Jim Ford: Compromise, harmonize for progressLewes mayor's public service came as a surprise
Lewes — It would take a book to cover all the things Mayor Jim Ford helped weave into the fabric of the city of Lewes.
Ford, 61, announced in February that he would not seek a sixth term as mayor in the city’s May election. Ted Becker, city councilman and deputy mayor, ran unopposed for the office.
Ford said serving as mayor has become almost a full-time position – if it’s being done right.
“It’s time for me to spend more time with my family and my construction firm,” he said.
Ford’s start as a Lewes leader wasn’t his decision; it was one made for him in 1987 by then-Mayor Al Stango.
At a meeting one night – without Ford knowing – Stango appointed him to the Lewes Planning Commission.
Ford said Stango was a character and a rock-solid Philadelphia Phillies fan. “One night at a planning commission meeting, we had a little TV in the room. He turned around during the meeting, turned the TV on, flipped his chair around and started watching the ballgame,” Ford said, still finding laughter about the moment.
In 1987, Lewes planners were dealing with the first phase of large developments that allowed private streets.
“We allowed private streets to stimulate economic development in Lewes. Bay Breeze, Pilottown Village, and not too long after that, Cape Shores was coming about,” he said.
What today is known as Fourth Street extended had not been constructed.
“That was part of the agreement for Pilottown Village, that the developer would put in Fourth Street extended to relieve traffic on Pilottown Road and to accommodate the development.”
The period marked the beginning of the city’s new home construction boom, but at the same time, interest in restoring older homes also was on the rise.
Shipcarpenter Square, a development made up of homes that are wholly or partly period homes, started in the early 1980s, which was good timing for Ford.
Although he is University of Delaware graduate with a degree in biology, Ford has never worked in that discipline. He said he’s always enjoyed working with his hands, making something where earlier there had been nothing. He started restoring old homes.
Homes along streets such as Jefferson and Washington were selling for about $20,000.
“People would buy them and do improvements, and then they’d be worth like $130,000 or $150,000, and you’d think you had something there, and you did,” he said.
Interest in Lewes property snowballed; real estate prices increased and developer interests became evident. “The economic development concerns that had been placed out there were starting to be addressed, and in town, things were starting to move.”
Second Street was also undergoing a transformation. Businesses successful there during the 1980s were on the way out, though their owners might not have known it.
Fox’s 5 & 10 cents store, Franklin Hardware, Bill’s TV repair shop, A&P groceries, and service-type businesses on Second Street would not survive the decade.
“The trend started to change more toward the tourist trade and restaurants that would go along with the tourist trade,” Ford said.
Along Route 1, corporate big box stores and big supermarkets started to develop, ending the reign of many of the city’s small businesses.
In 1992, Ford was elected to city council in his first run for office. He describes his first year on the panel as very contentious.
Stango had stepped down as mayor, and Ford was on a city council without a single incumbent except John Adams, a councilman who won the mayor’s seat.
Longtime resident Kevin Moore was the only candidate on the ballot, and Adams won on write-in votes.
“It was a contentious election to start with. There was a mayor of more than 24 years leaving office, and people that had some past relationship with Mayor Stango who had something they wanted to aggrieve or bring forward came out of the woodwork,” Ford said.
He said two days after the election, he took office, and after his first meeting as a councilman, he wondered what he had gotten himself into.
“Those first two years when Adams was the mayor, we had a lot of division in the community. A citizen’s interest group formed called the Citizens In Action – CIA – and they’d bring forward their concerns, and we’d discuss them and work through things,” he said.
Adams served for two years and resigned; George H.P. Smith was elected mayor.
“George’s philosophy was you could help the city if you’d get on a committee. He tried to harmonize things, and a lot of people who had their concerns and citizens interest groups were asked to serve or stop complaining, one or the other,” Ford said.
He said Smith’s personality differed from Adams’ in that Smith worked to harmonize and unify.
Ford said during the ’90s, the city created the Commercial Architectural Review Committee.
“I think it was the first step in trying to preserve the physical appearance of the city,” he said.
In 2003, the city started talking about how it might go about ensuring that historically significant residential structures could be protected. By 2004, the Lewes Historic Preservation Commission was in place.
The commission streamlined the process for homeowners to obtain permission to alter the exterior of historic homes and, in some instances, demolish them.
“As a builder, I can see both sides of the equation. You have the interest in wanting to preserve the character of the community,” said Ford.
An eye on the city's future
Ford said perhaps the most significant event to occur during his time in office was the decision to take a long-range look at where the city was headed.
The Environmental Protection Agency had hit the city with a wastewater treatment violation for discharging effluent into the Lewes-Rehoboth Canal. Ford said the city examined several methods of disposing of wastewater; deep- and shallow-well injection; spray irrigation and ocean outfall, but none of them proved feasible. He said unless the city upgraded its wastewater treatment plant, the EPA would continue issuing citations and fines.
To upgrade the wastewater treatment plant would be costly, he said, so they thought about what else could be done.
The city wanted to work on Canalfront Park and street improvements; for the BPW it was electric, water and wastewater system upgrades.
Ford said the city and Lewes Board of Public Works thought a bond referendum would work. Ford said 72 percent of the city’s voters supported the bond referendum. “We were telling them their taxes were going to go up, and they could go up again with operational expenses, and they agreed to do that.”
Nearly $20 million in bonds were issued, and $500,000 of it went to the Lewes Canalfront Park project.
The city also traded jurisdiction over 90 acres it owned adjacent to Cape Henlopen State Park with the state for $500,000.
“The city essentially was able to come up with $1 million through some creative thinking to get that land taken care of,” Ford said. He said city residents and philanthropic organizations helped raise additional money for the park.
Land for library
His last big success as mayor, Ford said, was acquiring 5.5 acres for $2.5 million for the new Lewes Public Library.
“I think it’s a big accomplishment for the city because it’s a library and a trailhead,” he said.
Ford said the city was up against a deadline to close the deal with landowner Blake Thompson before the end of 2012.
“We were able to do what I thought was some creative financing to come up with the money,” he said.
The city borrowed $2.15 million from the Board of Public Works and sold three residential lots on Burton Avenue for around $300,000 each.
“I can’t say that I’ve ever accomplished anything by myself; you work as a team. I always try to have a general philosophy that you should have a balance; you shouldn’t tip too heavily to one side or the other.
“There’s always a way to compromise with whatever your decisions might be. Maybe everybody doesn’t get everything they want, but everybody gets a little of something that they want.”