For Jim Waddington, Kent County director of economic development, it comes down to four Fs: festivals, factories, food and flight.
Boiling down a county’s economic drivers can be tough – and rarely are the terms catchy. For Jim Waddington, Kent County director of economic development, it comes down to four Fs: festivals, factories, food and flight.
Waddington admitted festivals took a hit with the recent loss of Big Barrel Country Music Festival for 2016 – and, likely, Delaware Junction, which also debuted last summer – but said the strengths that drew them here remain.
“What all three of those concerts have reacted to is the tremendous infrastructure that we have in place,” he said. “A lot of that has developed historically around Dover Downs with their NASCAR venue. It gives us a competitive advantage long-term to be able to host those kinds of large-crowd events.”
“I think Kent County’s been very fortunate to have come through the 2008 recession with a strong manufacturing base still in place,” Waddington said. “If you look at what’s happened over the last 18 months, we actually have four firms that have increased their total employment significantly.
“One of the real success stories is Perdue down in Milford with their switch to organic production; they’ve added over 300 jobs. I see potential for tremendous growth there.”
The county is home to 13 food manufacturers, from larger companies like Perdue and Hanover to smaller ones like Hass Butcher shop and Kirby and Holloway. “We have a really strong segment in food manufacturing we’d like to expand on.”
Waddington sees promise in capitalizing on Kent County’s strong agricultural base through development of a food innovation district (FID) – a concentration of food-oriented businesses, services and community activities supported by government planning.
“We’ve invested $250 million on preserving farmland in Kent County, and we’re doing everything to try to encourage value-added agriculture on some of those preserved acres,” he said.
As far as flight, Waddington said the proposed air cargo ramp at the Dover Air Force Base civil air terminal could pick up the pace of economic growth once finished.
“We’ve already gotten the Army Corps permit to develop the ramp,” he said. “We’ve got the wetlands delineation, the archaeological survey. We’ve got it to the point that we could probably turn this around pretty quickly if someone wanted to build, say, a hangar there. They could operate a maintenance repair and overhaul (MRO) facility that could really focus on jumbo jets – like in the commercial cargo business. So the next step is finding a tenant.”
Such MRO facilities are potentially significant job creators, Waddington said.
“They employ aircraft mechanics at a pretty high level, so they’re good paying jobs. We’d love to see some of those develop.”
Dover Dover: Luring new retail and industry
For a look at growth ahead in Dover, all you need to do is look up and down Route 13. So says Bill Neaton, the city’s director of economic development.
“Dover’s provided incentives to fill the empty big boxes [along that road],” he said. “The old Walmart, for example – you can see all the new tenants going in there. All of [these former empty spots], except for Value City, are now occupied.
“You’re probably going to see some retail activity at the old Playtex plant on Route 13. There’s some strong development interest in that, and that’ll probably be announced sometime in March.”
Kent County’s Waddington says this retail development is a reflection of the performance of the manufacturing sector.
That strength in manufacturing is evident at Garrison Oak Technology Park’s recent expansions, including September’s opening by German flooring products furnisher Uzin Utz.
“They’re thinking about adding additional workers by expanding their hours of operation which means they feel that they’ve been successful,” Waddington said.
Tech firm Advantech closed on a lot Feb. 12, Neaton said.
“We’ve done the subdivision, we’ve done all the infrastructure, and we now have four tenants out there: Uzin Utz, Garrison Energy Center, LS Power and now Advantech,” said Neaton. “That leaves us with 11 parcels of land between 10 and 15 acres.”
“We’ll be aggressively marketing the Garrison Oak Technology Park in 2016. It’s zoned for manufacturing, so when a site selector’s looking for a parcel of land, they have a site they know they can move quickly on.
“We’ve got some potential residents out there. I think if we can close on one or two of those, it’d be a wow factor.”
Smyrna Smyrna: Business park, restaurants, Tractor Supply
The largest commercial project in progress is the KRM business park, said Smyrna Town Manager David Hugg.
With about 200 acres it is just north of Duck Creek, east of U.S. Route 13 and south of Paddock Road.
KRM has built business parks in several states. The closest are in Chestertown and Stevensville, Md., near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, Hugg said.
“KRM typically attracts light manufacturing, research and warehouse uses,” said Hugg. “These are small-to-medium range companies with an emphasis on research and development.”
BY THE NUMBERS
Building permits rebound in Smyrna
♦ 2013 commercial 28, residential 280
♦ 2014 commercial 24, residential 248
♦ 2015 commercial 48, residential 339
So far, no tenants for the site have been announced, he said.
The town has installed water and sewer service across Duck Creek for the project which is in New Castle County.
The next step is DelDOT entrance approvals on northbound U.S. Route 13, just north of the former hardware store and on Paddock Road just east of U.S. Route 13.
“We’re expecting construction to start late this year,” Hugg said. “The goal is to attract more jobs for the community and provide sites for companies.”
Two major businesses are expected to open on U.S. Route 13 in town in the next several months, Hugg said.
One is a brew pub operated as a joint venture by the owners of Abbott’s Grill and Mispillion River Brewing in Milford in the Commodore Commons shopping center near Justice of the Peace Court 8 and Monrovia Avenue.
The second is Tractor Supply, west of the highway near Hardee’s, on the site of the former Harris Manufacturing. That building will be demolished to make way for Tractor Supply, which sells lawn and garden equipment, farm supplies, hardware and truck and trailer equipment.
Downtown revitalization is continuing with the opening of the Inn at Duck Creek restaurant and tavern this past December on the corner of Main and Commerce streets.
A restaurant has been proposed on West Commerce Street, in the former Crystal Pistol. The building owner is planning to open “Maverick,” a Texas-style barbecue, this summer, Hugg said.
Milford: Downtown makeover
The Rivertown Rebirth plan reimagines downtown Milford. If things go as planned, the city will have a completely updated look along the Mispillion River over the next decade.
Ben Muldrow, who works with design and branding firm Arnett Muldrow & Associates, said the next step is to get a group of residents, business owners and city officials to gather on a regular basis to review progress.
“You don’t do this overnight,” Muldrow said. “This is a long and painful process.”
The initial stage calls for the construction of a new public restroom and an ATM near the Riverwalk. The buildings that house the Milford Skating Center and Lou’s Bootery would have their facades restored. Lights across Park Avenue would make it more attractive at night for visitors.
Muldrow wants to capitalize on the charm of the scenic Riverwalk, a walking and bicycling trail that winds through the heart of the city, drawing three new businesses there to start: a restaurant and a couple others such as a sporting goods or toy store.
Extended business hours – particularly on weekends – and more community events on the river might draw visitors downtown.
Muldrow said there will be a twice-yearly review by the community group. It will scratch off completed projects and reprioritize others.
Looking deeper the plan calls for an amphitheater on the banks of the Mispillion, beautified roads leading into town, modular-type businesses to increase variety, a splash pad near the Riverfront Theater and smaller storefronts to make rents cheaper and businesses more profitable.
Ben Mace and Mike Finney contributed to this report.