Agriculture is already one of central Delaware’s most important industries, and local officials are looking to parlay that into a unique opportunity to make greater Dover a focal point for the food processing business.
Kent County Economic Development Director James Waddington, Dover Economic Development Director Bill Neaton and Michael Casson, a member of Delaware State University’s economics faculty, spoke Tuesday about further developing the county’s agricultural and food industry. The pitch came at Tuesday’s Kent County Levy Court meeting, which was also attended by Dover City Council members.
Kent County currently has 173,808 acres of farmland and in 2007 the value of farm products sold from Kent County was $188.3 million, officials said. Targeted efforts to invest in the industry by attracting food-processing facilities could increase that bounty and lead to additional farmers markets and restaurants in the region.
Casson said 3,838 Kent County jobs are directly linked to various agricultural sub-industries, while another 2,879 are indirectly related. If steps were taken to attract new food processors to the area, the number would only increase.
“Those who weathered the recession well are mostly small food production facilities,” Waddington said. “The facilities are just emerging and are beginning to look into new site selection, we want to be an area they look to.”
According to Waddington, there are things that Kent County currently can offer to help attract food processors, namely existing water and wastewater capacity for new growth. He also suggested developing food innovation district incentives, which could mean tax incentives for food processing facilities within a specific geographic area.
According to Casson, a large-scale food processing operation has the potential to provide a large number of jobs in one fell swoop, but several smaller-scale facilities has the potential to put Delaware on the map as a sort of Silicon Valley of food.
“We’re looking at the potential for a food incubator or an accelerator in which we look to stimulate agribusiness – small entrepreneurs who are looking at cutting-edge technologies, who are looking to be at the front of demand, using innovation and research to drive their products,” Casson said. “We could think about this area as being an agricultural innovation valley in which we have expertise through research, we have the training, the facilities and we’re supporting those businesses and we’re pumping out products and services that are leading the agri-food system.“
A food innovation district could vary in size, officials said. One area that Waddington proposed for possible development is the Bay Road area.
“The Kent County Levy Court commissioners made a substantial investment in trying to redevelop this area with the construction of [the County Complex] and the vision was that this would somehow drive construction along this Bay Road corridor,” he said.
Page 2 of 2 - After they painted a picture of how such a district could impact Kent County, the team leading the presentation suggested that a committee be created to spearhead this effort. They suggested that local government leaders, higher education officials, the USDA, existing food processors in the area like Kraft, and other private sector entities band together to assess what assets already exist in the community and what is needed.