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Celebrate Canalfront Park - Which Almost Didn't Happen!

Over the last two weeks Ive described singular events that have had a tremendous impact on the appeal of historic Lewes today. 

First was the decision in the early 1980s to turn away the development of a massive coal port that would have moved more than 6 tons of the nasty stuff through town every year.

Second was the development of historic preservation regulations that have protected and improved so many of the beautiful old homes and commercial buildings.

This week Im spotlighting another highly visible and much-loved space Canalfront Park.

Situated on Front Street beside The Inn at Canal Square, it offers a playground, numerous vantage points for picturesque views of the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal, the Lewes Little League baseball diamond, tennis and basketball courts and a vast green space that hosts many concerts and other fun public events. 

Im putting the emphasis on the word public, because it was almost transformed into the opposite. If not for a tremendous effort by local residents and business owners and the kindness of a local developer that green space would be occupied by a large building with dozens of condominiums above retail stores and a parking garage.

That was the vision of Jim Kiernan, who was at that time a broker with Coldwell Banker Realty. His team had designed a very attractive colonial style building with cedar shingles and lapboard siding that would have been built alongside a two-story arch granting a bit of visibility from Front Street. The team was also prepared to invest a lot of money to clean up the site prior to construction because it had an industrial feel and was filled with derelict boats. And they were reasonably confident theyd create a profitable enterprise that would appeal to neighborhood residents and visitors alike.

Community vision paved the way

This was all happening between 1998 and the dawning of this century. At that time Lewes was already bustling with homeowners who loved the historic architecture and access to the canal and who tended to be highly engaged in planning for the towns future. When they saw the plans they protested politely insisting that they could come up with a better future for the site.

What happened next could be called a miracle, although it was really more a result of heartfelt hard work by local residents who embarked on a public awareness campaign to help people imagine a public park. From the beginning, they also knew they would have to find a way to compensate the developer if he agreed to forego his plans (and the investment hed already made), and collaborate with state and federal agencies to make the park a reality.

As Second Street resident Joe Stewart, a leader of the effort recalls, 

Lawmakers know everybodys looking for support for something, but what really stands out is when people show theyre willing to put in their own money as well. Over a four-day period we fanned out and knocked on doors and by C.O.B on Sunday we had 100 people who had agreed to give $100 apiece toward whatever it took to build the park. We had these pledges in hand when we went to meet with Delawares Congressional delegation shortly after.

That enthusiasm was compounded during the years that followed, with donations from 1,600 local residents, businesses and people who simply love Lewes. Together these groups donated nearly $2.7 million to create the park. 

This was in addition to a $2 million grant from the Save Americas Treasures program at the National Park Service and generous support other government agencies, including the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. Ultimately, it took nearly $11 million to create the park the public enjoys today.

Developers philanthropy was a crucial final step

Mike Rawl, the Executive Director of the Greater Lewes Community Foundation, also credits Kiernan as an ardent philanthropist who graciously ceded his dream, paving the way for the parks development.

Once he became aware of how strongly the community felt, he created an agreement that benefited everyone, Rawl recalls. His daughter, Kathy Newcomb, went on to serve on the Greater Lewes Foundation Board and created a scholarship in her fathers memory. Were very grateful to the entire family for all of the wonderful things theyve done to make Sussex County such a great place.

I certainly agree with that sentiment, and am very grateful for the collective vision and dedication that created this amazing space. Kudos to Lewes and to everyone whos worked so hard and so smartly to protect and improve the town we love today.

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