Rebooted Kent Economic Partnership takes holistic approach to growth

The enormous Walmart Distribution Center operates in Smyrna, a town that straddles the Kent County/New Castle County line. Photo by Eric Crossan

By Jon Hurdle
Special to Delaware Business Times

Kent County’s business leaders are promoting economic development with a holistic approach based on the idea that businesses won’t thrive unless schools teach the skills they need and towns offer the quality of life that attracts and retains workers.

That’s one of the principles behind the Kent Economic Partnership (KEP), a public-private partnership that was previously county-run until a recent reorganization.

In the first few months of its existence, the reborn KEP has been laying the groundwork for its efforts to promote the county to outside businesses looking to relocate and to existing companies who are looking for ways to expand.

Under Executive Director Linda Parkowski, the partnership has focused on a new economic report from Rockport Analytics, which identified three key industries — warehousing and logistics; health care, and business and legal services — as targets for economic development.

The report said a significant portion of the demand for those services is met out of state. In the distribution industry, for example, it calculated total demand of $756 million a year, of which $310 million is imported — that is, not met by businesses inside the county.

Health care imports $158 million worth of services worth a total $1.1 billion, while business and legal services imports around half of its $1.6 billion in total demand, the report said.

While the new partnership can help with initiatives like site selection and marketing, its efforts won’t succeed in the long run unless it also persuades schools to meet the demand for skilled employees, and promotes quality-of-life factors that will attract new employees, said Parkowski, the former deputy director of the Delaware Economic Development Office.

“You can go out and do all the promotion and attraction that you want but if you don’t have the workforce to fulfill it, and if you don’t have the quality of life that these businesses are looking for. you will not be successful,” she said. “We want to make sure that we have these pieces in place before we go out and try to attract businesses that we don’t have the workforce for, or the amenities that they are looking for.”

The Rockport study also found that the county has enough workers to supply the logistics and distribution industry but not for the health-care and business and legal services industries. It called for more training for technical and specialized skills.

On quality-of-life factors, the report urged the coordination of retail, cultural, recreation and tourism interests to create conditions such as lively downtown areas that millennial workers seek.

“It has been identified throughout the state that millennials are the talent that we are trying to attract and keep, and we need to make sure we have the correct environment for them,” Parkowski said.

While working for a collaborative approach to economic development, she’s also talking up the county’s existing attributes, including its location some 40 minutes’ drive from I-95, and the availability of reasonably priced land.

She called the reorganized KEP a “big leap” over its predecessors because it has a bigger budget to promote business expansion and retention, and now has an economic blueprint, in the form of the Rockport analysis, to guide its work.

The partnership’s rebirth was initiated by the Greater Kent Committee, a group of about 100 business leaders who led the successful establishment of DE Turf, the sports complex on Del. 1 at Frederica, and then decided to promote wider economic development.

The council’s executive director, Shelly Cecchett, said it is seeking to create a collaborative approach to economic development in which municipalities play an important role.

Dover and Milford are contributing $50,000 and $30,000, respectively, to KEP’s new $500,000 budget, while Smyrna is also talking about participating, Cecchett said. Other contributors include the State of Delaware, the Kent County Levy Court, and the committee itself, with $100,000 each.

The Rockport study has now identified the county’s challenges and opportunities, and has laid the foundation for a holistic approach to economic development, she said.

“We realize that we can do more in Kent County to make people want to stay and work and play here,” Cecchett said. “We can’t just say ‘I want to bring in a giant manufacturer’ without saying ‘There are other opportunities that I want to address as well.’”

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