Kent groups join forces to spur county development

County Administrator Michael J. Petit de Mange was among the speakers at Wednesday’s ribbon cutting for the newly finished Greater Dover Boys & Girls Club on New Burton Road. (Special to The Delaware State News/Jon Lloyd Jr.)

County Administrator Michael J. Petit de Mange

DOVER — Kent County Levy Court and the Greater Kent Committee recently agreed to join forces to “refresh and strengthen” the Kent Economic Partnership.

The Greater Kent Committee, a non-profit membership organization comprised of CEO and business executives in Central Delaware, has pledged to inject $100,000 worth of annual funding to the newly reorganized partnership’s budget. Recent bylaw amendments approved by Levy Court in mid-March, among other changes, awarded two seats on the partnership to the Greater Kent Committee.

County Administrator Michael Petit deMange said the changes will likely strengthen existing business ties and improve the county’s ability to affect local economic development.

“We were approached last fall by the Greater Kent Committee to discuss an interest in building an even stronger partnership and bringing some of their business acumen to our board — their group essentially consists of the top 100 business executives and business owners in the county,” he said.

The county is no stranger to working alongside the private business committee. Mr. Petit de Mange says the county has seen through a number of successful public/private projects that have spurred economic activity already.

“We have a strong track record of success with the Greater Kent Committee — they were our partners in the development of the DE Turf sports complex,” he said. “Overall it’s been a tremendous relationship. Even though projects have lead us through ups and downs, we’ve ultimately been successful in bringing benefits to the county — this partnership is the next step in the evolution of that relationship.”

The goals of the group will remain roughly the same, but with added “talent” and energy, notes Mr. Petit de Mange. The Kent Economic Partnership is a 501c3 organization that has existed in its current iteration since around 2008.

“The goal of the partnership is to represent the entire county and all of the communities in the county,” said Mr. Petit de Mange. “Our objective is to strengthen the business community and to advance recruitment, expansion and retention. We’re going to do everything we can to keep the businesses we already have here healthy, enable expansion where it’s possible and get out to recruit new businesses and industries to our area.”

Levy Court president commissioner P. Brooks Banta — who hold a seat in the partnership — feels the move bodes well for the county’s prospects.

“I think it primes the county for economic development and I’m really excited about the initiative,” he said. “This type of partnership brings the best of Kent County together to focus on adding jobs and increase economic opportunities for all our people.”

New leadership

The former chairman of the Kent Economic Partnership, Bill Andrew, stepped down in December, so one of the reformed group’s first orders of business was to appoint a new one. Mr. Petit deMange said Gregg Moore — who holds one of the new seats added for the Greater Kent Committee — was appointed to the role. Mr. Moore is a principal with Becker Morgan Group, a local architectural and engineering firm.

Gregg Moore

Mr. Moore feels that the public/private partnership’s efforts will translate into addressing one of the county’s “most pressing issues:” the need for decent, high-paying jobs.

“We believe that addressing issues in our community by using the infrastructure that’s already there to do that, and making it better, rather than just starting new committees, is the most appropriate way to approach economic development,” he said. “To retain our county’s current businesses, we have to really understand and listen to them so we can react to their needs. We also need to effectively get out the message about our county’s benefits and that it’s an easy and friendly place to do business. Being responsive to businesses and ensuring that all our approval processes are fast, understandable and easy to navigate will give us an edge too.”

The desire for more high-quality jobs is unanimous, said Mr. Moore.

“We’ve been in talks with the county’s planning department during the drafting of their 2018 Comprehensive Plan and all of their public feedback is indicating that the biggest need in the county is for economic development,” he said.

Also pointing to the example of DE Turf, Mr. Moore feels that more projects of that sort may be possible through the partnership.

“That was a product of Levy Court and the business community working together — it was the Greater Kent Committee that actually developed that project and spun off the DE Turf operation,” he said. “Although it is a huge facility itself, to us, it’s an economic development engine for county’s hotels, restaurants and shopping locations. It’s having a huge impact in those markets.”

In addition to the new chairmanship of Mr. Moore, the partnership will be interviewing and eventually hiring on an executive director sometime after July 1. The director position of the county’s economic development office will be scrapped, noted Mr. Petit de Mange. That position is currently held by James Waddington.

 

“The director will no longer be a county position, but one held by the partnership,” said Mr. Petit de Mange. “But we will be taking out the costs of the position from the county budget like salary and benefits and it will become a reoccurring grant to the Kent Economic Partnership for its personnel costs.”

Mr. Waddington said it’s his intention to reapply for the new director position under the partnership.

“I am excited that the GKC and the KEP will be cooperating to expand economic development efforts in Kent County,” said Mr. Waddington. “I would welcome the opportunity to be a part of that initiative.”

Mr. Petit de Mange said the current budget of the county’s economic development office is about $214,000 and the partnership has about $60,000 of its own funds raised through banquets and other functions.

A page from the state’s book

To some extent, the new collaboration was inspired by the state’s move to transition the Delaware Economic Development Office (DEDO) into a public/private effort called the Delaware Prosperity Partnership (DPP). Mr. Moore also sits on that board.

“The state changed from a full government economic development program under DEDO to one that includes the private sector with DPP — they created a 501c3 and populated it with a combination of government and business representatives,” said Mr. Moore. “Kent County was already doing that with their partnership, so the Greater Kent Committee saw this as a great time to refresh the partnership, sort of using what the state was doing as a model, and making some tweaks.”

Mr. Moore believes the state-level program is already starting to have a positive impact, but he’s concerned that their work may naturally gravitate toward industries that thrive in New Castle County.

“Including myself, there are at least three board members from Kent County on DPP, so we do have representation,” he said. “The problem that we face is that our county is drastically different from New Castle County in terms of types of businesses and available workforce.”

Priorities

Even before joining the Kent Economic Partnership, the Greater Kent Committee commissioned a business analysis of Kent County to help steer its future development efforts, said Mr. Moore. The study, being performed by Rockport Analytics, will be presented in mid-April.

“This firm has studied Disney’s and the Super Bowl’s economic impact, so they’re a serious group,” he added. “Their analysis in Kent County will determine what business groupings are best suited for this area.”

Mr. Moore said the study will take into account factors like population, current business activity and imports and exports.

“Delaware has a lot of industry strengths in things like chemicals and the financial sector, but most of those are dominated by New Castle County and Wilmington — Kent County has different strengths and we need a thorough examination,” he added. “We can’t just look at what the most popular industries are in the state and hope for success pursuing them. With this analysis, we’ll know with industries and business sectors that make the most sense to woo and try to convince to locate here.”

Reach staff writer Ian Gronau at igronau@newszap.com

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