In Seaford, the hunt for jobs drags on

Since the closure of the DuPont nylon plant in 2003, Seaford has struggled to restore its economy. But a new generation of leaders are working to attract new employers. Photos by Eric Crossan

By Dan Linehan
Special to Delaware Business Times

As mayor of Seaford, David Genshaw sees his mandate as doing whatever he can to help the city recover the sort of high-paying jobs it lost when the DuPont nylon plant closed in 2003.

He doesn’t want government making those jobs, but he does think the city should seek every edge it can to grow and attract business.

“We’re in competition with every other town around us, just as every state in this nation is trying to grow jobs.” he said. “To sit back and hope that [an employer] stumbles into you … is false thinking. I think we need to be very aggressive and do anything within our power.”

That was Genshaw’s perspective when he spoke, last year, with an economic development official from Mississippi about that state’s law preventing unions from requiring workers to pay union dues. As in 26 other states, Delaware not included, a union in Mississippi can charge membership fees, but employees don’t have to pay or join.

“They joke down there all the time how if the Northeast ever figures this out they’re in big trouble,” Genshaw said of the economic development potential of this labor law.

His conversation came as Sussex County was considering enacting such a rule, typically called “right-to-work laws,” though they have nothing to do with a guarantee of employment.

It was during his conversation with the Mississippian that Genshaw decided to pursue such an ordinance in Seaford regardless of whether Sussex County passed its law (the rule was defeated in a 4-1 vote in January).

“Everybody believes that having right-to-work as an option helps your cause,” Genshaw said.

The idea has its opponents, some of whom argue that it allows workers to enjoy the benefits of a union but avoid the costs.

Because it affects the financial strength of unions, the issue is deeply partisan, but Genshaw said he “never meant to be divisive or partisan or political.”

Seaford passed the ordinance, but the state legislature in June reversed the measure with a bill that reaffirmed the legality of labor arrangements that require employees to pay union dues. The move disappointed Genshaw and other supporters, but it’s only one example of how the city is trying to reverse its economic fortunes.

Seaford’s per-capita income is about 25 percent lower then the county as a whole, according to U.S. Census data from the most recent five-year period. Over that period, from 2012 through 2016, about 28 percent of the city’s residents used food stamps, more than twice the percentage of the whole county.

Like many places in America, Seaford has been doing better in recent years. Comparing the most recent five-year period for which data is available with the previous five years, the city’s unemployment rate is down by about 25 percent. Comparing the same time periods, average income per person grew by 16 percent, but still remained low at $22,311.

Ask a longtime resident about what happened to Seaford, and you may get a story about the downfall of a plant that once employed 4,800 people in a city of about 7,000.

The closure of DuPont

Tommy Cooper, who started Cooper Realty in 1984, said the value of the DuPont plant wasn’t only in the jobs themselves.

“To give you an idea about how benevolent the DuPont family was, if they were transferring an executive to Seaford, they would give him an advance on his home equity so he was able to buy here right away,” he said.

And there were outside jobs supported by the plant, like companies that repaired the spindles on machinery. He noticed the downturn before the plant was sold in 2003. By the late 1990s, the workforce was below half-strength, Cooper said, as the company struggled against Asian competition.

After the plant was sold, there were efforts to promote economic development, but he said well-meaning officials and committees lacked expertise and were ineffective.

Today, officials are doing a better job, he added. “They’re certainly using the internet and getting the message out that this plant’s available.”

Trisha Newcomer

A new pitch for Seaford

Part of Seaford’s pitch to businesses isn’t about incentives or special laws, but an outstretched hand, said Trisha Newcomer, Seaford’s recently appointed director of economic development.

“I think a lot of times people have a tendency to think government is here to get in the way,” she said. “We really want to convey to them that we are the partner, to shuttle projects through the process and cut down the time from concept to operation.”

Seaford counts its location — about four hours away from the region’s major cities — among its selling points.
It was that central location, in part, that made Seaford an attractive option for dog food maker Kelly Foods Corp. to open a warehouse there. While many trucking companies ship goods to major cities, co-owner Jim
Kelly said, they are often hauling empty loads out, a costly phenomenon called “deadheading.”

The city offers a number of economic incentives, including a tax break recently introduced to encourage renters to buy a home. But some of the city’s other economic development priorities don’t have much to do with employment.

Genshaw, the mayor, said keeping crime low is part of what matters to employers. Cooper, the longtime Realtor, agreed, and is blunt about the problems he sees in Seaford.

“In the last 10 years, the crime from the opioid epidemic is just systemic, horrible,” he said, noting corner drug deals, burglaries and muggings. Though he loved his Seaford upbringing, he didn’t like what the city was becoming and moved to Lewes 14 years ago.

“Until crime is under control and the school district is performing the way Cape Henlopen does, it’s a really difficult, if not impossible sell,” he said.

Even so, Cooper is less critical of local officials, instead blaming what he calls the poor demographics for many of its social ills, like poor discipline in school.

“You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear because you have to deal with the demographics you’ve got,” he said

To Kelly, the dog food manufacturer, finding skilled workers is among his biggest challenges.

“I think I have four mechanic positions open right now I can’t find people to fill,” he said, adding that he had a total of 14 open positions. “Especially considering the way automation is going in manufacturing, there are going to be high-paying, great jobs out there in the near future that manufacturers will struggle to find people to fill.”

More eggs, more baskets

Until the early 1900s, fast-growing, hardy Dutch elm trees lined streets all over America, creating stately living arches over roadways. But then Dutch elm disease struck mid-century, devastating the species and an urban landscape with too little diversity.

Likewise, when DuPont sold its plant, Seaford didn’t lose one major employer among many: The company town lost its company.

“In 20/20 hindsight there’s no question there were too many eggs in one basket,” Cooper said.

Newcomer noted that the city built an industrial park in the 1980s, an attempt to diversify.

Genshaw would like Seaford to end up with many more medium-sized employers. “It’d rather get a lot of hits than try to swing it over the fence every time.” Still, he’s got his eye on a grand slam.

He believes the plant itself, with connections to water and rail networks as well as its own power generation, is an asset waiting to be rediscovered. “I think sometimes we’re at fault for thinking too small,” he said.

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