Sussex County’s 2015 was shaped by a diverse range of stories.

Some are strictly local, while others resonate with the year’s national concerns: Delaware’s opt-out bill, for example, was just part of a larger debate on standardized testing. Still others – from new country music festivals in the state to new family court buildings, psychiatric institutes and broadband Internet expansion – give us an idea of where the county’s growth is headed.

The Sussex Countian’s reporters picked some top ones.

Psychiatric hospital in Georgetown approved

By David Paulk

The 80-mile drive from Georgetown to a psychiatric hospital in neighboring Kent County can take its toll on patients. This was a factor behind a plan by New Jersey-based SUN Behavioral Delaware to construct a new 90-bed, 80,000 square foot facility in Georgetown.

On Oct. 29, the Delaware Health Resources Board unanimously approved the $20.6 million project. It will be across from Delaware Technical Community College Owens Campus and will treat patients with diseases such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and depression.

Before the health resources board gave them the green light, SUN Behavioral had to defend the relevancy of the project. A few competitors, including the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, Meadow Wood Behavioral and Universal Health Services, called for a public hearing to determine whether it is needed in Sussex County.

Following the public hearing giving residents a chance to weigh in, the board approved the application in October.

The groundbreaking for SUN Behavioral Delaware will be in 2016. The hospital is expected to be complete by the summer of 2017 with a staff of about 60.

The hospital will provide services including intensive inpatient care, tiered outpatient care, psychiatric programs, substance abuse programs and specialized programs for youth, adults and seniors.

Getting Sussex up to speed

By Mike Finney

While Delaware might be rated among the top states for Internet speed, that certainly hasn’t been the case for many pockets in Sussex County.

That’s why it was important to Gov. Jack Markell when he announced in late April that there was an improvement in high-speed broadband connectivity coming here.

Fibertech Networks oversaw the project, which included the installation of around 36 miles of fiber optic cable. From Georgetown, new cable extended the network 18 miles east to Lewes and 18 miles west to Seaford.

The work was funded by a $1 million grant from the Delaware Economic Development Office.

The change has improved how companies are able to conduct business and how communities are able to access information. It has affected areas from Milford to the outer reaches of Sussex County.

Markell said it was important to focus on increasing Internet access speeds at public schools, libraries and healthcare facilities first.

“In a 21st-century economy, we can only ensure all Delawareans have opportunities to reach their potential if everyone has access to these services,” Markell said, “so despite our recent success in expanding access, we won’t be satisfied until that is the case.

“Online tools and resources exponentially increase the possibilities to advance education, careers, business growth, and public safety, which means better quality of life and a stronger economy.”

Work is continuing to improve broadband connectivity. In mid-November, Broad Valley Micro Fiber Networks announced it was beginning the construction of a 10 mile long high-speed fiber ring that will weave through Georgetown, passing key school, library, healthcare, government, public safety and local business locations. Eventually, the ring will reach out to remote areas. It is expected to be completed by the end of 2015.

Replacing Family Court building becomes priority for Strine

By Jeff Brown

An overcrowded and overall inadequate Sussex County Family Court building was the target of Chief Justice Leo E. Strine Jr.’s November testimony at Legislative Hall.

The 31,000 square-foot Robert D. Thompson Jr. Family Court Building, on The Circle in Georgetown, suffers from crowded waiting areas, tiny courtrooms and insufficient security for the public and judges, Strine said during hearings before state budget director Ann Visalli.

Built in 1988, a 2006 space study rated the facility as “inappropriate” in meeting the needs of the public.

Strine said he is mindful of the fact the state faces budget difficulties, but added it is imperative to move forward with planning for upgraded coutrooms in the new fiscal year, beginning July 1.

The chief justice noted the judiciary received $500,000 in FY 2016 to start preliminary architectural and engineering work and will use an existing $5 million fund to continue.

However, his division requires an additional $5 million in FY 2017 “so that we can make substantial progress on moving these projects forward,” Strine said.

Georgetown attorney Seth Thompson told Visalli the Thompson building is not conducive to the very delicate and sometimes emotional events that take place there.

There is little in the way of space for confidential attorney/client conversations and the courtrooms are so crowded opposing parties in abuse and child custody cases often must sit near each other, he said.

The entire facility contributes to the impression families don’t receive individual attention but instead are on a “conveyor belt of justice,” Thompson said.

“The feeling you’re a cog in a machine is not a comfortable one,” he said. “I think we can do better.”

Big Barrel and Delaware Junction beef up state’s music cred

By Andre Lamar

Two new and enticing festivals give tourists a reason to visit Delaware.

Major country music festivals, Big Barrel and Delaware Junction, debuted in Kent County this past summer, luring high-profile artists to the First State.

They helped bulk up Delaware’s entertainment scene, joining the acclaimed Firefly Music Festival, one of the country’s most popular fests, which launched in Dover in 2012.

