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Environmental center adds to Riverfront attractions in Wilmington, Del.

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 30, 2009; C03

I can't remember the last time I'd seen a bald eagle. Then last Sunday, I managed to spot two.

All eyes at the DuPont Environmental Education Center in Wilmington, Del., turned to the window as news of the eagles' presence spread. "It's a lucky day when you see those," said Lesley Bensinger, the center's education coordinator.

Bensinger and her staff are hoping for many more lucky days. More than a decade in the works, the environmental center opened to much fanfare two months ago on the 212-acre Russell W. Peterson Urban Wildlife Refuge. The four-story building along the Christina River overlooks a man-made marsh that is home to such creatures as snapping turtles and squirming mummichog minnows.

The center is the latest addition to Wilmington's Riverfront, which 14 years ago was an industrial wasteland. The city, known best as home base for many of the nation's biggest credit card companies, hopes that the Riverfront will someday rival Baltimore's Harborplace or Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Moderately priced and high-end restaurants have opened, and there are plans for a hotel. Up next: The spring opening of the Delaware Children's Museum. Delaware may have been the first state, but it's one of the last to have its own kids' museum.

"It's very important to get young people and families down here," said Michael Purzycki, executive director of Riverfront Development of Delaware.

As a native New Yorker who has lived in Washington for many years, I had passed through Wilmington countless times on Amtrak or driving along Interstate 95. But that was it -- just passing through. On my way back from New York last weekend, though, I decided to take a look. It was a sunny, mild winter day, perfect, for a walk on the Riverfront.

The first thing that caught my eye as I pulled into the environmental center's parking lot was the massive sky bridge that visitors cross to enter the third floor of the more than 13,000-square-foot facility. Heading for the bridge, I walked through a garden with a waterfall, a tree sculpture, stone benches and a statue of Peterson, the former Delaware governor who had lobbied for the center.

Inside, I was greeted by Nancy DeLong, a teacher naturalist. She led me around the building, which has interactive exhibits, labs and stunning views of the Wilmington skyline and the Christina River from its many observation decks.

From one of those decks, DeLong pointed out an osprey nest on a platform next to the Norfolk Southern railroad tracks. I admit: It was so far away that I couldn't see it. But I took her word for it. We walked down to the marsh, which is surrounded by a boardwalk. On the ground, DeLong pointed out the prints of white-tailed deer. Also recently spotted on the property: a red fox, a couple of raccoons, a great blue heron, a greater black-backed gull.

We ran into Linda and Kip Marsh, who live just outside Wilmington and thought that the center would be a good place for a Sunday afternoon stroll.

"It's been a tough fight turning Wilmington from an industrial city to a tourist attraction," Kip said.

"Philly did it in the '60s," Linda said. "It takes time."

It certainly does, but the Riverfront has come a long way. Yes, there are remnants of what the waterfront used to be: Cranes once used to build ships still dot the landscape. But the two-mile stretch along the river is now home to the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts and the Delaware Theater Company. The Chase Center draws musical acts and art exhibits. Wilmington's minor league baseball team, the Blue Rocks, plays at the Daniel S. Frawley Stadium. A river taxi lets passengers take in all the sights.

On this particular day, I opted to walk the two miles rather than take a taxi. After my tour of the environmental center, I stopped in at the Iron Hill Brewery for a snack and chatted with assistant general manager Michael Rivera before digging into my salmon spring rolls. "Where we are now and where we were a couple of years ago is a quantum leap," he told me.

Continuing my stroll, I read the historical markers along the way, which told me, among other things, that several Underground Railroad stations had been identified in Wilmington.

I walked back to the Hotel du Pont, one of the most historic buildings in the city, admiring other historical landmarks along the way. Before heading to Wilmington, I had talked to Doug Gelbert, author of the recently released book "Look Up, Delaware! 12 Walking Tours of Towns in the First State."

"Everyone passes by Wilmington," he told me. "It's the stop on Amtrak or the hated toll road. No one really gets off I-95 to take a look around. What happens when you do is you see a city that has a wealth of architecture you would not expect for a city its size."

I was impressed by the Old Town Hall, which looks a lot like Philadelphia's Congress Hall and is one of the nation's oldest surviving town halls. (It dates back to 1798.) The Grand Opera House has an elaborate cast-iron facade. The neoclassical Wilmington Public Library is the highlight of the simple but charming Rodney Square.

The next day, I took another walk down to the waterfront. It was a lot colder than it had been the day before, so I slipped into the Wilmington Riverfront Market, which I'd heard about from a taxi driver.

It's not as big as Baltimore's Lexington Market, but it had a good food selection nonetheless. There was fresh produce, and the food stalls offer Thai cuisine, cheese steaks, sandwiches and sushi. I opted for the recently opened Harry's Fish Market and Grill, an offshoot of neighboring Harry's Seafood Grill. If you want to try some of Harry's dishes without the whole sit-down experience, this is the place to go. My ni├žoise salad was scrumptious.

That's the thing about Wilmington. It's not big or flashy. It constantly has to live up to comparisons with Philly and the District. But every once in a while, it surprises you with pockets of charm.

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