Kent County, long upstaged by the city to its north and the resorts to its south, is suddenly turning heads.
In Smyrna alone, more than 77 new businesses opened in the past 36 months. Known principally for its state prison for decades, the town is now a draw for entrepreneurs who are turning vacant buildings into hot properties. Job growth is up 17 percent. House-flippers are drawn to its historic district, where more than 490 buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Long slapped with the “below the canal” label, Kent County is suddenly trending with its brewpubs, it’s Harvest Ridge Winery and four-year-old Painted Stave, the larger of the state’s two distilleries.
“The image, at least, is Kent County is slower, lower Delaware, and the idea that, if you’re driving through, there’s really not anything much to do until you get to the beaches,” said Jim Waddington, executive director of the Kent County Economic Partnership.
The epithet is even posted in the Urban Dictionary online: “Slower lower Delaware: Any area of Delaware below the C&D Canal. Generally known for its more Southern and thus slower way of life. Much of slower lower Delaware is rural. Slower lower Delaware is worlds apart from Northern Del.”
While headlines track the tax rebates and horse trading used to lure employers to Newark and Wilmington, Kent County officials historically took a different tack.
“We don’t give out portfolios with money and incentives in them,” Waddington said. “We have to be friendly. We have to be efficient. We have to work with people.”
Apparently, that’s working for them.
The county will be crisscrossed with $551 million in new state roads within the next six years, and a $24 million wastewater project is aimed at attracting large manufacturers. A small business incubator is opening. The county is leveraging its agricultural assets, its four colleges, its county seat designation, its collaborative approach and its friendly relationship with Dover Air Force Base to grow.
It helps that four Kent County locales are designated Downtown Development Districts where developers can get up to 20 percent rebates for construction costs — Smyrna, Dover, Milford and Harrington.
The county’s 74 manufacturers employ 4,752 people with an average wage and benefits package of $51,000.
Kent County boasts eight utility companies, 74 manufacturers, 94 wholesale trade companies, 70 information companies, 178 finance and insurance firms 127 real estate firms, 23 educational-services firms and 278 firms that provide scientific, technical or professional services to other companies.
Dover, in the midst of a growth spurt, is also home to largest military air freight terminal in the U.S. and the military’s only stateside mortuary. Dover Air Force Base has an economic impact of about $565 million on the state.
The Kraft-Heinz plant has added a bakery element. Edgewell has moved a production line from Canada to Dover. Hirsch Industries has added a new line of file cabinets. Handy Tube has expanded in Camden.
Bay Health is growing.
Business leaders think the county’s strong agriculture segment could expand using Delaware State University’s research into methods to extend Delaware’s growing season with hoop house planting.
Delaware Turf in Milford, the largest all-synthetic turf sports complex in the mid-Atlantic region, is drawing visitors to the county.
County officials see economic development as a three-legged stool — business retention, business expansion and business attraction. As Waddington puts it, “If you aren’t doing the first two effectively, you’re not going to be able to do the third.”
“We all constantly work with major employers and try to foster a business-friendly environment so
that at the time of a consolidation like Kraft’s you fare well in the company’s analysis matrix,” Waddington said.
Michael Casson, director of Delaware State University’s Center for Economic Development and International Trade, said county business groups work together to woo new businesses and keep old ones in place.
He said any progress is thanks to cooperation among universities, chambers of commerce, local officials, state officials, the Kent County Levy Court, the Kent County Economic Partnership and air base officials.
“If you’re a developer, you can see that you can meet with the stakeholders here and you can get decisions made. That becomes very attractive,” Casson said. We have a regional economic growth strategy, and, when you have that type of approach, you can move much quicker, which is very important for business.”
“Kent County works together,” Casson said. “I don’t know if that should be a slogan.”