Business group proposes changes to spur Delaware economy

DOVER — A new report from a business coalition calls for placing additional emphasis on creating a business-friendly environment in Delaware, including fewer regulations, greater investment in higher education and more partnerships with companies and nonprofits to spur economic growth.

The 51-page Delaware Growth Agenda released Wednesday by the Delaware Business Roundtable is intended as a “framework” geared toward strengthening the state for future years as the economy continues to change, roundtable Executive Director Bob Perkins said.

The economy is “absolutely” the most pressing issue confronting the state, he said.

Bob Perkins

Bob Perkins

The release, created after interviews with approximately 125 business owners, government officials, nonprofit leaders and others, includes several key findings: manufacturing jobs are becoming scarce, a high percentage of state residents are involved in the workforce and the state has a strong higher-education system that can drive innovation in the years to come.

“Delaware’s economy, like the national economy, has been undergoing a fundamental transformation over the last 25 years,” the report states. The publication refers to its recommendations as “a reset of economic development” where Delaware must continue adapting and focus on original ways of thinking to combat “the overwhelming forces of change that are sweeping the nation.”

Although much of the state’s innovation and economic development has relied heavily on major companies like DuPont and MBNA Corporation, the findings say, many of those corporations are now smaller than they were, no longer exist or have moved out of the state.

“In essence what we need to do is to foster that spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship to take the place and try to help our economy grow,” Mr. Perkins said.

He cited two measures passed by the General Assembly this year that were aimed at incentivizing businesses to settle or stay in Delaware as examples of positive legislation.

The report urges the Delaware Economic Development Office to work directly with businesses and nonprofits to leverage more private funding and encourage greater collaboration between sectors.

“Delaware doesn’t have a checkbook as big as Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Texas or Florida,” Mr. Perkins said. “We can’t compete in terms of financial incentives, so we have to use our natural abilities. We’re smaller, we’re more nimble, we should be more quick to respond.”

Reducing regulations, including changing the Coastal Zone Act to allow redevelopment of brownfields along the Delaware River, could spur business growth and in turn create jobs, according to the findings.

Higher education in particular should be a focus for officials, the report says.

“Among stakeholders, there is widespread agreement that Delaware must embrace and invest in higher education to become the long-term driving force of the state’s entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem,” it says. “Just as major technology hubs such as Boston, Silicon Valley, Austin, and Seattle have been built around large research universities, Delaware must consider similar options.”

Mr. Perkins said the publication was released now to allow some of its findings to be discussed during election season as candidates for governor debate policy and propose new initiatives.

Term-limited Gov. Jack Markell has done a good job improving the state’s business climate in the wake of the recession, Mr. Perkins said.

A spokeswoman for the governor, a Democrat, touted the work done by the administration over the past seven-and-a-half years.

“We hope that some of these recommendations will help the state build on efforts that have strengthened our infrastructure, improved our schools, expanded exports and reformed our tax code,” Courtney McGregor said in a statement.

“Today, more people are working in Delaware than ever before. Together, we can continue the progress that has resulted in the fastest job growth in the region, record job growth for the state coupled with rising wages, a top-five ranking in Gallup’s annual job creation index (up from the bottom 10 a few years ago) and recognition as one of the two states best-prepared for the new economy. That’s in addition to the best growth in labor force participation of any state since 2010.”

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