This week, Kent County talks business.

Where we are, how we got here and where we’re going will be among the topics addressed at Tuesday’s seventh annual Kent County Economic Summit hosted by Delaware Technical Community College.

The event will draw in nearly 300 business leaders, government officials and community members. The summit will offer proposals for – and updates on – projects aimed at developing the county’s economic future, with industry experts speaking on the latest trends in their fields.

Providing a government structure inviting to business, ensuring infrastructure is in place to support it and increasing tourism opportunities in the county are among the development goals the county has worked toward in recent years.

Old strengths, sprouting trends When Kent County laid out its development goals for the coming years in its 2007 Comprehensive Plan, it put a heavy emphasis on properly managing growth while preserving the “rural and community character” of the county, as well as its farmland.

Although drawn up eight years ago the fundamentals of the county’s economic strategy have changed little during that time, says Jim Waddington, Director of Kent Economic Development.  His presentation at the summit will focus on “the 4-Fs of Economic Development in Kent County: Festivals, Food, Factories and Flight.”

“Expansion at Perdue, Playtex, Hirsh Industries and Kraft have been significant towards the health of this segment,” he says. Energy and utility costs are an ongoing potential obstacle, but Judy Diogo of the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce says it’s being addressed.

“We have to be mindful that we are keeping our utilities and infrastructure in a way that they make business easy,” she says. “The city of Dover recently raised their electric rates and we’re working with the city to try to come up with opportunities for savings for commercial entities.”

Utility costs don’t seem to deter new builds in the sector, however.

Uzin Utz Manufacturing, a German furnisher of specialty flooring products, selected Dover for its first dry mortar plant in the U.S., breaking ground on a 53,000 square-foot facility in May 2014. The plant, located at Garrison Oak Technical Park, is slated to open on Sept 25.

Other projects in the county have been a longer story, but still sustain a great deal of interest, notably in aviation, Waddington says.

 “The Air Cargo Ramp is still at the top of everyone's list,” he points out, referring to expansion at the former Civil Air Terminal at Dover Air Force Base. Nearby, Cheswold’s Delaware Airpark, under expansion since 2004, received on Sept. 2 a new $5.8 million grant to provide additional runways and renovation.

Other trends in Kent’s economic focus, meanwhile, align with the 2007 plan’s emphasis on the importance of farming in the county.

“The one significant change that we've seen is in the renewed focus on a Food Innovation District (FID) as an economic development focus,” Waddington says. He has long advocated for the development of a food industry cluster – that is, a concentration of interconnected businesses, suppliers, and associated institutions around food production.

“This cluster does not preclude other types of business thriving, rather it supports additional business development.”

Agritourism is also an emerging market in the county, according to Kent County Tourism Executive Director Cindy Small. “This fits in nicely with growing interests such as farmers markets and farm markets,” she says. “Things are cyclical, so the ‘home grown’ foods and products our parents grew up with are popular again with 20-30-somethings. They want to know where their food/drink comes from.  Eat local, drink local, buy local – it works in Kent County.”

Tuesday’s summit will expand on this and other emerging trends – all of which take the right conditions to take root. Smartly planned infrastructure, a vibrant small business community and inventive tourism market are just a few such components in growing a healthy economic environment in the county.

Spotlight on… Infrastructure Business doesn’t move without roads, and few know that better than Rich Vetter, director of the Kent County Metropolitan Planning Organization. Poor planning, he says, can be a serious drag on growth.

“Roadways that have significant congestion and safety concerns can potentially lead to stagnant business opportunities and conditions, as new businesses will likely look elsewhere to areas where infrastructure is already in place,” he says.

Done right, however, infrastructure planning is a key component the county’s economic development. The MPO’s transportation plan contains a prime example of this with its Route 1/South Frederica intersection project, which aims to provide easier access to the planned Kent County Regional Sports Complex – a major potential tourism draw – while also maintaining the road’s capacity for traffic between Dover and Lewes – a priority for DelDOT.

Other intersection improvements along Route 1, now planned or underway, are designed with this sort of balance in mind: having the capacity to keep traffic moving smoothly, while still enabling for further development along the route.

The MPO’s Technical Advisory Committee, made up of representatives of state and local agencies, gives feedback on planned economic development opportunities and the potential for future transportation improvements to accommodate them. It also looks to build improvements in areas that have established infrastructure, improve traffic flow in and around municipalities and within the growth zone.

“Numerous studies have shown that communities that are walkable and bikeable, are located close to amenities such as parks or trails, and incorporate mixed-uses such as neighborhood retail into their communities have significantly higher property values than traditional communities that are not as pedestrian-friendly or located far from amenities,” Vetter says.

Small business Small business is another key cog in the county’s economic engine – and that cog is moving. The CDCC’s Diogo says they had more than 80 ribbon cuttings last fiscal year.

“We’re seeing a surge of entrepreneurship,” she says. “A lot of folks are taking their early retirement and starting their own businesses.”

Jennifer Pilcher, local public information officer for the Small Business Administration, says the tight-knit, integrated nature of business in Kent County helps drive growth.

“Effective federal, state and local economic development partnerships; a variety of organizations working to support small business; and innovative small business programs all come together to make Kent County a great place to do business,” she says.

SBA loans in Delaware are up an impressive 156% in terms of dollars lent this year – well above the national rate of 25%.

Of its loans in Kent and Sussex counties, Pilcher says, 27% are in agribusiness, representing a slight increase from last year. 

Tourism Kent County may not be Vegas or Venice, but Cindy Small of the county’s tourism office says the county has done much to attract visitors.

“We understand that Kent County is not a vacation hotspot – you can sit back and accept that or create the demand.  Our events create the demand,” she says.

As examples, she says Dover Days grew from 12,000 in 2006 to more than 50,000 people last year, and the Amish Country Bike Tour drew 2,850 cyclists from 25 states and Canada this year. 

The numbers speak to the success of these efforts, with two million visitors a year, and $555 million in economic impact to Kent County last year.

“Tourism employs 5,200 full time people, making it the third largest employer in the county,” Small says. “Research has proven that the economic impact of tourism to Delaware saves each taxpayer $1,200 per year.”

The diversity of attractions in the county – from museums to state parks to NASCAR, casinos and historic downtowns – mean it appeals to a range of interest, Small says.

Big ticket events like Firefly, which brought in 80,000 festivalgoers in 2014, have also been a boon. This summer saw the debut of two country music festivals, Big Barrel and Delaware Junction.

Competition from neighboring states that has negatively impacted the casinos, as well as a drop in NASCAR attendance at the race track, have hurt tourism, but efforts to expand and diversify have more than made up for those losses.

“We had to do more marketing to entice couples, girls getaways, libations tours, history and family visits,” Small says. “But the music festivals have been icing on the cake.”

Then there are the big projects, like the $24 million Kent County Regional Sports Complex, breaking ground this fall.

“Sports tourism is going to be huge in Kent County once [it] opens,” she says. “It will be the best in Delaware and for miles around with all turf, fully lit long-field sports.”

A strong enough tourism industry can add up to more than just visitors, Small points out.

“I met a fairly new resident of Kent County a few weeks ago who lives in one of our newer housing developments,” Small says. “She mentioned that out of 30 or so homes, 28 of them have been purchased by non-Delawareans.  You can bet they were visitors first.  They came, they experienced; they relocated.”