REHOBOTH BEACH, DELAWARE (THE WASHINGTON POST) – This is supposed to be the offseason. A cold wind whips down the boardwalk. Holiday lights blink and beckon. Beach umbrellas are marked to sell. The only hint of summer is the tangy scent of vinegar-doused french fries wafting from the one Thrasher’s stand that has remained open.
Late fall and winter is when Rehoboth Beach typically gets to crawl back into its shell, take a deep breath and fade from view for a few months. But not this year. An unseasonable energy is rippling through the town as business owners, restaurant workers, year-round residents and local politicians are still abuzz over the small community’s new connection to America’s highest office.
The election of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the United States (US) has turned the bright lights on this Delaware beach community where the president-elect and his wife, Jill, and their family have visited for decades and where they spent Thanksgiving at the dream vacation home they bought here three years ago. It’s not Mar-a-Lago, exactly, but the notion the Rehoboth beach house will soon be a regular presidential getaway has many who live here bursting with pride over their local boy who made good.
“I’m a registered independent, but I always voted Joe. I’ve always really admired the guy,” said Keith Fitzgerald, who moved to Rehoboth from Wilmington in the early 1970s and helped found the Back Porch Café.
Fitzgerald and his partner sold the restaurant last year, but he has remained in Rehoboth and couldn’t be more pleased that a town resident will soon reside in the White House.
“Just the fact that we’ve got somebody from here that’s going to be US President, wow. As a native son from Delaware, I have to admit I’m kind of proud,” Fitzgerald said. “I mean, it’s a pretty dinky little state. Not a lot going on. And now people in the country will know that we’re not the southern county of Pennsylvania anymore.”
Rehoboth was nicknamed the Nation’s Summer Capital after the state built a paved road across Sussex County from Georgetown, Delaware to Rehoboth in the 1920s, and a flood of congressmembers and DC residents began making the beachside town their summer destination.
But congressmembers are one thing. Presidents are a different ballgame altogether.
Mark Hamilton, who has operated a Grateful Dead-inspired shop carrying tie-dyed hippie clothing, jewellery, incense and rock-and-roll themed gifts on Rehoboth Avenue for over 30 years, is excited about the extra cache a President will bring to the town.
“It’s big news for our little town, I’ll tell you,” Hamilton said. “He’s just normal Joe in this town, but still. There’s a lot of pride. Now we can say the President lives here.”
Along with the pride is an acknowledgment by many here that the Biden summer home could be good for business. Like many summer vacation spots, Rehoboth was hammered especially hard by the pandemic. Restaurants and small businesses count on summer receipts to get them through the year and health restrictions limited earnings for many establishments. Biden’s election, said some who work here, has made them optimistic that business will rebound and the virus can be contained.
On November 7, when the major networks announced Biden as the projected winner, Christie Husband was working her shift as a waitress at The Egg. She had waited on the Bidens numerous times and said she was always struck by how polite and unassuming they were. On his first visit to the restaurant a few years ago, Husband said Biden visited the kitchen after breakfast to thank the cooks and took a selfie with the staff.
“When he won I was just ecstatic,” Husband said. “Hopefully it does bring more tourists here next summer to reboot our restaurant business. COVID-19 has really put a hurting on restaurants down here and hopefully his election will help turn things around.”
A trickle of locals and visitors made a pilgrimage to Biden’s beach house in the North Shores section of Rehoboth. In small clusters at first, and then in larger numbers, people drove, biked and walked over to take selfies in front of the stately three-story wood-sided home. A small caravan of jeeps and minivans rode down nearby roads with passengers waving Biden flags out the windows and the drivers beeping their horns in celebration.
The Biden’s Rehoboth getaway home, which they purchased for USD2.7 million in 2017, is painted a bright French blue with a pool in back and broad views overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in the distance and the grassy wetlands and Gordons Pond of Cape Henlopen State Park. Biden has been described often as wearing his heart on his sleeve, and his beach house does as well. A wide two-storey outdoor staircase welcomes guests to the central entrance of the house. On each wing, a message is engraved in white wood slats above the first floor: “Beau’s Gift” on the right side and “Jill Forever” on the left.
It will soon become much harder, of course, for the Bidens to enjoy Rehoboth entirely on their own terms. The security footprint around the President-elect is already changing – and expanding. When the soon-to-be first couple went biking in Cape Henlopen State Park earlier this month, there were two agents flanking them through the Gordons Pond bike loop, and more security ahead scoping out his path. The town’s merchants were abuzz that same weekend when the Secret Service came to secure a specialty homemade soaps shop on First Street so Joe could pop in to do a little shopping. Word spread rapidly that he prefers pine-scented soap.
A President’s presence can drive up home values, and typically creates some sporadic traffic headaches when police block off road crossings to make way for the presidential motorcade. Rehoboth’s main artery, Coastal Highway, is already a painful stop-and-go ride most days in the summer season, to the point that locals try to get their grocery shopping and chores done first thing in the morning before the tourists and vacationers have gotten out the door. While there are just about 1,600 year-round residents of the town, the population balloons during the summer. And more people visited Rehoboth in the shoulder seasons of late spring and early fall in the last five years, keeping the roads busy and making it a nearly year-round resort.
But almost everyone here says they’re perfectly happy to make the trade-off that will come with the added attention.