Democatic Primary: Mayoral contenders share views on Wilmington’s business climate

By Alex Vuocolo
Special to Delaware Business Times

Wilmington voters will choose from no less than eight Democratic candidates for mayor in the Sept. 13 primary election. Among the contenders are a city councilmember, a state senator, a nonprofit professional and a former police officer. We asked each of the candidates two questions about how they would improve the state’s largest city for businesses, from mom-and-pop shops to major corporations, if they were mayor.

These interviews have been edited for clarity and length.


Maria D. Cabrera
Maria D. Cabrera
Council member

What would you do to help the city’s small businesses — businesses with 500 or fewer employees?

Let’s get businesses to locate, not just incorporate! Through a collaborative partnership, we can look to provide an incentive on commercial rental abatements. I would revisit the incentives like those offered by the Sills administration that brought the MBNA headquarters to Wilmington from Christiana. Their relocation filled a gaping hole in downtown Wilmington, as well as brought their employees to live where they work. The East Side of Wilmington saw neighborhood investments and revitalization.

The city is long overdue to also provide abatements and incentives to women and small business owners who are million-dollar businesses with less than five employees, who have growth potential to increase economic revenue in the City of Wilmington.

We will set up the Office of Business Services to ensure that we streamline the permitting and licensing process so that businesses can start and grow in Wilmington. Ensure implementation of the Disadvantages Business Enterprises directives that are currently in place.

What would you do to bring/retain large employers in Wilmington?

Implement our Public Safety Plan, which incorporates community engagement, transparency, and accountability. When businesses thrive, communities thrive. Crime drives away business, families and nonprofits. Crime discourages visitors, their dollars and their influence. Crime discourages innovation and directly impacts housing values. The Cabrera Strategic Plan for the City of Wilmington addresses crime reduction and prevention strategies, along with job creation, a ReEntry Pipeline and Workforce Development.

For so long Wilmington has looked to the larger employers to provide job opportunities and revenue to the City of Wilmington. We have to diversify our portfolio and create a competitive package for these type of employers. Wilmington cannot do this alone, but with the continued partnership with the State Economic Development Office, we can look to be proactive in attracting new larger employers.


Theopalis K. Gregory Sr.
Theopalis K. Gregory Sr.
City Council President

What would you do to help the city’s small businesses — businesses with 500 or fewer employees?

Small businesses are vital to the City of Wilmington’s economic future. Many of these businesses not only contribute to the growth and vitality of our city’s many neighborhoods, but they also serve to provide stable economic opportunities for city residents. I believe that there are several approaches the city should, and needs to take in order to better support our small businesses, including:

  • Creating an environment that fosters development and attracts and retains businesses
  • Streamlining permitting processes for construction and renovation
  • Enhancing the accessibility of city officials and leadership to the business community, to include regular meetings between city leaders and business owners to identify and address needs, and to discuss areas for improvement
  • Establishing tax incentive and waiver packages specifically designed to support small businesses, as well as programs that provide incubators for start-up enterprises

What would you do to bring/retain large employers in Wilmington?

The very same measures that would better support small businesses in Wilmington also show promise in attracting and retaining large businesses as well. It is the city’s responsibility to create and maintain a climate that is ripe for business and one that fosters development, and one in which city leaders are responsive to the needs of the business community.

In addition to streamlining permitting processes and enhancing the accessibility of city officials to the business community, I believe that several other approaches could better attract large employers to our city.
They include:

  • Investing in workforce development programming: Our city has a talented pool from which new businesses can draw as they seek to hire, and ensuring that job training is available to our City residents can help increase their employment opportunities, while also making Wilmington a more attractive home for future businesses
  • Diversifying our approach to attracting and retaining businesses through tax credits and other packages: Competition for large businesses is now taking place between and among cities, counties and states, and so it is critical that we leverage our existing, community amenities while also offering more strategic incentives to businesses seeking to call Wilmington their home

Supporting the business community was critical to Wilmington historically, and continues to be a priority for our city. It is imperative that your next mayor takes this responsibility seriously, and that steps are taken to ensure our long-term growth and development.


Norman D. Griffiths
Norman D. Griffiths
Retired police officer

What would you do to help the city’s small businesses — businesses with 500 or fewer employees?

First, I would review current efforts by the city’s Office of Economic Development to assist small business. If improvement is needed, I would work from what is in place now to make

it easier to establish and sustain a small business in Wilmington. As part of this review, I would speak with small business and get their view of steps the city could take. With due respect for any regulations that are safety-related, I would look closely at regulations that make the approval process for small business difficult.

What would you do to bring/retain large employers in Wilmington?

