By Dan Linehan
At the peak of its employment, in 1978, the Newark Chrysler plant employed 5,500 people and was the beating heart of the city’s economy.
The cracks started to show a few years later, when Delaware became the first state to issue Chrysler a bailout loan. At the end of 2008, the plant closed for good. From 1990 to 2018, the number of manufacturing jobs in Delaware fell by nearly half.
The University of Delaware’s Science, Technology and Advanced Research Campus (STAR) Campus is the centerpiece of the state’s attempt to reverse that legacy by securing a place for itself as a technology hub.
A mix of public clinics, private companies, academics and students, the STAR Campus began in 2009 after the university purchased the 272-acre site.
“Delaware is at a turning point,” said Kathleen Matt, the university’s dean of the College of Health Sciences. By bringing in new companies and other partners, Matt believes the state can again be a manufacturing leader.
During an early-February tour of a new bioscience building under construction, Gov. John Carney said
the state’s substantial investment in the STAR Campus is about jobs. With a pair of buildings slated to open next year, the campus is estimated to employ about 2,130 people.
But measuring the economic impact of the site was simpler when thousands of middle-class workers were taking home paychecks for rolling Dodge Darts and Plymouth Valiants off the assembly line by the thousands.
Building up a high-tech economic ecosystem here to replace the one lost to the nation’s manufacturing downturn adds new complexities. Who works here? What do they do, and how will it benefit the state and taxpayers?
With an eye toward what’s new and upcoming on the site, we’ll take a look at the people and businesses behind the STAR Campus.
Tower at STAR
The “living wall” is a visitor’s first sign the Tower at Star is not a typical academic building. In a display meant to provide natural inspiration to designers and researchers, the wall of the first-floor atrium is lined with more than 5,000 plants.
This 10-story tower, which opened in November, is owned by Delle Donne and Associates and leased to the University of Delaware, which still owns the land beneath it. The university opted for private construction in the interests of building more quickly.
The College of Health Sciences occupies floors two through seven, with the top three floors given over to private companies. The tower now houses about 760 employees.
Unlike a traditional college building, the tower doesn’t have any classroom space. Instead, it’s the home of the university’s multidisciplinary health sciences research. They’re working on new ways to bring research from the lab to the real world, a field often called “translational research.”
The frontier of health is increasingly less about what happens in a hospital and more about the everyday choices that can have the biggest impact on our health. The tower includes a number of simulations to help students and researchers work out real-life health challenges.
On the fourth floor, a typical apartment has been built and equipped with sensors to study the movement and activities of people with long-term diseases like arthritis. There’s also a demonstration kitchen to help teach students and the public about how to prepare healthy food. At the fitness studio, researchers are studying how exercise in patients with kidney problems can delay the need for a transplant.
STAR Health Sciences Complex
College of Health Sciences Dean Kathleen Matt said she is intent on making the campus part of community life.
The Health Sciences Complex, which opened in 2014 as the first building in the STAR Campus, is a key part of that mission. Its three public clinics — Physical Therapy Clinic, Nurse Managed Primary Care Center and the Speech Language Hearing Clinic — together saw about 29,000 patients last year.
In many ways, Matt says the university’s work here echoes the public goods provided by the factory, which also included clinic and classroom space to train and care for employees.
“Many of the same missions are being carried out (at STAR) but in a very different way,” she said.
There are several relics of the plant in the complex, including the hoods of Dodge Durangos signed by workers to commemorate the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
The technology innovation research in the tower may also translate into patents and business opportunities for the universities and its researchers. The college has gone from just a few patents to 26, including those that are pending. It credits the growth in patents to the complex’s mixing of different academic disciplines.
The complex also includes 7,500 square feet of lab space for the Delaware Technology Park, a partnership of the university, state and private sector that helps early-stage companies establish themselves. A dozen companies now maintain a presence there.
Newark Regional Transportation Center
For decades, vehicles that rolled off the lines at Newark were loaded onto Norfolk Southern Railway trains. But if the government’s massive investment here pays off, these tracks will have a second life carrying STAR Campus employees to work.
“We’re not building STAR with seas of parking lots,” said John Sissen, CEO of Delaware Transit Corp., an arm of the Delaware Department of Transportation.
In a bid to get drivers to choose rail instead of personal vehicles, local, state and federal governments are spending an estimated $82.2 million to upgrade the SEPTA commuter rail line and replace the rail station.
The existing station on the site is now used mostly as a park-and-ride stop for city-bound workers. Transportation planners hope the new station will encourage workers to choose end-to-end transit.
The bulk of the project involves adapting a system built to handle freight to one that moves people. At present, commuter trains can’t use these tracks between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m.
The new station is expected to be finished later this year, but there are still two to three more years left of rail work to be done, Sissen said. In the long term, the state would also like to shore up its commuter network to the west, toward Baltimore.
“Ultimately, there’s a commuter rail gap between Newark and Perryville,” Sissen said, but it will likely take many more years to bridge it.
Chemours Discovery Hub
Chemours, one of the three companies spun off from DuPont, is consolidating its Wilmington-area research and development labs at the STAR Campus.
The building, slated to house about 350 scientists and be finished in early 2020, will include chemistry, analytical and research laboratories.
Its scientists will research products and find new and better ways to use existing ones.
The work will benefit all three of Chemours’ business segments: titanium technologies, which produces a chemical called titanium dioxide that’s used as an architectural coating and in many other applications; fluoroproducts, a class of chemicals that includes Teflon and Freon; and chemical solutions, which makes chemicals used across mining, agriculture and other industries.
The company says its location on the STAR Campus will provide it with recruiting opportunities and serve as an introduction to the field for potential new young scientists.
The university’s deal with Bloom Energy, a manufacturer of electric generators that run off natural gas, has not lived up to initial hopes. The university granted the company a $1-a-year lease for 25 years on 30 acres, or about 40 percent of the developed land on the STAR Campus.
But Bloom has not created the 900 jobs it promised as part of an incentive package.
In November, a university administrator told the Newark Post that Bloom doesn’t “really pay their fair share.”
The company didn’t return a message seeking their comment for this story, but in a November post said it has paid out more than $85 million in wages to local plant employees.
Matt, the health sciences dean, said the university does not want to again lease out such large tracts of the STAR Campus to private companies.
“There has to be some greater mission to be part of our university and the larger Delaware community,” she said.