By Kim Hoey
Special to Delaware Business Times
When people think of Kent County, their thoughts often turn to politics and agriculture. While it does hold the state capital and it has more than a third of its land in farming, the middle county of Delaware is also a manufacturing hub that reaches nationally, internationally and even into space.
Kent came through the recession with more than 70 manufacturers intact and has been growing since, said Jim Waddington, director of the Kent County Economic Partnership. Currently there are more than 4,800 manufacturing jobs in Kent with an average pay of $51,000 with benefits, he said.
“Kent is open for manufacturing,” he said.
Those manufacturers include small to medium companies like HandyTube in Camden. This company of 150 employees makes seamless stainless steel coil tubing. They take a large tube that’s 30 feet long and, through an intensive process, stretch it and make it smaller in diameter to meet the needs of their clients. Some of these tubes can be as long as a mile at the end of the process and as narrow as a human hair. HandyTube products made in Delaware are mainly used in the energy industry in places like offshore drilling wells and in solar dishes.
“The world’s energy demand for the next several years is very strong,” said John Coates, CEO and president of the company in a 2013 interview after the factory expanded to 70,000 square feet. “For us it’s an exciting future.”
While HandyTube is sending tubes under the ocean, down in Frederica, on Moonwalker Road, another company is sending their product to space. ILC Dover is best known for the space suits that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin wore to walk on the moon in 1969. Today the company is looking at Mars. Working with the University of Delaware and NASA, the company created a new spacesuit for such a mission. Called Z-2, it is lightweight and flexible and can work under high pressure.
In a more earthly manner, the company also builds flood protection systems, respiratory protection equipment and even bulk packaging products.
These operations aren’t alone. Anyone who’s ever been to the dentist or orthodontist probably used a product made in Milford at Dentsply Sirona. That pile of notes you’ve been meaning to file away could be done in a filing cabinet made in Dover at Hirsch Industries.
Both of those plants are small parts of large companies, but they have huge impact for Delaware.
But not all manufacturing is on the smaller scale in Kent.
Kraft-Heinz is a perfect example. Open in Dover since 1969, the company has gone through transformations from General Foods, to Kraft, to Kraft-Heinz. The latest transition included renovating 55,000 square feet of the million-square-foot factory into a one-of-a-kind bakery used to bake bread for croutons and for the company’s Stove Top Stuffing. This expansion was on top of the other products already made there, like Jell-O, Minute Tapioca, Kool-Aid, Tang and Crystal Light.
The expansion brought 28 new jobs to the plant, on top of the 560 already there. Plant manager Justin Cressler said he’s been in constant hiring phase ever since. The jobs are technical, maintenance and operator-related positions, he said.
Cressler, also a member of the Kent Economic Partnership, said he believes Kent is doing so well in manufacturing because everyone is focused on the right things for economic development.
“The cities, the state, the municipalities, they all understand what is important for economic development to happen,” said Cressler, who moved to the area seven years ago.
Members of these groups actually reach out to manufacturers and ask questions, he said. They want to know what the people actually working in the different industries think it would take to grow Kent County even more.
One of the people always looking for new ways to promote Kent County and its economic development is Judy Diogo, president of the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce. Cressler referred to her as a “one-stop shop” for information on who to talk to, where to go, and what to look for in Kent County.
Diogo believes Kent County has created a nice package for manufacturing. She sees the strength of the county in its diversity.
“We are a manufacturing-friendly county,” said Diogo as she immediately started listing its good qualities. The county is working to increase utilities for new and existing businesses and it houses several educational institutions, she said. “Meaning, we have a good workforce.”
“We’re trying things,” said Cressler, pointing out the large number of nonprofit boards and commissions in Kent County all dedicated to economic development. “Maybe we’ll get it half-right, maybe we’ll get it
all right. Time will tell.”