I would have the Office of Economic Development scour the national news and gather as much data/information on companies that are thinking about moving. While each deal is different, I would establish a protocol for calling such businesses with prepared text about what Wilmington has to offer. I have spoken before about Wilmington’s desirable location in the mid-Atlantic Region. But in attracting new employers, we need to demonstrate that we have a skilled workforce to meet their needs. For this, we need to develop a database of those organizations that can provide necessary training. For example, I have been on the Board of Trustees of Del Tech for 19 years. The college is contacted by the State Development Office about specialized training from time to time and has been able to develop curriculum for certain specialized fields. On the second part of the question, I would have the Office of Economic Development maintain some sort of periodic contact/meeting schedule with our existing businesses to determine whether any are thinking about re-locating and attempt to address their needs. But lingering issues, such as the gun violence, need to be addressed without business coming to us. These issues are a key point in making our existing businesses (as well as new businesses) want to be in Wilmington. We won’t get far if Wilmington continues to be perceived as a dangerous city.


Kevin F. Kelley Sr.
Kevin F. Kelley Sr.
Director of the Division of Management Services for Division of Health & Human Services

What would you do to help the city’s small businesses — businesses with 500 or fewer employees?

I want businesses to know that as mayor I want to impact public safety first and foremost. I will communicate to businesses my vision of making each neighborhood better by first starting with public safety and implementing best practices of community policing successfully implemented in other cities. I will engage the small business leadership of the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce and the State Chamber of Commerce and ask what they want and expect from city government for public safety, and other needs outside of public safety. I will also engage with educational institutions — from local public school districts to colleges and universities — to seek ways in which the city can facilitate education entities and businesses to improve training and employment of city residents.

Over the last decade, an accelerating negative slide undermined much of the effort of good citizens, confounded leaders and led to Wilmington being painted with a broad brush as a place to avoid, rather than as a place to visit. As one more violent crime occurs and one more window is boarded up, one more business owner gets the jitters. Home values are shaky. Investors find none of this appealing, and long ago hit the pause button.

What would you do to bring/retain large employers in Wilmington?

Ask key leaders in large businesses what they want and need from the city, and also engage county and state government immediately to get a clear picture of any employers who are at risk of leaving so we can find how we can act now to prevent this. Ensure any public safety concerns that may factor into their staying are clear. Ask large business for support for the city as the city plans and initiates public safety improvements.


Robert Marshall
Robert Marshall
State senator

What would you do to help the city’s small businesses—businesses with 500 or fewer employees?

I salute all employers in Wilmington for their presence in our city and commitment to its future. The city and state provides a number of significant economic incentives, including tax credits for company expansion and hiring new employees. A change in Wilmington Police Department practices to create a safer Wilmington will go a long way in improving the business and work environment here for all companies. Also, low interest loans to small business owners and more assistance to start-ups and young small businesses as they grow and develop.

What would you do to bring/retain large employers in Wilmington?

The city’s role I believe is based on a need to think big, recognize that the state government is a necessary partner to grow a vibrant downtown with people living, entertainment and green space. My strong recommendation is for city, county and state business community leaders to urge Gov. Markell to move forward as recommended in Senate Resolution No. 12, the “Blue Ribbon Task Force to Make Recommendations Concerning the Future of Downtown Wilmington” now. This resolution reflects the same state policy strategy that led to the Riverfront Development of the past 20 years.


Michael Purzycki
Michael Purzycki
Executive director, Wilmington Riverfront Development Corp.

What would you do to help the city’s small businesses — businesses with 500 or fewer employees?

There is no economic development program better for Wilmington than an overall improvement in the city’s reputation. The city that once had a national reputation for chemicals, credit cards and corporations now has a national reputation for violence. Our first strategic objective must be to remove our city from the top tier of America’s most dangerous cities. At the same time, we are reminded that our police are only dealing with the symptoms of declining neighborhoods and decades of poor public policy. This is the greater challenge we are compelled to address.

My experience is that people are attracted to beautiful places. Wilmington in recent years has not maintained the condition of its streets, its parks and public spaces. Panhandlers downtown and trash on our streets make the city feel unwell. My pledge is that our entire city will be maintained in the same meticulous way the Riverfront has been maintained for years.

I will create business opportunity zones (where regulations and taxes are reduced for new businesses) and encourage employer location and new construction where little economic activity exists today.

What would you do to bring/retain large employers in Wilmington?

At some level there is no difference between small and large businesses. Both want an attractive and safe work environment for their employees. Both want an efficient regulatory culture and a supportive administration to work with.

In today’s world “small business” is no longer a company consisting of less than 500 employees as defined historically by the Small Business Administration. AAA employs less than 500 employees in Wilmington but we don’t consider it a small business. The different category of employer for our discussion is a firm hiring less than fifty or one hundred employees, truly a “small” business.

