Melissa Kossler Dutton

When Nathalie and Richard Upton wanted to open a J. Gumbo's franchise, they were drawn to downtown Delaware.

"It's a nice bustling town," she said.

The Uptons, who also live in Delaware, value the small-town feel of the Delaware County seat and its proximity to Columbus. They also appreciate the presence of Ohio Wesleyan University, the private liberal arts university that enrolls about 1,800 students.

"The university adds tremendous value to the community," she said. "It brings in a lot of diversity and culture and arts programs."

OWU hosts an annual performing arts series and other cultural events at the Chappelear Drama Center, Gray Chapel in University Hall and Jemison Auditorium in Sanborn Hall.

The college and the community are closely tied together, said Upton, whose 4-year-old son, Alexander, attends preschool at a center operated by OWU. College students regularly dine at J. Gumbo's (where a kid's meal is always free when an adult meal is purchased).

"The students give an energy to the town," Upton said.

The college also played a role in Sarah Stevenson's decision to move to Delaware. She grew up in Indiana, Penn., home of Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and enjoyed the experience.

"There's always activity going on," said the mother of two. "We want to expose our daughters to that."

She and her family participate in activities hosted at The Strand Theatre, which is owned by OWU and run by a nonprofit organization. The three-screen theater regularly shows everything from Disney classics and sporting events to popular television shows and movies.

The Stevensons also enjoy Whit's Frozen Custard, the Ohio-based custard stand known for its freshness, and Dairy Depot, where kids can order blue ice cream dipped in red candy coating (aka The Papa Smurf cone).

Other dining options include Son of Thurman, which serves the same burgers and chips as The Thurman Café, the German Village institution that has been featured on Man v. Food. Amato's Woodfired Pizza has oodles of gourmet toppings to choose from. Grown-ups will enjoy hanging out and shopping at Barley Hopsters, which sells beer and home-brewing equipment and also has an impressive selection of root beer. And just north of Delaware is Mom Wilson's Country Sausage Mart, a meat shop that specializes in pork products. The store also sells jams, pickles and other foods.

The downtown also has an eclectic assortment of businesses. Toujours is a consignment store with a nice play area for kids. The Global Village Collection focuses on fair-trade items from around the world. It's a good place to shop for hostess gifts, home décor or fun kid stuff like bobble-head turtles or paper made from elephant dung. A Little Simplicity sells locally made items, many of them made from repurposed materials. Button Up also carries an interesting mix of handmade items - everything from jewelry to paintings to ceramics. Just west of downtown is The Arts Castle, which offers classes for kids and adults. It also sells artist wares in its gallery shop.

Fundamentals Parent-Teacher Store has a great selection of educational toys, books and games. It's a store where kids will want to browse. Kids also won't want to miss Gameplay Unlimited, an independently owned store that buys and sells video games and systems. Families can create a memento of their visit to Delaware at The Bare Bowl, a paint-your-own pottery studio.

Delaware also offers some great green spaces for families to explore. Mingo Park has a skateboard bowl and a zero-entry outdoor pool. Blue Limestone Park has play equipment geared to little ones and a stocked fishing pond. Families can swim, hike and picnic at nearby Delaware State Park.

Families should consider coming to downtown Delaware for a First Friday event, when shops stay open late and the community hosts special kid-oriented activities, said DebShatzer, executive director of the Delaware County Convention & Visitors Bureau. First Fridays take place from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on the first Friday of the month.