Kurt Foreman joined the Delaware Prosperity Partnership in March 2018, about seven months after Gov. John Carney signed legislation committing to a new way of doing economic development. Foreman came to Delaware from Oklahoma City, where he held a similar role. He was the Delaware Prosperity Partnership’s first W2 employee and has built what he describes as “a small team” with 10 people (with one more slot to hire). During a wide-ranging interview with the Delaware Business Times, the 55-year-old Foreman talked about having to hit the ground running and build up the agency at the same time. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s been your biggest challenge so far?
I think the challenge for me was having an impact and starting to move the ball while we were still getting processes in place. That’s the challenge of any startup in many respects. My job and our job as a team is to listen to what prospects want and need, marshal resources, to pull people together, to be a convener, a facilitator, a connector. When a company starts looking at Delaware, our job is to listen first, not to answer all their questions in isolation. We immediately start connecting them to partners and people.
The good news is some of the networks that were maybe more nascent are in place now. We know our partners and have gotten the word out to site selectors who help companies evaluate and assess communities for a project. We want to make sure those folks know that we’re here and that there may be value considering us. Our prospect activity is about 10 times higher than it was when we started last April. Early on, we talked to site selectors and took the governor up to meet media and site selectors. What we heard surprised me a bit: People knew of Delaware but hadn’t looked at us in a long time. Some said, I looked at you 10 or 15 years ago and it wasn’t a great experience. We told them that if it’s been a really long time, things may have changed. As our prospect activity shows, we are back on the list. It’s an ongoing process and dialogue. We’re seeing more and more folks and now we’re getting a shot at projects. That was our biggest “competition:” Not our neighbors, but whether we even got a shot to compete for a project.
The message on your new ChooseDelaware.org website says, “Where the world chooses to do business.” Did your branding or narrative change?
Yes, our marketing strategy helps highlight Delaware’s value proposition; enviable location, affordable cost of living; access to talent and leaders across the continuum, business-friendly culture and its rich history of innovation. In collaboration with our partners, we are shining a light on where there’s transformation and momentum, that’s where there are opportunities in Delaware. DuPont is a great example; it is now four vibrant companies. We’re not a museum, we’re a living place. Things are going to change and evolve. But people need to be continually updated so they don’t have a static picture of what we are. We have the location we’ve always had; we’ve got the connective tissue that we’ve always had. We’ve had good public and private leadership for years, so I think all the tools are there. We are now consistently telling the story of what Delaware has to offer to site selectors and others. Some people have told us Delaware has a great product, but we whisper about it. Well, I have a loud voice literally and figuratively and we’re going to be using our outside voices to make sure Delaware gets consideration.
Are you seeing an interest or a greater interest in lower Delaware?
We let the company drive the process. If they tell us they want to be within 20 minutes of the airport and Philly, then that limits where we look. If they say they’re open to the entire length of Delaware, then that’s what we help them with. I like that there’s a lot of different communities with different flavors. I think that mosaic is much more real and natural than if we just mush it all together and make it a single flavor. In the early stages of our activity, right or wrong, companies have mostly looked at the top part of the state. We think as we get more and more into our proactive efforts, that mix of projects is going to change as we look for companies that might be more interested in areas that aren’t just north of I-95 or along the I-95 corridor. I think the signs are good for Kent and Sussex. People are hungry for talent now and they’re going to go where the talent is. If we can demonstrate that the talent is in those two counties, companies will be more open and interested to learn more and
What is our strength from a talent standpoint?
For me, I think it’s the know-how. We’re not the fastest growing place, but we are growing quite healthily for our region. Whether it’s having a very high percentage of college graduates and Ph.D.’s and a relatively high percentage of people with high school diplomas, I think that’s reassuring to a company. I can figure out pretty quickly with companies that are not household names — normally in the first hour of a conversation — whether I’m meeting with someone from MBNA, First USA, DuPont, or Hercules because they’re likely to be involved. And those folks are leaders; some of them are instigators or maybe they’re starting the company.
I also think we sell ourselves as an island sometimes. The reality is there are a lot of people who work in Delaware but live elsewhere. We want our share of the workers in the region living and working in Delaware. But if people are willing to work in Delaware while living in Chester and Delaware and Salem and Cecil and Princess Anne counties, those are legitimately part of our talent pool. They just happen to live across a line that we’ve drawn, but they’re just as good and potential employers. And they may choose to move into Delaware once they get established in their new role.
There seems to be a lot of people who do economic development in this state a lot. Do you find yourself bumping into a lot of people?
