By Roger Morris
Special to Delaware Business Times
Throughout the years, Sussex County has lured tourists to its beaches and rental properties bordering the Atlantic Ocean on the county’s eastern side. Now, it’s wagering that it can have the same success in luring new businesses to set up their operations on the county’s west side.
That’s the challenge that William Pfaff, Sussex County’s new economic development director, said the county is determined to undertake — but he already believes that the effort will prove successful.
“In the past, we spent a lot of money investing in the tourist trade,” said Pfaff, who assumed his post last March after years of working for the University of Delaware’s Small Business Development Center. “Now, we want to tell people, ‘You already know it’s a great place to come for vacation. But it’s also a great place
to bring your businesses.’ ”
One initiative is the new ExciteSussex Loan Program, totaling $4 million, that went into effect Feb. 1 and which is earmarked for new business loans. The fund works in tandem with the state-run Downtown Development District program and a county Business Acceleration Team geared to help firms avoid relocation roadblocks.
“The county gave me the opportunity to be creative,” Pfaff said. “So I first met with leaders in all the area towns to get their thoughts and recommendations.” The result of those conversations, Pfaff said, was a drive to tap into “untouched resources” in the Nanticoke Development Zone along U.S. 13 from Greenwood to Delmar.
Pfaff compares his mission of luring businesses into the region to the business strategies employed by the luxury fragrances industry. “Most of the cost of a perfume is not in the perfume itself but in the packaging, branding and marketing,” he said, “and the same is true with economic development.” To that end, the new ExciteSussex fund will heavily target businesses in states within the mid-Atlantic region — New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
The county is contributing $750,000 to the fund, and the remaining $3.25 million is being underwritten by Discover Bank, with the actual operations to be managed by the National Development Council, a nonprofit organization founded in 1969 to foster job creation and business development nationwide. Loans will also be federally guaranteed, and interest rates will be as low as 3.94 percent based on current rates.
These loans, which Pfaff said may range from $250,000 to $1 million, will be targeted for firms either relocating to Sussex County or opening new facilities there and which are planning to hire between 10 and 500 employees. “Real estate investments will not be eligible for the loans,” Pfaff said, “because we are looking for creation of jobs with household wages, not to build new housing developments.”
Additionally, the fund is not seen as a way to lure small startup companies but rather those already producing revenue, and two years of tax returns are part of the application. Depending on the circumstances, loans will have a life of between 10 to 25 years. “We’re looking for firms with sound business plans and the ability to pay,” Pfaff said. Part of the applicant’s business plan must address job creation.
Additionally, about the same time Pfaff was hired last March, the county announced the purchase for $2.2 million of a 74-acre farm adjacent to the existing Sussex County Industrial Park for the creation of an enlarged business park. Thirty acres are immediately available for lease to commercial and industrial tenants with varying lot sizes.
“Everything will be ‘shovel-ready’” to begin construction, Pfaff said, and one tenant has already located there. “All the infrastructure is already in place,” he said, “which includes central water, power and rail.” In addition to the rail connections, the park is local on U.S. 9, which connects to major business traffic arteries U.S. 13 and 113 that run from Virginia to the south to Interstate 95 to the north.
And Pfaff is serious about making tourists who are also business executives, many of whom own or annually rent beach properties, aware of the opportunities in western Sussex County. “This year’s county-sponsored vacation guide has already been printed,” he said, “but next year I would hope for a center section that asks,
‘You vacation here. Why not bring your business here as well?’”