Joe Myer, Executive Director, National Council on Agricultural Life and Labor Research
: Crime and safety are the biggest challenges for central Dover, DE and they have a significant impact on other neighborhoods in Delaware's capital city. Central Dover desperately needed to reduce its crime problem with stepped-up policing and by improving homes and investment properties to attract stable homebuyers and renters.
High crime rates in central Dover have exacerbated problems in Delaware's state capitol, where the mostly low-income residents struggle to stem their community's decline. Violent crimes in Dover's downtown hub spiked in 2013, rising nearly 400 percent over the preceding three years. Nearly all forms of crime were three to five times higher than that of the rest of the city. According to a recent survey, 42 percent of central Dover residents said safety was a major concern. Police say that illegal drug trade is driving much of the crime in the downtown area, a low-income neighborhood where run-down homes and vacant properties provide havens for dealers. Drug traffickers prefer to operate in lower income neighborhoods like central Dover, where about 75 percent of the housing properties are rental units, many of them quickly deteriorating.
The National Council on Agricultural Life and Labor Research (NCALL) has been a leader in affordable housing, homeownership and purchasing education and social impact lending for more than 40 years. Recently, the organization expanded its scope to include neighborhood revitalization and targeted central Dover for a multi-year, multi-faceted initiative. Restoring Central Dover, launched in 2015, lays out strategies related to safety, housing, community building and transportation. Steps taken by the organization and its partners to build a safer community in central Dover include: the deployment of police foot and bike patrols, the expansion of surveillance cameras, improved lighting in targeted areas and establishing a community policing collaborative with a citizen advisory committee and neighborhood watch groups.
Financing for these efforts came from several sources, including the Neighborhood Building Blocks Fund, the Delaware General Assembly and the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation. These funds are used to deploy new walking police patrols in dangerous areas for 16 hours a day, the hiring of new police cadets and installing surveillance cameras and lighting. At one location, new lights at a public basketball court support an effort underway to revive the Police Athletic League. Twelve new LED light fixtures were installed on a residential block near the main commercial corridor, a crime hotspot where there were 837 police calls in 2015. Officers are assigned to specific areas with the greatest need, generating more contact with residents and establishing trust. This has resulted in making the law enforcement leadership more attentive to the priorities of the affected community.
The launch of two Neighborhood Watch groups in key problem areas is another step towards addressing crime and safety concerns. The Dover Police Department has active community policing officers who meet regularly with the neighborhood watch groups. Additionally, the city's code enforcement department is present to answer questions and document potential code violations that require a follow-up. The Dover Police Department says the watch groups play “a crucial role for the police department, as communication and participation must be a two-way street. These community bonds will help make our communities safer and help break down any barriers.” Residents now frequently engage with the police officers and there is mutual respect and friendship at their meetings.
Some residents have demonstrated a commitment to change and leadership by volunteering to run the Neighborhood Watch groups. These leaders plan to meet annually for training and to discuss criminal activity, which often shifts from one hotspot to another. These future leadership programs will be extremely useful in our organization's efforts to equip more residents to make their community more secure.
Restoring Central Dover was instrumental in designating central Dover as the Downtown Development District in 2015, providing access to new revitalization resources. The designation is meant to stabilize communities, stimulate private capital investment and improve job growth and commercial vitality. Following the planning grant, NCALL was awarded $750,000 for a five-year period from the Wells Fargo Regional Foundation for implementation. Six work groups (Housing, Resident Engagement, Safety, Youth and Adult Services; Economic Development, and Transportation, Green Space and Infrastructure) were formed. Each group has milestones and outputs to be completed by various target dates.
Throughout the Restoring Central Dover we've learned several lessons, including:
- The need to include law enforcement agencies in the strategic planning process. The Dover Police Department was an engaged stakeholder in the initial stages of our effort. Now we have them at the table to respond quickly and productively to issues that fall under their authority.
- Leadership is critical, but without sufficient human resources to support it, progress stalls. Locating funds to hire additional police officers has been key to achieving NCALL's goals over a sustained period.
- Safety must be a priority for attracting potential residents and businesses. The homeownership rate in central Dover is notably low and commercial vacancies are high. Efforts are underway to build affordable housing units, attract new investments, address unemployment and underemployment and attract new businesses that can create jobs. Making these new stakeholders feel safe is essential.