During the economic downturn of the late 2000s, Milton had fallen on hard times.
There were empty storefronts, and the mood surrounding the town was down, said Ted Kanakos, mayor of Milton since 2016 and a resident in Sussex County for the last 20 years.
But there has been an uptick in the town since then.
“Milton is definitely in a renaissance,” he said.
Artisanal businesses have emerged, food trucks are a regular sight downtown and town festivals are commonplace.
In town, 73 out of the 74 storefronts have businesses in them, Kanakos said, and the mood surrounding the town has greatly improved with subdivisions being built and people moving in.
“The interesting thing about the economics of a town, a few years ago when the downturn of 2007 was really bad, the economy was bad, we were building almost no houses in our town,” Kanakos said. “Today, each year we set a record for building more houses, and when you have roofs, you have businesses. You can’t have businesses without people living in town.”
When the economy started to improve after 2010, people were more willing to take a risk on a business venture.
During the recession, when a business failed, stores would sit vacant for up to a year, Kanakos said.
“Now, if they don’t make it, that store is re-rented immediately, so there are a lot of people that want to be in business in our town,” he said.
But before the uptick, organizations such as the Milton Community Foundation had to help support businesses and art in the town.
Milton Community Foundation was a large part of the Horseshoe Crab Festival when it first started 15 years ago, said Steve Crawford, president of the Milton Community Foundation.
“We helped generate interest in town businesses through promoting festivals like the Horseshoe Crab Festival,” he said.
When he first moved to Milton in 2012, it felt vacant, he said. But since then, that has changed.
“I think we are small still, and is difficult to say directly that we helped bring businesses in, but we supported the community during the downturn and helped them that way,” Crawford said.
One business that has had success in Milton since opening is Suburban Farmhouse, a coffee shop and bakery on Federal Street.
The store opened in 2017, and when she first talked about opening it, people gave co-owner Kristen Latham a weird look.
“It has been an amazing outpouring of support since then,” she said. “We love this business, we love this town, we love this town’s people. They have rallied together and made us into such a success in such a short amount of time. I wouldn’t want us to be anywhere else.”
The store may add a new location in the future or expand, but right now, Latham is satisfied with where they are.
Milton is home, she said.
“A Milton local will come and they will bring their friend from Long Neck and their friend from Georgetown and Rehoboth, and they are all here,” said Jodi Sickles, co-owner of the Suburban Farmhouse. “We know everybody’s name and what they drink and I know what they want to eat.”
Milton — and their store — has turned into a destination for many people, Latham said, because they want to experience small-town charm.
They were destined to be there, she added, and the entire experience has been “serendipitous.”
“Milton is the place to go,” Latham said. “Milton is the place to be, and I think we have been saying that for the last few years and now it’s happening.”
In recent years, Milton, much like the small town of Berlin, Maryland, has been awarded with many recognitions as community with charm.
One business that has been in Milton since 2002 and stuck with the town through the economic downturn is Dogfish Head.
The beer trailblazers have their main brewery and cannery in the town, but it is very important that they support not just the town of Milton but the entire coastal Delaware region, said Mark Carter, off-centered event planning and benevolencing director.
“We are growing, obviously Delaware is growing, the town of Milton is going, Sussex County beach life, the whole area, is growing, and we bring a lot of folks into the community, not just Milton but all the neighborhoods and towns we are connected to,” he said. “So we bring 100,000 visitors in a year, those visitors, hopefully, traffic, not just by vehicle but by foot as well, into Milton.”
Dogfish will encourage people to venture into Milton to experience the town and see the historical society and possibly catch a play at the Milton theater. (Milton Mayor Kanakos said they have over 300 productions per year there.)
Dogfish Head also sponsor nonprofits such as the Milton Theater or Milton Community Foundation to make the town in which they are located more beautiful and more attractive to visitors.
“One of the things, I think, from day one Dogfish Head has always been about not just ‘Hey, we’re Dogfish, and we make beer,’ ” Carter said. “It’s ‘Hey, we’re Dogfish, and we are proud to be in coastal Delaware.’ “
Having a strong town council and a strong town manager that are actively invested in the town has helped tremendously, Kanakos said.
The people on the town council are at the top of their professions, he added, ensuring only the best of the best will be there helping out Milton.
Kristy Rogers, who became the town manager in early 2017, has also been an excellent asset to the town, Kanakos said, because of her ability to negotiate contracts with other agencies that will benefit the town.
Their representatives in the Delaware General Assembly, Sen. Ernie Lopez and Rep. Steve Smyk, also help the town out, ensuring their needs are met by the General Assembly to ensure they are competitive with other towns, Kanakos said.
Above all, though, since taking over as mayor two years ago, Kanakos is just happy with the way his town has grown and the responses to it.
“This is the leading edge,” he said. “Just a little town like this.”