the Atlantic. The state’s 11 ocean beaches, primarily Rehoboth, Lewes, and Dewey, are magnets for massive numbers of summer sun lovers from Washington, Baltimore, and Philadelphia as well as Delaware.
Others seek serenity by watching the many species of birds at 12 wildlife areas that cover at least two-thirds of the coastal area. The 15,000-acre Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge, along with the Little Creek and Woodland Beach Wildlife Areas and the Ted Harvey Conservation Area, cover half of the Central Delaware shoreline.
Sawhney already knows it’s 40 minutes to Rehoboth, his favorite beach. He admits traffic can be heavy in summertime, but a new extension of the Route 1 Highway to the shore has helped reduce congestion.
“I’m entertained at home by my son, who’s 5,” says Arellano, but she is still attracted to both Rehoboth and its neighboring Lewes Beach, partly because of the stores to be found there, a good share of them consolidated into three major outlet malls.
Just as summertime beach lovers from proximate metropolitan areas take advantage of Delaware’s shores, Dover residents find the larger cities’ amenities easy to access for day trips or weekends. Sawhney has calculated, “It’s 1 hour, 20 minutes to Philadelphia, 1 1/2 hours to Baltimore, 2 hours to Washington, and 2 1/2 hours to New York.” He and his math-teacher wife live in Camden, about three miles south of Dover.
For Zaragoza, the old maxim of “location, location, location” couldn’t be more pertinent. “I live only 12 minutes from the hospital—door-to-door—and I actually have one of the longer commutes of the medical staff. The hospital is across the street from the Catholic school where his sons, 13 and 10, are students. “If one of the boys is reading at Mass or involved in a school performance, I can adjust my schedule and hop over there.”
Ready for the future
Bayhealth Medical Center is comprised of Kent General Hospital in Dover and Milford Memorial Hospital in nearby Milford. Kent is the sole civilian facility in Dover, although there’s a small outpatient clinic on the Dover Air Force Base.
Kent General opened its doors in 1927. Within 10 years, doubled annual admissions made it obvious that more space was imperative. Strategic additions followed through the decades. Most recently, three floors were added to the existing three-floor structure.
In 2003, Bayhealth signed an affiliation agreement with the University of Pennsylvania to provide Dover with comprehensive cardiac surgery services, including on-site coronary artery bypass grafts and heart valve repair and replacement. In concert with this, Bayhealth expanded its cardiac catheterization program, adding peripheral interventional procedures to its diagnostic procedures. That translates into a growing need for interventional cardiologists, according to Parsonson.
One plan for the future will be construction of a new cancer center. That, along with the fact that Bayhealth’s oncology program is growing in leaps, was “one of the main things that talked me into this practice,” says Sawhney. “I really wanted to get in on the initial stages of a hospital and grow with it. There’s always something bigger and better coming out, but I like that.”
The Continence Center of Delaware was developed by Zaragoza in 1995. “It’s a centralized place for surgery, biofeedback, electrical and neuro-stimulation, and diagnostic evaluation with specialized equipment.” He has sent nurses to Philadelphia for training, but thanks to surgical procedures he learned during his urology residency at the University of Michigan, “urologists from Wilmington, Lewes, and Seaford have come here to scrub with me and learn particular surgical techniques.”
South of Dover in Sussex County, Beebe Medical center in Lewes and Nanticoke Memorial Hospital in Seaford provide more than standard community hospital services as well.
Beebe Medical Center is ranked by Healthgrades in the top five percent of U.S. hospitals for orthopaedic services. The hospital has specialized services for cancer care, a catheterization center, a women’s health pavilion, and a brand new cardiac surgery program.
Nanticoke offers long-term care, an expanded ER, a new cancer care center, and women’s incontinence center, among other services.
Along with other aspects of Delaware life, there are a few throwbacks to more “old-fashioned” practices, which pleases Arellano. “The family practitioners are close-knit. Everybody knows everybody,” she says, “and we see each other at least once a month and share suggestions. We discuss issues in our practices, update treatment guidelines, exchange information, form a united front with insurance companies, and bring issues to the hospital’s attention.” She also likes the fact that specialists are easy to reach.
Points of historical pride
The combination of a 21st-century medical environment and 18th-century city ambience sits well with Dover residents, who seem to go not one but many extra miles to maintain and promote their historical heritage.
The protrusion of land that contains Delaware, along with parts of Maryland and Virginia, is known as the Delmarva Peninsula. The area was populated by the Lenni Lenape and other native tribes when English explorers named the Delaware Bay for the English Lord De La Warr in 1610. Dutch and Swedish settlers began arriving in 1631.
The state’s history is sprinkled with men and women of intellect and spunk, but none more so than the gallant Caesar Rodney, most recently memorialized on the first of the states series of U.S. quarters. Representatives to the Continental Congress came down to the wire on the Declaration of Independence and desperately needed one more signer. Rodney had been ill, but he mounted his horse and galloped the 80 miles to Philadelphia to add his crucial signature to those of Hancock, Franklin, Jefferson, and the others.