Actually, our partners are an important resource in the process. We would have to have a staff of 150, if we tried to do all the things that people consider economic development. It would be very unwieldy. From the Partnership’s perspective, we might provide the research to back up someone else who’s the front line on something. We don’t have to always be the first square or in the driver’s seat. We frequently are, but we don’t have to be for it to work well. We have new protocols that we created in concert with our partners to support the collaboration. It supports the idea that if you’re taking lead on the project, we will support you and work with you on that. If we’re working it, we would ask you to do the same with what we’re doing and provide that support. DPP has started having partner meetings with all the players — and there are about 20 of them — and it’s an opportunity for everyone to share top-of-mind stuff, to talk about what’s keeping them up at night and who can help. We take that word partnership very seriously.
What keeps you awake at night?
There’s always more to do; for me, I’m running through my list in my head. It’s not that I worry about something bad; It’s more there’s just always more to do. Because we’re a living, organic place and we’re building a team, we’re building momentum. So, there’s always something to do, which is good. That’s why this is fun. We’re never going to hit a place where we can just hang out and wait. We’re being proactive; there’s always something we can do.
Are you drinking from a firehose?
Always, but that’s fun. Learning new places and getting to understand the product and the people. This is interesting work because there are people involved. It also makes it challenging, but the people are part of the special sauce. And helping to convey that to a company who’s trying to decide where they want to locate and engage with people, whether it’s five or 5,000 people or 50,000, in the case of HQ2 (Amazon) a couple of years ago. That’s an important thing to understand. And so, it’s fun to get to meet the people and understand the character, again, of the communities. Communities, plural. We’re not just a single community, we’re a whole bunch of interesting places.
Do you think states and economic development agencies should be bidding heavily to attract projects like that?
First, it’s important to note that we’re not the keeper of the incentives. We facilitate. We’re the shuttle diplomat that runs back and forth. We make it simple for the company to understand what’s possible. Communities don’t always reflect on who they are and what they want to be. They just see something, and they want that next thing. It’s a great project. Does it fit the place? It may or may not. Amazon had 200-plus responses, and there were probably only 50 or 60 that technically met all the criteria. I have a friend who runs economic development for Virginia, Stephen Moray, and he’ll tell you that they only gave away a portion of the future benefit that’s coming to that community. And most of the incentives they put in place, including helping Virginia Tech build a $1 billion new campus in Northern Virginia, will be there whether Amazon is a name 50 years from now or not. They’re investing in themselves and that’s going to bear fruit for everyone.
Incentives are often misunderstood. You’re not taking the money out of a bucket under the desk. There is no bucket under the desk. In most communities, they’re offering a share of the future economic activity that will come from those projects. The same thing happens with incentives om Delaware and I don’t know that we’ve ever offered even close to the whole amount of benefits coming to the state. The good news is, most incentives are set up on an equal playing field. If you’ve been here a long time and can add 100 jobs and invest $50 million, you’re eligible for an incentive too. I think a lot of people [focus on] who’s new, rather than that they’re growing after 50 years. We’re just as excited about that.
Some people say that the time it takes to get a project approved is a barrier. We brought in some site selectors last October who told us you have to move at the pace of the business. If a business has to forgo serving a customer because it took longer than they expected, you’re adding risk to their project. You have to be able to say it’s going to take X months and then deliver in that timeframe. But if you say it could take six months or it could take six years — and I’m being dramatic on purpose — you have to realize that someone who can provide more surety may be appealing, even if it’s not as good a place. We had developed a reputation in some people’s minds that we were not reliably able to give people a sense of how long approvals might take. So, the Delaware and Six idea evolved from a site selector saying if a company can’t get up and running in 6-12 months, then that’s going to be a problem. There’s a group being led by Bob Perkins at the Business Roundtable that has turned this discussion into a thoughtful process to review how we do things and then make recommendations on how we can improve the way prospects experience Delaware. If we were can show someone that it’s already in, that would be ideal, but we don’t have the money to go out and run sewer and water everywhere on the assumption that someone will want that piece of property someday. We need to do it smartly. If the community can say we analyzed that and it’s going to cost $600,000 and take eight weeks to put in; we’ve already thought about how to fund it when it’s needed; and we’ve already designed it, great. You de-risked that piece of the project.
What does success look like for you in 2019?
In ‘19? More projects happening, an increased awareness and positive regard among site selectors that Delaware is somewhere that they should be looking at even more seriously than they may have in the past. And that the partnership networks and the tools we have at our disposal are built out and available for us to use. And I think having sort of the next plateau, the next mountain top experience to say we really are making a difference. That’s what I think we’re going to see in ‘19. We’re working on the metrics that will help us demonstrate success. But there’ll be people in jobs, there’ll be company announcements, there will be hopefully enhancements to product and process, going on up and down the state. Again, economic development isn’t just wins and losses on the job front. Having a community in Sussex County enhance an industrial park and perhaps invest or have someone interested in their opportunity zone, those too would be a great outcome for 2019.