By MICHAEL BRADLEY
Special to Delaware Business Times
Wander the halls of academia, spend time in the cafeterias and peek into dormitory lounges, and you likely won’t find too many students telling their friends they want to go into economic development as a career.
Kurt Foreman doesn’t understand why.
When he was an undergraduate at Franklin & Marshall, he took a class with a professor who described his passion for helping regions grow their business profiles and decided that was what he wanted to do. A political science and anthropology major, Foreman was fascinated by the multi-pronged efforts of those professionals and decided that life was for him. At the urging of the professor, Foreman decided he would apply his trade — at least to start — in Fairfax, Virginia.
“When I graduated, in 1986, I called Fairfax and said I wanted to work for them,” Foreman says. “They told me they didn’t have any jobs.”
It took him nine months, but he landed a gig in his chosen field — and preferred location — as a researcher. More than 30 years and a few career path twists later, Foreman is in Delaware, serving as CEO for the Delaware Prosperity Partnership, a public-private concern created in 2017 by Gov. John Carney and the state legislature with the charge of attracting new companies and retaining current enterprises throughout the state.
Foreman began with the Partnership last spring and has overseen its efforts to build relationships throughout the state and beyond, with an eye on bottom-line business growth. He said that much of the work during this first year has been foundational — Foreman calls it, “blocking and tackling” — but the DPP has experienced some early successes and expects more. That’s a good thing, because the broad nature of its work has already attracted some skeptics and people clamoring for more transparency in the process.
“We have built relationships that are setting the table for future opportunities,” Foreman said.
Becky Harrington, DPP’s director of business development, said the partnership has been involved in eight announcements by existing Delaware companies or those new to the state that will result in more than 1,500 jobs. Eleven hundred of those were retained in the state “or would have gone elsewhere,” according to Harrington.
She reported that $100 million in investment capital has been spent, which includes “expanding operations or putting up a new facility.”
One of DPP’s success stories is Ashland Inc., which will move its headquarters from Kentucky to Delaware by 2020. Others, such as Adesis, Decorotika USA, Dot Foods and Solenis will be expanding or beginning operations in the state. It’s a good start and one that Foreman expects to continue. In order for that to happen, DPP must be able to follow through successfully on the four-pronged plan it will implement in 2019.
The first part of it is an umbrella approach to being the “tip of the spear” for the attraction of new businesses to Delaware. If the Partnership establishes itself as such, it can work successfully with other entities as a gatekeeper and a distributor of resources and information to those curious about the state.
The second part is engaging current employers to make sure they are satisfied with being part of Delaware’s business community and therefore willing to stick around, or if appropriate, grow and expand.
The third part is reaching out to innovators, startups and entrepreneurs to help them grow their businesses in Delaware.
Finally, DPP wants to make sure it can provide avenues for companies to find and attract talent that will allow them to thrive moving forward. The key to all of this is that business development is not an instant process. It takes time, and the longer Foreman and his team are working together, the more likely they are to find success. One example of that is the need to develop relationships with site consultants, who work with states and regions all over the country to find places for companies to settle.
“It’s not atypical for projects to take two to three years to evolve and be completed,” Foreman said. “Of course, the process has been truncated because of technology and the increased access it provides.”
Foreman and his DPP staff expressed the need to be patient as they build relationships and promote Delaware as a destination for new businesses. They must work closely with site selection consultants, in order to create a profile that can be sold to companies across the country. Just getting to know those people
and developing trust takes time.
Then there is the capricious nature of corporate movement, which doesn’t flow constantly.
The deals Delaware has been making to attract businesses are drawing fire from some who worry the taxpayer burden will outweigh the cumulative gain from new jobs and increased revenues. November’s $3.9 million deal with Solenis — a reported $2 million of which is designed to retain 323 jobs — irked critics. Similar incentive packages for companies have led some to decry a perceived lack of transparency exercised by the DPP and the state officials.
Open government advocates have voiced concerns that deals are being made without any public input and were upset in September 2017 when John Riley was named interim CEO during a closed-door meeting.
While Foreman reports that communication between the components of the public-private alliance is strong, he was quoted in early December reminding Delawareans that we are a private/nonprivate; we’re not a government agency.” In other words, the DPP has no requirement to keep the public apprised of every negotiation and prospective deal.
According to Foreman, doing so could jeopardize the Partnership’s work by scaring off some prospective companies who aren’t interested in airing their business publicly. So, the Prosperity Partnership works to include as many constituencies as possible without doing anything that could torpedo future success.
“Business leaders, community leaders and local partners are excited to have our assistance,” Foreman says. “We never do anything by ourselves. We are always working with multiple partners.”