“Music fans from across the country and the world now view Delaware as a music epicenter,” said Lauren King, director of public relations for Firefly and Big Barrel promoter Red Frog Events.

Big Barrel was held at The Woodlands in June, headlining Miranda Lambert, Blake Shelton and Carrie Underwood. In August, Delaware Junction at the Delaware State Fairgrounds in Harrington boasted headliners Florida Georgia Line, Jason Aldean and Toby Keith. Both were held across three days.

Each attracted thousands of revelers and pumped millions of dollars into the local economy. The economic impact was felt by businesses such as hotels and restaurants, said William Neaton, Dover’s economic development director.

“Not everyone that goes to Firefly or Big Barrel camps out,” Neaton said. “They have to find a place to stay and eat. Even though they have food vendors at the festival, not everyone wants to eat there.”

“Firefly and Big Barrel are not 24-7 events,” he added. “People will go and shop at the mall and local stores. Everyone is the recipient of the economic impact.”

As the biggest of the three, Firefly is a prime example of the kind of money festivals like Big Barrel and Junction can bring into the economy.

Firefly’s four-day festival in 2014 attracted 80,000 festivalgoers per day, added more than $68 million to the regional economy and created the equivalent of 579 full-time jobs, according to a study conducted by the Center for Applied Business and Economic Research, part of the Alfred Lerner College of Business at the University of Delaware.

Firefly attendance has grown each year, from 30,000 per day in 2012, to 65,000 in 2013, to 80,000 in 2014, to selling out all 90,000 tickets in 2015 – a first.

By comparison, Big Barrel attracted 35,000 festivalgoers and has become “the largest country music festival east of the Mississippi,” King said. Delaware Junction aimed at bringing in around 20,000 revelers.

Big Barrel will return to Dover June 24-26 with more than 40 acts, including stars Eric Church, Brad Paisley and Sam Hunt.

King is hopeful lightning will strike twice.

“We’re excited to continue to bring country fans a memorable experience each year, complete with an exciting lineup and experiences,” King said. “We look forward to Big Barrel being a summer tradition for many years to come.”

Partners Live Nation and Highway One announced Delaware Junction will return in 2016. The organizers didn’t immediately respond to requests for an interview.

With both set to return this summer, Neaton expects they will again inject millions into the local economy.

“We’re the music capital of the East Coast,” Neaton said. “The festivals will continue to grow as more and more people become aware of them.”

Opt Out supporters rally to override veto

By David Paulk

The tug of war between advocates of the Smarter Balanced Assessment test and members of the Opt Out movement has been a source of constant debate in the General Assembly.

 In July Gov. Jack Markell vetoed House Bill 50, which would have made it easier for parents to opt out of the statewide assessment test.

The decision fueled an already burning debate of whether the test, which students took for the first time last year, is beneficial.

Supporters, including Markell’s office and the Department of Education, see it as a way to measure college and career readiness.

According to Kelly Bachman, spokeswoman for Markell, an override would be detrimental.

“As the Governor explained when he vetoed the bill, overriding the veto of HB50 would undermine a tool for understanding whether our children are learning and our schools are improving without adequately addressing the issues that motivated many to support the legislation,” she said.

With the General Assembly about to reconvene on Jan. 12, supporters of Opt Out are preparing to counter Markell’s veto.

On Jan. 14 the Delaware PTA will host an “Override House Bill 50 Veto Rally,” at 2 p.m. in front of Legislative Hall in Dover. PTA President Terri Hodges said the rally is a starting point in convincing the community and legislators to support the override.

“Basically, [Markell] has stated he or those in other positions of power in the state know better than the parent what is best for our own children,” she said. “It was supported overwhelmingly in the House and passed the Senate so it really was a slap in the face when the governor vetoed it.”

HB-50 passed 35-5 in the House and 15-6 in the Senate. It takes a three fifths majority vote in both the House and Senate to override the governor’s veto. The last time a governor’s veto was overridden was a budget bill in 1977 under Pierre S. du Pont IV.

HB50 would make it easier for parents to opt their children out of testing. It was introduced after parents accused certain districts of putting pressure on families who chose to opt out.

 “We’re not encouraging anyone to opt out of this test,” Hodges said. “We just want to make sure they have the right to do so.”

Rep. John D. Kowalko and Sen. Dave Lawson are both sponsors, and they have laid out a plan to move it forward. Kowalko, who has been a strong proponent of opting out, said he hopes his colleagues in the assembly will continue to support HB50.

Lawson said that he’s confident the override vote will pass in both the House and the Senate, but is concerned the bill could be bogged down in committees before reaching the floor.

“I would expect it to pass if it gets out [of the committees],” he said. “The problem is it might not get out if they bottle it up in the committees and never has a chance to hit the floor.”