COMMENTARY: Time to refocus economic development in Delaware

Each month seems to bring a new piece of major economic news to Delaware that fundamentally challenges how our state has approached economic development for several decades.

Our economy today is unrecognizable to leaders of just a generation ago, as major corporations are downsizing and huge chunks of entire industries have left the state. Traditionally, the state’s economy has relied on the presence of large corporate and institutional employers, which is where much of Delaware’s long history of research and innovation has occurred. Now, to keep up with economic and technological change, Delaware must develop a culture of entrepreneurship.

That’s why Delaware’s political, business and community leaders must immediately take the initiative to begin working more collaboratively to fundamentally change the way we approach economic development in the state.

The Delaware Growth Agenda, commissioned by the Delaware Business Roundtable, calls on the state to nurture a growing entrepreneurship base in the face of intense competition for jobs, investment and talent.

This, of course, is easier said than done, which is why the Growth Agenda includes public policy recommendations that are based on three strategic goals that should be implemented over the next five years:

1. Building an entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem. This includes bolstering federal, state and private investment in higher education, and emphasizing the finance, health care, science and technology fields, engineering and entrepreneurship programs. The framework calls for the creation of an “Innovation District” as a destination for entrepreneurs and startups, as well as for marketing Delaware to regional and national angel investors and risk capital networks.

2. Pursuing a new approach to economic development. The framework calls for establishing a public-private economic development organization, crafting a new comprehensive statewide economic development strategic plan, and a marketing campaign that pursues new investment and jobs in key industries — including financial services, business services, education and knowledge creation, manufacturing, and distribution.

Terry Murphy

Terry Murphy

3. Enhancing Delaware’s business climate. The Growth Agenda says the state must ensure Delaware’s infrastructure meets the needs of a 21st century economy, including updating the Coastal Zone Act to provide greater flexibility in redeveloping brownfield sites. The framework also calls for improving the state’s public education system, taking a leadership role in facilitating more efficient development and permitting processes, and creating a Futures Council of Delaware.

Taken together, these strategic goals will help position Delaware as a global magnet for leading-edge technologies, talent and investment — which is achievable only if we create a more robust partnership between the public and private sectors to guide future success.

This framework was developed through a non-partisan, collaborative planning effort that engaged more than 100 state, business and community leaders. Through those discussions, TIP Strategies and the Delaware Business Roundtable concluded:

• Many of the traditional economic pillars of the state — including cars and chemicals — are no longer significant job generators.

• Manufacturing accounted for about 20 percent of the state’s non-farm employment in 1990. By last year, it was just 10 percent of all jobs.

• The state lost more jobs in manufacturing and corporate headquarters than any other sector between 2010 and 2014 — while health care and professional services sectors experienced robust job growth.

• Delaware is home to a growing base on which to build a vibrant entrepreneurship and innovation ecosystem — and higher education must become the long-term driving force behind that ecosystem.

• Delaware’s labor force participation rate from 2010 to 2015 showed the fastest percentage-point increase among the states, but from 2012 to 2015, wages grew in Delaware by 3 percent while wages in the US grew by 7 percent.

• In a number of areas, such as private-sector earnings growth and gross state product per capita, Delaware’s economic performance is trending negatively when compared to other states.

The Roundtable intends for the Delaware Growth Agenda to drive a discussion of how to expand economic opportunity and jobs throughout the state during the 2016 election cycle that will result in real progress in the months and years to follow.

This can only happen if all parties and all segments of the economy come together to chart a new, forward-looking agenda for economic development in Delaware for years to come.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Terry Murphy is the president and CEO of Bayhealth Inc.

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