Small businesses need support to get started, incubation space, help with regulations, and an environment attractive to the young people we want to bring to our city. We want to attract business clusters that can take advantage of the high concentrations of data science and credit analytics expertise we have in our region.


Steven Washington
Steven Washington
Teacher, Non-Profit Organizer, Norfolk State Alumni Association Delaware Chapter Inc. President, (HBCU) Historical Black College and University Delaware Coalition Inc. Chairman Independent Party of Delaware

What would you do to help the city’s small businesses — businesses with 500 or fewer employees?

As mayor of Wilmington, I will create strategies to enhance growth for small businesses by including them in growth-targeted tax breaks. New small businesses will be exempt from paying taxes the first year and every fifth year thereafter. Existing small businesses will be exempt every fifth year. This strategy will allow small businesses to evolve in the community. I will encourage community support through partnerships and job development for our local people and work to simplify municipal permitting processes. I will encourage active participation of small businesses in our economic development plan prior to making decisions instead of city politics as usual and implement a more cooperative / collaborative city government culture. In an effort at encouraging a more profitable environment. I will extend the hours of operations with a dynamic nightlife that includes the arts. I will collaborate and partnership with the Department of Transportation to better provide services for our community and small businesses. I will create a Professional Development team for the interest of small business developers and re-entries to society.

What would you do to bring/retain large employers in Wilmington?

As mayor, I will collaborate with businessmen and women, develop a plan to improve our infrastructure in Wilmington, utilizing our great local work force. First and foremost, we need safe, clean and well-maintained streets and a stable environment in order to have a growing economy. As mayor, I will collaborate with the public, private, and charter school districts, our colleges, and universities to improve educational opportunities and job training for all Wilmingtonians towards providing the growth skill sets needed by employers in this 21st Century economy. Citywide, I will encourage participation in a new economic and cultural virtual think tank – a clearinghouse for innovation that will enhance the human spirit, human growth and development. It is vitally important to enhance our cultural amenities and physical environment in order to attract and retain large employers.


Dennis P. Williams
Dennis P. Williams
Mayor of Wilmington

What would you do to help the city’s small businesses — businesses with 500 or fewer employees?

The City has been able to support and increase the number of small and minority businesses throughout Wilmington through the Office of Economic Development’s Diverse Business Exchange. Through the Diverse Business Exchange small business owners or prospective entrepreneurs are able to participate in intensive training in areas such as: accounting, human resources, law, taxes and risk management. Through the Diverse Business Exchange small businesses are also able to apply for grant funding to support the growth of their business.

What would you do to bring/retain large employers in Wilmington?

Recently, the Chemours Company announced the City of Wilmington would become the company’s global headquarters. Although Chemours evaluated alternative locations in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, they selected Wilmington for our quality workforce, access to critical markets and ability for long-term growth. In the same manner we retained Chemours, we would recruit other large employers to Wilmington by offering incentives and being responsive to the various needs of the company. Maintaining an open door and demonstrating a willingness to work the company leaders, as well as, community stakeholders is incredibly important when looking to retain or recruit large employers to the city.


Eugene Young
Eugene Young
Advocacy Director, Delaware Center for Justice

What would you do to help the city’s small businesses — businesses with 500 or fewer employees?

As mayor, I will reach out to economic development experts and key stakeholders in the public and private sectors to create the best team. This will allow us to better leverage our assets, so together we can generate the kind of economic opportunities that will bring good jobs and put more residents back to work. Small businesses make a big impact on our economy and are responsible for creating the most jobs. City government must do more to help them succeed. As mayor, I will bring together city government representatives, current and budding entrepreneurs, stakeholders from the business community, economic development partner organizations and community leaders to solicit their input on how city government could be better partners with small businesses and entrepreneurs

Right now businesses and investors waste time and lose money trying to navigate through a regulatory review process that is neither automated nor modernized. We have to update and/or streamline regulations and codes [that are] redundant so that they could be updated and/or streamlined to make it easier for small business owners to do business in the city.

What would you do to bring/retain large employers in Wilmington?

The City of Wilmington’s high crime rate impacts the economy and its ability to grow. Public safety issues downtown make attracting new businesses more challenging and make retaining businesses even tougher. We must clean up the city’s image on crime to attract and retain businesses. That’s why I already released a detailed crime plan as part one of my three-part comprehensive policy platform focused on making our city safer.

Outdated codes and regulations, lack of direction and coordination from City Hall, fragmented services and poorly communicated information have each made doing business in Wilmington more difficult than it should be. At the same time, the city must ensure it has a well-trained workforce to attract businesses and provide reason for them to stay and expand here. Once in office, I will also immediately begin developing a rebranding program — and get the entire community involved in redefining the city’s image as one that is making
a comeback.

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