More than 250 business and civic leaders gathered Tuesday morning at Delaware Technical Community College to discuss Kent County's economic future.
More than 250 business and civic leaders gathered Tuesday morning at Delaware Technical Community College for the fifth annual Kent County Economic Summit to learn more about improving Kent County's economy. The summit was a joint effort by the Delaware Economic Development Office and Delaware Tech's Business and Entrepreneurship Consortium, featuring 15 speakers and a number of vendors representing businesses and government organizations in the county. Gov. Jack Markell told the group his administration's highest priority is developing new jobs and economic activity throughout the state and in Kent County. He singled out the recent return of Kraft Foods' Jell-O division from Mexico and the news a German-based flooring company soon will be building a plant at the Garrison Oak Technical Park in Dover. “We are very excited and optimistic about the progress not just here in Kent County but throughout the state,” Markell said, but added he knows there are people in the state who want to work but who still cannot find jobs. Those problems and worries about keeping Delaware competitive in an increasingly global market are what tend to wake him up at 4 in the morning, Markell said. The summit's overall theme this year was on the growth of agriculture and agribusiness in Kent County. “We felt it was a good time to do this,” said Dana Sawyer, Delaware Tech's director of corporate and community programs. “We want to promote agriculture as a part of economic development and help the county, small businesses and large businesses alike.” One idea introduced at the summit revolves around the creation of Food Innovation Districts, said James Waddington, director of economic development for Kent County. The concept involves concentrating food-related businesses such as farms, poultry-producing areas or processing plants in areas where support services, such as adequate water, wastewater, electric production resources and transportation facilities exist or can be developed. The districts would be supported through government planning and economic support activities, resulting in increased access to local food sources for families and businesses. They also would spur greater development of food resources and promote a healthy business climate. In Delaware, such districts also would have the support of Delaware State University and the University of Delaware, land grant colleges that have a strong focus on agriculture, Waddington said. “This would stimulate and expand these industries, both within the site and in select markets,” Waddington said. Smaller agricultural industries, such as those based on growing soybeans or providing gluten-free products would be ideal candidates for the innovation districts, Waddington said. Approximately 60,000 acres of the 170,000 acres of farmland in Kent County already are part of the state's farmland preservation initiative, meaning that land is permanently protected from commercial or residential development. Farmers in the program have given up more than $150 million in development rights to keep their lands in farm production. “This is a significant investment in the preservation of agricultural lands,” Waddington said. But there are obstacles to overcome if Kent County wants to maintain its place as one of the top 10 percent of agricultural counties in the nation, he said. The cost of resources and regulatory compliance place many burdens on today's farmers, Waddington said, and there are fewer young people who want to work in the industry, he said. To fight this trend, there must be efforts to help existing agricultural businesses and attract new ones, including a new generation of farmers, increases in the acreage put under farmland preservation and dialogue on environmental issues and water resources. Ken Anderson, director of the entrepreneurial and small business support for the Delaware Economic Development Office, told the audience Delaware ranked second in the 2012 State New Economy Index, moving up from its prior spot in sixth place. According to the Index, Delaware is the state having “perhaps the most globalized” economy, with laws that attract foreign and domestic investment and a trade sector known for its high wages. Delawareans must invent new strategies to keep its competitive edge and must base competition on entrepreneurship, original thinking and an ability to provide goods and services that others can't. The state – and by extension, Kent County – needs a workforce based on high skills, global reach, strong start-ups, people and companies that embrace digital technology and a strong imaginative streak, Anderson said. “Be innovative,” he told the gathering. “Innovate, innovate, innovate.”