Council debates new industrial park as way to bring jobs to Milford

MILFORD — At a three-and-a-half-hour retreat meeting Wednesday night, Milford City Council took stock of the municipality’s capacity to host large-scale employers and considered creating a new industrial park to entice e-commerce distributors.

City Manager Mark Whitfield said an idea for a new industrial park was included in the city’s strategic plan, which was adopted in 2018. He noted that Seaford recently announced it would be constructing one in conjunction with Sussex County.

“Is that something that you folks believe that the city should spur?” he asked the council. “When (we) get inquiries, typically, it is folks looking for large warehouse-type structures, and we really do not have any inventory of any of that.”

Council members were excited about the prospect.

“I think it makes complete sense,” Councilman Todd Culotta said.

“We don’t live in a vacuum. When Seaford makes an announcement, you could argue that takes potential jobs away from us,” he said. “We need to be competitive in that type of scenario.”

Vice Mayor Jason James agreed.

“If we really want to be interested in creating large numbers of jobs, that’s the way to do it. I think it would be a worthy initiative for the city to at least explore.”

Councilman Andrew Fulton said Milford would be a great place for companies involved in e-commerce to place their warehouse operations.

“We are at a perfect location as a hub for e-commerce,” he said. “We are on the gateway to the south, be it inland or coastal, and if you’re coming up from the south, we’re headed right toward Dover.”

Additionally, Councilman Culotta noted that the city is centrally located between several major metropolitan areas, like New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.

Vice Mayor James, who works in logistics, gave the council some insight into how e-commerce has changed the industry.

“You don’t need as much space, but you still need to be close to major arteries,” he said.

“You still have a lot of traffic that needs to move that can’t clog up your roadways, because then, you have a bunch of upset residents,” Vice Mayor James said, “and you become an unfavorable addition to the community.”

Mayor Archie Campbell added that demand for enormous warehouses has decreased because “most of these companies are looking at just-in-time inventory, so they don’t have to maintain a whole plant of product. They’re going to get the product in, bring it through their supply chain and get it out right away.”

However, he said he thinks Milford’s seasonal, but intense, beach traffic is a potential issue.

“The problem we have is in the summer months, the roads are clogged,” the mayor said. “Unless they’re going west, we have a problem in Milford.”

The council discussed a possible path forward for a new business park.

“We have roughly $47 million in reserve funds that we have sitting in a bank that we could be looking at how we utilize those funds to leverage something like an industrial park, such that you’re not losing the money, but you’re getting a return at a later date,” Mr. Whitfield said.

“There’s a lot of creative things we could be doing in terms of meeting that demand for industrial land in large parcels,” he said.

Rob Pierce, Milford’s planning and economic development director, said the city could begin earmarking funds for conceptual planning in next year’s budget.

“The big question will be, what is it going to cost to design it, plan it, construct it?” he said.

Councilman Mike Boyle called for a workshop on industrial land use.
He wanted to “call in some experts on logistics, manufacturing (and) warehousing to see if we’re really as well-positioned as we think we are” and “develop a land-use plan designed to increase our industrial capabilities.”

Mr. Pierce also provided an overview of the industrial areas already available or in use in Milford.

The first area he mentioned was the strip of industrial uses along Rehoboth Boulevard, which includes Kent-Sussex Industries, the Perdue chicken plant, Atlantic Concrete Products and Sea Watch International.

“That could yield some future industrial growth, but it’s fairly unorganized in terms of how the parcels are arranged,” Mr. Pierce said.

“We also have this stretch on the railroad spur that heads west out off of (Del.) 14 and Holly Hill Road,” he said. “We have some existing industrial employers out that way that would appreciate similar neighbors.”

He said that businesses located there, like Baltimore Aircoil Co., which manufactures cooling systems, and fertilizer producer Nutrien Ag Solutions, benefit from their proximity to the railroad.

Mr. Pierce also discussed the older industrial areas on McColley and Marshall streets. He noted that this area has seen some efforts to redevelop spaces for warehouse distribution, but Councilman Brian Baer said he hasn’t seen much activity there.

Both he and Councilman Fulton expressed a desire for vacant or underutilized existing industrial spaces to be occupied.

“Some of those properties on McColley are what I would consider underutilized. A lot of them are being rented out to different people to store things,” Mr. Pierce said. “It could be better utilized, but they’re just looking to get some sort of revenue on the building.”

He added that those spaces “might not be the most ideal location from a logistics and transportation aspect. You pretty much have to go through town to get back out to one of those major roadways.”

“It was good at (one) time because they have the spur and rail access down there, but it’s not exactly the easiest to get to from points north and west,” Mr. Pierce said.

Another key industrial area in Milford is what Mr. Pierce called Masten Circle Park, which is behind the McDonald’s on U.S. 113.

“There are only, I believe, two parcels remaining out there, maybe three, that are under private ownership,” he said.

Mr. Pierce said that area, which is home to a beer-distribution operation called NKS Distributors and some storage facilities, “has a better chance of developing quickly because the utilities and roads and everything are already there. It’s kind of like our business park. You just have to come in and get your site plan.”

The council also discussed the state of Milford’s two city-run business parks along Airport Road, which, like the potential industrial park, were created to bring jobs to the city. Mr. Pierce reported that the Greater Milford Business Park is almost full, but that he’s had more difficulty filling up Independence Commons.

“One of the reasons I think we have difficulty selling property in Independence Commons park is that there’s not a lot of demand for these one-acre pieces of land for these office uses, and the zoning category for (that) side of Airport Road is fairly restrictive,” he said.

Councilman Culotta pointed out that the potential revenue from the sale of these lots would be important to the city’s budget.

“We’re dependent on some of the revenue for economic development,” he said. “What can we do to incentivize folks to buy that land, whether it’s price negotiation or some kind of tax incentive?”

He floated the idea of “opening up some of the zoning,” but added, “I’m not sure that’s going to be popular publicly.”

Mr. Pierce said the issue is not a lack of interest in the business park.

“The calls I’ve been getting about the business park are all for uses that can’t go in the business park,” he said. “I will try to steer them to other areas that would allow the use they’re attempting to do.”

Councilman Culotta wanted to know what it would take to get a nonconforming use into that business park.

“My recommendation would be to have them contact a council member to sponsor a code amendment,” Mr. Pierce said.

From there, if the council were to approve a code amendment, then the formerly nonconforming use could be considered.