Wilmington businesses hope for a boost during Democratic National Convention media frenzy


Jeanne Kuang

For just a few days this week, restaurant and hotel operators at the Wilmington Riverfront are hoping business will look a little more like it does during normal times.

Hotels are nearly filled up for the Democratic National Convention – a welcome boost in an economic sector pummeled by coronavirus-related shutdowns.

Most of the convention is being held virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the lineup includes speeches delivered from the Chase Center by the party's presidential nominee, Joe Biden, and his newly minted running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris.

It's the kind of big event that local economic development officials have been waiting for at the Riverfront, arriving during the strangest of times.

Production crews from all the major television networks have flocked to parking lots on the Riverfront, where they have set up tents and stages for journalists to provide live commentary on the convention this week.

Mayor Mike Purzycki said before the location of Biden's speech was announced last week, he got an inkling where it would happen from the hoteliers.

"They got a big crush of requests for this stretch of time, which was a pretty good indication of what was happening," he said. "It's just a couple of days, but I think in the long run it's very, very good for Delaware to have potentially the next president be from Delaware."

News workers from several major television networks are staying at the Hyatt Place, where CBS has set up stages in the parking lot. After being closed in March and reopening to occupancy rates of less than 50%, the hotel is fully booked this week for the convention, said Jonathan Silver, vice president of the hotel's developer Onix Group.

The Westin, adjacent to the Chase Center, has seen "a pretty solid uptick" in business, manager Bill Silva said. 

Megan McGlinchey, executive director of the Riverfront Development Corporation, which runs the Chase Center, said the business is "a nice shot in the arm" for local hotel and restaurant owners, "but it's definitely not going to make up for the last five months."

"It is tremendous exposure for Wilmington and for the Riverfront, so we're excited to have them here," she said.

Some Wilmington restaurants, operating at 60% capacity under the state's public health rules, have also seen an uptick in customers.

Lunch was busy at the Riverfront's Iron Hill Brewery on Monday.

On Market Street downtown, Chelsea Tavern owner Joe Van Horn said since the Biden and Harris speeches were announced, a rush of reservations have come into the restaurant from those who want to view the event on TV.

Riverfront restaurant managers are less confident they'll get the same boost as the hotels this week. 

With street closures expected in the area for security, and the convention being closed to the public, managers said they're preparing to serve convention and media workers while bracing for a possible slowdown in regular customers.

Jason Millar, manager at Del Pez Mexican Gastropub, said Monday afternoon he had only heard "certain streets" will be closed. 

"We're waiting to see how it's going to impact us from a traffic standpoint," he said. 

Iron Hill general manager Dustin Mitchell got an email from the restaurant's property manager warning them about street closures on Wednesday and Thursday evening. He was worried about whether guests would make it to their dinner reservations or whether delivery drivers would be able to get to the restaurant.

"We're used to dealing with large crowds with the baseball stadium and the Fourth of July," he said. "Nobody can come to the Riverfront to watch [the speeches]. I don't know whether Wednesday and Thursday are going to drive more sales or take sales away."

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