Rodney became commander of the Delaware Militia in the Revolutionary War and was later elected president of the newly independent state. Thanks to its rigorous training as a local military force before the Revolution, the Delaware contingent was one George Washington’s best-prepared units. In fact, along with Maryland troops, the Delaware forces held off the British as Washington retreated with the rest of the troops after the patriots’ disastrous loss on Long Island. The Delaware troops proudly nicknamed themselves the Fighting Blue Hen’s Chickens, for a pugnacious breed of poultry raised in their home state.
Delaware residents are perhaps most proud of their status as The First State. On December 7, 1787 (a date that would become a day of infamy 154 years later), 30 delegates to a special convention ratified the new U.S. Constitution, making Delaware the original state. It escaped the “smallest state” tease when Rhode Island became the 13th state to join the union in 1790. At 2,057 square miles, Delaware tops “Little Rhody” by 843.
Today, the Dover Air Force Base carries on the state’s military tradition. The area’s largest employer, with a civilian and military work force of 7,000, it’s home to the 436th Air Lift Wing, whose supersized C-5s transport massive cargoes of equipment and personnel all over the world. In fact, its Web site points out that with today’s equipment, it would have taken only 17 planes to conduct the Berlin Airlift. In 1948, it took 308 C-47s to deliver the supplies that saved Germany’s capital after Russian forces had sealed it off from the West. A civilian-oriented attraction is the Air Mobility Command Museum, where several big cargo planes are open for tours, often led by retired fliers.
Today’s base is better known for its somber mission as the only military mortuary terminal on the East Coast. Its presence is the reason Dover lacks a civilian airport, although private and corporate planes come and go, with permission, at the base. Prior to World War II, local officials had bought the land from farmers and built two airstrips and a hangar foundation for the future airport when the Pearl Harbor attack sent the U.S. government into a frantic search for a military site. Dover was perfectly located for a coastal patrol base and anti-submarine missions. In spite of some closings and reopenings over the years, a military base it remains.
The gap doesn’t seem to be a problem for Dover residents, as there are plenty of large airports in the vicinity. “We drive to Philadelphia, but it’s only an hour and 15 minutes,” says Zaragoza. This is better travel time, he says, than for many people who actually live in cities like Washington.
Ever since the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the “First State” nickname has stuck. Most recently, it was adopted for a Dover “park without borders” named The First State Heritage Park, where, as the slogan goes, you can “walk in our patriots’ footsteps.” Guides in colonial costumes are stationed on The Green to greet visitors and provide maps and audio sets for tours of some 30 historic buildings dating from the 1700s to late 1800s. The tour includes about two-thirds of the buildings on The Green and the Old State House, built in 1792.
In a recent addition, a living history program called “Spirits of The Green,” includes costumed “laborers” from a “tavern” on The Green who mingle with visitors to relate local events from the last 300 years.
Another “first” was a book festival held on The Green in November. More than 35 authors, both local and nationally known, were on hand to sign books and mix with the crowd.
In the meantime, Dover’s Main Street organization has been hard at work expediting rehabilitation of deteriorated downtown areas. The idea is to create a unique atmosphere as a draw not only for residents, but also for some of the multi-thousands flocking to the edge of town for NASCAR races at Dover International Speedway, as well as casinos and harness racing at Dover Downs. “We’re working to get vans that will run from the track. While the men are betting on horses, the women can shop downtown instead,” says Perez.
So far, the revived downtown includes several boutiques; 33 West, a former lunch place reincarnated into a sophisticated dining destination; the Red and White Club, a restaurant featuring a hundred different wines, and “Beyond Dimensions,” an eclectic arts-and-crafts store whose owner imports unusual objects from artisans across the U.S. “One entrepreneur has built an old-style tavern in an upscale kind of environment,” reports Perez.
Another large draw is the elegant 600-seat Schwartz Center, reincarnated from a 1904 opera house turned into a 1923 movie palace, which hosts the Dover Symphony, Delaware Theater Company, Opera Delaware (shared with Wilmington), road shows, independent/foreign/art films and even Saturday children’s matinees.
At least one other element contributes to Dover’s ties with the comfortable old ways. “The Amish are incredibly fascinating,” says Sawhney. First arriving in the 1920s, the industrious people began growing crops on their new land. They still supply much of the fresh produce sold locally. Even as relatively new arrivals, the Amish are actually continuing the tradition that led to Delaware’s early prosperity. More than three centuries after its settlement, two-thirds of Delaware is still agricultural, providing chickens, soybeans, corn, apples, cabbage, beans and broccoli to more populous east-coast neighbors.
Eileen Lockwood is a free-lance writer based in St. Joseph, Missouri.