Economic development ideas hatched at Milford retreat

MILFORD — Although City Council’s Tuesday night retreat workshop was mostly focused on accounting matters, some time was taken to discuss the future of Milford’s economic development strategy.

Many council members made clear their desire to leave the Kent Economic Partnership, a countywide organization focused on bringing business to the area.

“I think KEP is a no-go. That’s my temperature on KEP,” said Councilman Andy Fulton.

“I tend to agree with Councilman Fulton,” said Councilman Todd Culotta. “We just got finished with a conversation about possible tax increases, combined with discussions about cost-cutting, so every dollar counts.”

Councilman Mike Boyle, who said he served on the KEP board for almost two years, also agreed.

“I had high hopes as I joined it, but as it went on longer and longer, I began to see that we were pigeonholed for medical,” he said. “They kind of focus all their energy on providing that for us.”

In place of its relationship with KEP, many want the city to create a new economic development and community engagement administrator position.

“We need to grow. We need to provide more services, more jobs and the opportunities for those who raise their families here to stay here with jobs,” Councilman Fulton said.

“If we have this person on our staff, they’re going to be selling Milford,” he said. “They’re not going to be selling Kent County or Sussex County. They’re going to be selling our city and following the goals and aspirations we set for them.”

The position would be “vital to the growth of Milford,” Councilman Culotta said.

“The first thing we’re responsible (for) as councilpeople is the needs of the citizens, and part of that is the growth of the community through bringing business, bringing jobs, bringing more revenue to the city,” he said.

“In my opinion, it’s not just all about growth but retention,” said City Manager Mark Whitfield.

“I don’t know which businesses out there may be struggling, but if we had a person that is in the city who they could come to and say, ‘Hey, I’m having some issues here. Is there any way the city could help us out?’ It would be much better to know that and offer help before the doors get shuttered, and 20, 30 or 50 people are out of work,” he said.

The community engagement element of the role was not discussed as fully.

“It will be great to have somebody involved in economic development, as well as community engagement,” Councilman Brian Baer said. “I think those two really go hand in hand.”

Councilman Culotta said it would be good to have a representative from the city who could help coordinate the different organizations in town working on economic development.

“Sometimes, some of the organizations in Milford that are working on the same goal tend to work in silos,” he said. “It’s good we would have a point of contact to help hold them together.”

One of those organizations, Downtown Milford Inc. — which is funded in part by the city — was another topic of discussion Tuesday night.

“Obviously, we all know the value they provide for the growth and operation of downtown,” Councilman Culotta said. “The events they conduct, between the farmers market, the various fairs and whatnot, are quite valuable.”

But Councilman Boyle identified it as an organization in flux.

“DMI, the last I heard, is operating with an interim director, and the president has decided to step aside,” he said. “Are they still a viable organization or are they going to go away?”

In August, Trish Gerken, DMI’s executive director, stepped down from her position to begin working as a public information officer for the Milford School District.

Since then, DMI has reportedly been in the process of vetting and hiring someone else to fill the position.

Mr. Whitfield heard anecdotally that “they have voted they want to continue. Apparently, there is another person who has stepped up and will take the president role next year. They would like to continue on.”

Councilman Culotta asked if the organization really needs to fill the currently vacant executive director position.

“The executive director, which is what Trish was, is a paid position which most of their funding goes to. … Is that still needed? Because they’ve had a lot of turnover in the position,” he said. “In the five years, I’ve been here (on council), there have been three or four executive directors.”

He wondered if the volunteer committees that make up DMI could continue doing their work without the parent organization.

But others on the council quickly came to DMI’s defense.

“I think I’m that only one who was on (DMI’s) board at one time when it was just getting off its feet, and there’s a lot of things you don’t know,” Councilman Dan Marabello said.

“You have to think of the things they do. Do you want to see them discontinued?” he asked. “The farmers market, the Bud & Bug Festival, the Ladybug (Music) Festival. They’re involved with downtown. This year, it’s hard to tell because of the pandemic.”

Councilman Boyle agreed.

“A lot of the positive publicity we get is really connected to their efforts,” he said. “I think we ought to really make it known to them that what we want to do is help them, help them to survive and grow, because if they do, our downtown businesses will.”

Ultimately, it was decided that DMI’s leadership should give a presentation on the present status of their organization to council.

“I can certainly ask DMI to come in,” Mr. Whitfield said. “I think they’re due a presentation to council.”

He also took the opportunity to discuss the status of Milford’s economic development fund.

“It was used for a number of years to fund the planning and economic development director’s position,” Mr. Whitfield said. “It also funded DMI and other activities.”

He said that at the end of the year, “there’s not going to be much left in that fund.”

Mr. Whitfield noted that the likely sale of two lots in the city-run business park will replenish the fund to a degree, but that there’s a finite number of additional lots.

“It’s not like we’re going to produce more lots there unless we buy another tract of land or obtain another tract of land to subdivide into an industrial park or a business park,” he said. “This could dry up.”

Councilman Culotta suggested that tax incentives could be a way to sell the remaining city-owned lots more quickly.

“I know those have taken a little longer than we’d like to liquidate. Tax revenue is important, but tax incentives can help grow revenue,” he said.

“Maybe as part of people purchasing those lots to be developed for job purposes, which was the original intent, we can look at tax incentives much like we did with Nationwide Healthcare as an incentive to get those properties sold,” Councilman Culotta said.

r. Whitfield liked this idea.

“Abating the taxes for a period of time might be enough of an incentive for someone to build a high-end office complex with high-paying jobs,” he said.

“Right now, we’re just mowing grass on it, and it’s costing us money,” Mr. Whitfield said. “Giving up that tax revenue for three to five to 10 years is really not that significant.”