Economic Summit puts focus on Kent County

 

DOVER — Kent County is a great place to do business, state and local officials proudly declared Tuesday at the annual Kent Economic Summit.

Delaware Technical Community College’s Terry Campus director Dr. June Turansky introduces college president Dr. Mark Brainard after she welcomed everyone in attendance to the seventh annual Delaware Tech Economic Summit.  (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

Delaware Technical Community College’s Terry Campus director Dr. June Turansky introduces college president Dr. Mark Brainard after she welcomed everyone in attendance to the seventh annual Delaware Tech Economic Summit. (Delaware State News/Dave Chambers)

The event brings hundreds of business owners and government workers together to provide information on the goods and services in central Delaware and how entrepreneurs can take steps forward on the road to success.

Before the formal remarks, attendees milled around, chatting with other businesspeople and looking at the informational tables in the back of the room.

Speaking to a captive audience at Delaware Technical Community College, officials touted the things they say distinguish Delaware’s smallest and least populous county and nonetheless make it a suitable home for business.

“I think Kent County has quickly established itself as a major source of innovation, thinking and techniques that put Delaware ahead of the national curve,” Delaware Economic Development Office Director Bernice Whaley said.

One of those facets is the Downtown Development District program, which provides state funding to help revitalize key cities in the state. Wilmington, Dover and Seaford were chosen in January as the target areas, and officials began ramping up efforts to entice investors and builders.

Eight of the 13 projects that have begun as part of the program are in Dover, including two designated large-scale ones. The Priscilla Building, located at the intersection of State and Loockerman streets, will see a restaurant built inside it, and Central Delaware Habitat for Humanity is working to build five houses.

Through the Downtown Development program, local governments and the state are working to attract business owners, which they believe will in turn help improve the areas.

That’s far from the only positive thing going in on the Delaware’s middle county.

Jim Waddington, director of Kent County Economic Development, cited what he called the four Fs: festivals, food, factories and flight. Those areas combine to contribute hundreds of millions, if not billions, to the local economy.

23dsn DTTC Economic Summit 002

Special events like NASCAR races, Firefly Music Festival and Dover Days draw people to Kent County — and once they’re here, those tourists spend money that otherwise would not make it to the area.

Firefly brought in about $68 million for Delaware in 2014, according to a University of Delaware study.

“The economic impact of Firefly really can’t be understated,” Mr. Waddington said of the festival, which began in 2012.

As for the food part of the four Fs, major corporations and small, family-owned businesses alike produce and sell various food products throughout the county, Mr. Waddington said. He highlighted community gardens being developed as part of a collaborative effort to address shortages in municipalities like Clayton and Harrington.

Delaware’s manufacturing has stumbled since the economic recession of 2007 to 2009, but Mr. Waddington argued Kent County’s factories remain strong. The county has not seen an “erosion” in jobs, unlike many other areas, he said. New Castle County, for instance, saw three major facilities — the General Motors Wilmington assembly, Newark Chrysler plant and Delaware City Valero refinery — closed during the recession.

Companies like Kraft Heinz, Perdue and Edgewell continue to operate plants in the area, and the German flooring company Uzin Utz just opened a Dover facility.

In the past year, Kraft Heinz added 30 jobs, Edgewell 270 and Perdue 300, Mr. Waddington said.

The final component of his four Fs, flight, comes in a slightly different form than the others.

“Dover Air Force Base is really the 800-pound gorilla and I think often we sort of know it’s there, we take it for granted and we don’t realize the kind of impact that it has,” Mr. Waddington noted.

The base is responsible for 8,675 jobs, both direct and indirect, and it receives hundreds of millions of dollars in funding, he said.

Bill Neaton, executive director of Dover Economic Development, detailed the Garrison Oak Technology Park, a 389-acre site consisting of 15 plots. While many of the plots remain up for grabs, several companies already have opened facilities at the park.

The Dover SUN Park provides electricity for up to 1,300 houses, using its 34,000 solar panels to draw in energy. Right next to it, the Garrison Energy Center can power 300,000 houses at its peak. It opened in June.

The operator of the energy center, Calpine, received a $2.5 million grant from the state for a natural gas pipeline, and Dover approved a $6 million bond for infrastructure.

The third facility at the park, Uzin Utz, has drawn praise from state and local officials. On Friday, there will be a formal opening ceremony for the flooring manufacturer, which Ms. Whaley said created 23 jobs.

“They could have built any place in the country, and the teamwork between DEDO, Kent County and city, not the incentives … they chose Dover because of the teamwork and the rapid response that we got from the state, the county and the city,” Mr. Neaton said. “That’s what’s important to manufacturers.”

Local security technology company Advantech will begin construction on another lot at Garrison Oak in January, much to the excitement of Mr. Neaton.

Elsewhere in Dover, developers are leasing and purchasing vacant buildings, several of which are on North Dupont Highway. Panda Express opened in August, Produce Junction is set to open next month and a tenant has been signed for the former Kmart, although officials are not ready to make an announcement yet.

There was a clear theme from the speeches made by officials Tuesday: It’s an exciting time to do business in central Delaware.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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