Kent County sees dollars in connecting agriculture, manufacturing, tourism and innovation

 By Christi Milligan

The rich agricultural landscape of Kent County, including more than 60,000 acres of preserved farmland, has long been a good neighbor to the manufacturing giants that also call it home.

Now, Kent County officials want to harness those assets to create a Food Innovation District (FID), an economic strategy that would both leverage the area’FIDmills love affair with food production and infuse the local economy.

Hallmarks of the initiative include:

  • Major market connectivity.
  • A thriving local network of food producers, processors, distributors and retailers.
  • Talent for creating continuous innovation.
  • Growth potential in farming, agricultural businesses, and tourism.

By strategically connecting each segment and supporting it through legislation—even tax incentives—the results can be a harvest of economic opportunities.

“It’s critical that this be the real deal,” said FID cheerleader and point person James Waddington. “Anybody can say, ‘We’re a food innovation district,’ but are you really walking the walk? To me, you have to have the assets in place to support that as an economic development strategy.”

That strategy is something that Waddington has been pitching awhile now, ever since he assumed the role of Kent County economic development director three years ago and determined that the best way to spike the economy is to piggyback on existing manufacturing and agriculture-based markets.

“We tend to think in terms of business retention, business expansion, and business attraction, in that order,” Waddington said. “In Kent County, we have preserved farmland so that assets are in place. We have a substantial food-manufacturing base in place, and our history supports our role as an agricultural center. There’s a continuum.”

Innovation districts are typically an economic tool for urban areas looking to cluster compatible businesses and start-ups with anchor institutions and businesses. But there’s room for a FID in agricultural-rich Kent County, according to Waddington, where the sum of existing food producers, distributors and retailers could be much bigger than its parts.

Kent County has more than 60 acres of preserved farmland, representing more than $250 million in preservation assets, or public treasure, according to Waddington. It has 170,000 acres of farmland, but just 10 percent of that is for fruits and vegetables—the balance is a high-volume commodity crop.

While valuable, Waddington said it’s not a job creator, per se. “So the whole thing with food innovation is that we’re trying to find, from an economic development strategy, what additional value opportunities exist,” he said.

Combined with the county’s location in the northeast corridor and its manufacturing hub, Waddington said that the idea of developing year-round food-production opportunities isn’t far-fetched.

FIDplantManufacturing represents about 5,000 jobs in Kent County, with an average pay north of $40,000 per year, plus benefits, according to Waddington.

“We want to retain those jobs,” he said. “Out of our 80 or so manufacturing facilities, 14 are food, and 17 are metal manufacturers, which supports food manufacturing. We’re building on what we have.”

He added that site selectors have pulled back on scouting locations for manufacturing in all areas but one: food manufacturing.

Waddington said that there is no firm timeline, but a FID steering committee meets monthly, and he’s hopeful that the next steps will include meetings with county planners to determine FID boundaries, which could stretch from areas like old Blue Hen Mall to the east, include agricultural and manufacturing sites to the west, and Delaware State University farther north.

Boundaries are key because the vision includes possible tax credits and incentives for the production and manufacturing arms of the FID.

Waddington offered that the FID could also include downtown Dover, already slated to receive state-funded incentives as part of a designated Downtown Development District. Connection to thriving restaurants and entertainment is key.

“Certainly, the Downtown Development District initiative could work hand in glove with a FID in a downtown center. Dover would be a great place to have multiple restaurants or develop a restaurant incubator. That would be more along the lines of a commercial FID, leveraging downtown food markets, downtown dining opportunities, arts and entertainment,” said Waddington.

Kent County Tourism Director Cindy Small is a member of the steering committee. Her office is already effectively marketing the local wine, brewery and distillery industries in Kent County through the Good Libations Tour, the Delaware Wine and Beer Festival, and Kent County Restaurant Week.  But she said she would love to see how the FID might benefit ongoing efforts to attract tourists and boost the economy.

Delaware recently selected February as the state’s official Wine Month.

Should the initiative gain footing and successfully weave local agriculture with manufacturing, retailers and tourism, Joe Zilcosky said the concept could expand regionally.

Zilcosky is the Kent County Business Development Leader for the Delaware Economic Development Office. “The idea is that it will eventually grow into a regional tFIDtractorhing,” said Zilcosky. “Possibly New Jersey and Pennsylvania could take advantage of the products and locale. You start with the core and go out from there and the whole region could benefit.”

Small said a meeting with Union Kitchen (see sidebar) is a hopeful sign that the initiative is poised to take official steps after several years of information gathering.

Holly Porter, deputy principal assistant at the Department of Agriculture, said the FID initiative meshes well with the mission of her department.

“Our goal is viability and profitability of farmers,” she said. “Something like the Food Innovation District could lead to new markets, and possibly bring folks into additional processing or niche processing and open markets for farmers and the products they sell.”

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