Agile Cold Storage breaks ground in Claymont
CLAYMONT — Within 18 months of initial discussions, Agile Cold Storage celebrated officially starting sitework on its $170 million cold-storage facility at the former Claymont steel mill off Naamans Road.
The 265,000-square-foot warehouse at First State Crossing lies near the Interstate 95 interchange and within 10 miles of the Port of Wilmington. Although the entire project is projected to be built out over the next five years, Agile representatives aimed to have the first phase of 165,000 square feet of space done by early 2024.
But what was also critical to bringing this project to fruition was the relatively quick turnaround from first discussions to putting a shovel in the ground, Agile Cold Storage President and CEO Don Schoenl said. The Delaware Prosperity Partnership started conversations with Agile in August 2022, and New Castle County government’s Jobs Now program accelerated the plan review process.
“It’s not an overstatement to say that if you didn’t have expedited ability to approve projects, we probably wouldn’t be here right now because our competition would be building somewhere else,” Schoenl said during a Friday groundbreaking ceremony. “Even though it has been a while that we’ve been talking about it, in our jurisdictions we still wouldn’t be here today about to break ground on part of the facility.”
Agile is a 3-year old, third-party logistics provider that stores and distributes for other companies. Although the company itself is young, its management team has 20 years or more experience in the cold storage sector. Schoenl himself held key roles in Nordic Cold Storage and AGRO Merchants Group.
Those connections helped form Agile’s customer base, which Schoenl said include the largest fruit and vegetable importers from South Africa and Morocco as well as protein exporters from South America, Australia and New Zealand. The Port of Wilmington was a major draw for the cold storage company, with more than 6 million tons handled and much of it is fruit from South America, Central America and North Africa.
The port ranks among the top gateways for fruit and juice concentrates, with a 850,000 square foot on-dock refrigerated warehouse complex. It is also a chief banana port in North America, with Dole Food Company and Chiquita Fresh North America bringing cargo weekly.
Schoenl also added that among Agile’s clients, which he declined to name, many were looking to bring products from Ohio and Pennsylvania to be exported to the world. Right now, existing customers that are utilizing the Philadelphia terminal are being shipped to South Jersey and then back west to end users.
“We couldn’t make this investment without the infrastructure from the Port of Wilmington and the tremendous road infrastructure being right here on I-95,” Schoenl told reporters. “But it’s also about the availability of qualified labor. You can build a great building in a great location, and if we don’t have great associates to work with our service, levels won’t be where our customers need it to be.”
The next warehouse in Agile’s second phase at First State Crossing may include next-generation technology and automation. The company has two warehouses in its home state of Georgia and a third on the way, which will use automated storage and retrieval systems. In the next six months, Agile plans on starting projects in Pennsylvania, Buffalo, Chicago, Dallas and New Orleans.
“This is not just the old warehouse I worked with in college. This has technology, and then you’re looking at a whole different skill set in education of technical work and automation. It’s not just driving a forklift or pallet truck,” Schoenl said.
In total, Agile Cold Storage plans on bringing 130 jobs to Claymont, supported by a $4.56 million taxpayer-backed grant. The first phase aims to hire 100 people, once the warehouse is open. While there will be support services in human resources and IT, most of the staff hired will be loading and unloading containers.
The average annual salary for Agile employees to be hired is estimated at $56,000, and Agile representatives said they plan to hire mainly from the Claymont community.
“This area had been neglected, and that is not the case anymore,” Claymont Renaissance Development Corp. Executive Director Brett Saddler said. “I’ve always looked at what’s happening here as a snowball going down the hill. It starts out slow, and then it picks up speed. I am incredibly excited about Agile and what it means in bringing technical, good-paying jobs. Thank you for choosing us.”
First State Crossing is becoming a hub of economic activity to revitalize Claymont, which has stumbled since the Evraz steel mill closed in 2013. Local officials and the Claymont Renaissance Development Corp. have been working on affordable housing projects to draw residences, but projects at the business park like a speculative warehouse and Aglient hope to recreate some of the jobs lost with the mill.
First State Crossing also sits across the street from another redevelopment project where New York-based developer KPR will raze the former Tri-State Mall and build a 525,000-square-foot distribution center.
New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer recalled that when he was a child, he came to the Tri-State Mall to watch “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.” Now, he pointed to the construction zones as signs of progress for northern Delaware.
“This is a meaningful site to people of our state and the whole region. We are in competition every day, not just in New Castle County and Delaware, but in the Philadelphia area and the country,” Meyer said. “If we can’t win the day with a cold storage site by our port, there’s another port that will get the benefits. So we must win.”
When elected county executive, Meyer created the Jobs Now program, which offers an expedited plan review to non-residential developers to bring new or add jobs to the county. Applicants may have a pre-exploratory meeting with the county’s planning, engineering, permits and inspections divisions, as well as public works, Delaware Department of Transportation and the state Fire Marshal’s Office.
The county and state review teams identify possible challenges and a timeline for hearings. Applicants then provide plan submissions in that timeline, which are reviewed by county staff within five days.
“In the past, when it came to permits, licenses and zoning variances it would take forever. So we wanted to create a program that eliminates that problem, because time is money,” Meyer told the Delaware Business Times. “I think it matters more than any sort of benefit that we’re giving out like tax benefits – to look an investor in the eye and say, ‘if you want to create jobs here, we’re going to help you do it.’”