A 43-year veteran of the real estate industry, Paul McConnell has worked in the City of Wilmington for decades. He’s seen mayors come and go, companies rise and fall, and whole neighborhoods transform.
But for too long, McConnell said, the business community has sat on the sidelines. “They lost their voice,” he added. “They were no longer a part of the dynamic.”
So on a Friday afternoon in July 2014, he started making calls to fellow business leaders about how they could do a better job to help the city.
Two months later, a group of about 15 executives met to come up with a plan. The group, which included nonprofit and education leaders, formed a subcommittee that would spend the next two years researching best practices from other cities, such as Pittsburgh, Cleveland and Cincinnati, where the business community plays an active role in revitalization.
“What I realized is that the business climates and business cultures of those cities had evolved and changed and had gotten really good,” McConnell said. “We weren’t going in that direction.”
This effort led to the creation of the Wilmington Leaders Alliance (WLA), a coalition of leaders from the private sector invested in making Wilmington the most dynamic small city in the country. The group officially launched March 6 at the Chase Center on the Riverfront. Each member paid $10,000 in annual dues to help fund the group’s activities.
“So the tangible benefit they provide is to get us connected with more employers in the region.”
The WLA, which now boasts 31 members, plans to engage the business community around four core issues, including leadership, economic development, education and safety. The goal is that the group will highlight common problems and then expose the business community to possible solutions. That could mean sharing information about a helpful program or setting up opportunities for businesses to learn from one another.
The WLA’s first area of focus is workforce development, and the board has selected four different programs to promote: Tech Impact and Zip Code Wilmington focus on the technology sector, which WLA has touted as crucial to the city’s growth. Year Up and Generation both provide skill training for a range of careers.
For the programs themselves, which are run by small nonprofits, the benefit of this kind of exposure is significant.
“All of us had a similar need, and that was more jobs for our graduates,” said Melanie Augustin of Zip Code Wilmington, which offers coding classes. “So the tangible benefit they provide is to get us connected with more employers in the region.”
In Delaware, where business and civic life often overlap, the idea behind WLA isn’t exactly new. The group is similar to other business organizations in the state, such as the Chamber of Commerce and the Delaware Business Roundtable, which share information, research relevant issues and encourage collaboration across the business community.
“The group respected and understood that the Roundtable and the Chamber already existed and are quite active and engaged, but there wasn’t a group that was focused on Wilmington,” said There du Pont, president of the Longwood Foundation and an early organizer for the WLA.Wilmington businesses have shown an investment in the city, du Pont added, but in the past they lacked coordination and communication. The WLA was designed as an umbrella under which they could align their efforts.
“Wouldn’t it be great if someone could pull together these disparate efforts and try to make the sum of the whole greater than the parts?” du Pont said. “That’s what we intend to do.”
For Mayor Mike Purzycki, an open dialogue between WLA and the city government will be key to its success.
“I can’t tell them what to do, but I hope I’m respected enough that they will want to confer with me about how to direct their resources,” he said.
McConnell said the WLA plans to work closely with the city government, both in figuring out issues to address and in deciding solutions. He noted that a lack of communication is part of the reason business leaders have taken a back seat in civic life in Wilmington. “They weren’t being listened to, so I think they gave up,” he said.
Mayor Purzycki said his background in business, and in particular his experience heading the Riverfront Development Corporation, which entailed working across the public and private sectors, allows him to present a more welcoming face to the business community.
“It’s not just influencing city government. It’s influencing our brethren.”
“I don’t know if we’ve had an administration that is as business-oriented as I am,” he said. “Not only do I appreciate what they’re doing, I speak their language. I have their same impulses. And I think in me they see a natural ally.”
So far, WLA has emphasized its role as a partner in taking on the city’s most intractable problems. But the group also wields the influence of a united business community.
“The group has to represent thousands of jobs in the city, so there is a lot of influence that comes with that,” du Pont said.
But du Pont sees the group asserting that influence within its own ranks as often as with other institutions, like City Council or Legislative Hall.
“I would actually say, though, that our influence on workforce development needs to be on other employers to look at these pipelines as viable entry points for new employees,” du Pont said. “It’s not just influencing city government. It’s influencing our brethren.”
Next steps for the WLA include attracting more members and hiring an executive director to help direct the group through its first year. Du Pont said they are looking at a number of candidates both within and outside Delaware.
The WLA will also be tracking its own progress, using data from Delaware Focus, a project of the Delaware Community Foundation, to measure its impact on key indicators such as unemployment.
“If this particular workforce development effort doesn’t pan out, then we’ll try a different way,” du Pont said.“It’s our intent to be transparent.”