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Bob Perkins: Supercharging Delaware’s emergence from COVID-19

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Robert Perkins
Guest Columnist

By Robert W. Perkins

Families across Delaware are doing their best to get through the COVID -19 pandemic, struggling day to day to make ends meet and manage the situation the best they can. There is nothing more many can do, as much of the economy remains wholly or partially shut down.

Government, on the other hand, has an obligation to do more than merely manage the pandemic and hope for the best when this is all finally over. Instead, state leadership must use the opportunity to transform the state’s approach to economic development to supercharge our emergence from the pandemic – specifically by making the permitting and regulatory process more rational and predictable.

By doing so, Delaware will be better positioned to lead the region out of this economic catastrophe, put people back to work, and attract new and diverse businesses that will drive the state’s economy for years to come. Failure to do so will force the state to compete with bigger, more economically diverse states from a dead standstill, all but guaranteeing we will lag behind for the foreseeable future.

Gov. John Carney has taken positive steps to address some underlying issues uncovered during the pandemic, including increasing access to broadband internet in Kent and Sussex counties. Too many Delawareans lacked this basic necessity of the 21st century at a time when employees need to work at home; students go to school at a home; doctors are practicing telemedicine; and people are buying groceries online.

On Aug. 3, the governor signed an executive order that earmarks $10 million in CARES Act funding to create the Rapid Workforce Training and Redeployment Training Initiative, which will provide training and certification programs in in-demand fields for unemployed and underemployed Delawareans. It is critical that a strong link is made between the state’s efforts to attract jobs and the type of training that may be required for such jobs in the future. The Delaware Department of Labor and the Delaware Workforce Development Board, the organizations charged by the governor to implement the training initiative, and the Delaware Prosperity Partnership, the organization charged with attracting jobs to Delaware, must work together seamlessly on this initiative.

But those steps alone do far too little to prepare Delaware for life after the pandemic. We must take a long-term approach to addressing long-term challenges and guaranteeing long-term success to put Delaware on the path to success in the coming years.

One of the most important things Delaware can do now is implement the proposed Ready In 6 initiative, which is designed to cut the state’s cumbersome permitting timeline to six months to make Delaware more competitive with neighboring states.

Currently, the state’s permitting and regulatory process can stretch up to 24 months, placing Delaware at a distinct economic development disadvantage when it comes to attracting and growing business – especially considering the approval timelines in Maryland and Pennsylvania average closer to six months.

These findings were included in an independent analysis conducted last year by professional services firm KPMG, which concludes that Delaware is missing out on economic development opportunities and has an opportunity to be more competitive if its permitting processes were strengthened through streamlined communication between state agencies, greater transparency and cost predictability, and a fast-track approval program for high-priority projects, among other recommendations.

The analysis finds, “With significant competition between states for jobs, talent and investment, an efficient permit process is critical to demonstrate a favorable business climate and provide a predictable outcome for businesses seeking to locate or expand in Delaware. Because prospective businesses target locations which can achieve permitting in as few as six months, those states with longer permit timeframes experience reduced interest and missed economic development opportunities.”

Specifically, the report recommends the state should stack permitting processes so reviews are conducted concurrently, create a permitting concierge to fast-track projects through the process, and eliminate the state’s Preliminary Land Use Service, among other steps.

Led by Secretary Jennifer Cohan, the Delaware Department of Transportation already has made progress in a number of areas, including shortening the agency’s review process from 45 days to 30 days, establishing an expedited review team to complete approvals in six months for economically significant projects and streamlining and shortening the timeline for small business and redevelopment plans.

However, it appears the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control has made little or no progress in terms of making its permitting processes more efficient. State leaders seem satisfied with duplicate review processes and long review timelines that have become the norm for the agency. It’s clear that leadership from Gov. Carney is needed to make sure the agency is not a barrier to attracting or creating much-needed jobs.

There also is a clear need for infrastructure-ready sites that can be marketed to out-of-state companies wishing to bring jobs to Delaware – especially as businesses begin to consider looking outside of major metropolitan areas as part of their business continuity plans in the wake of the pandemic. That’s a significant challenge, but state leaders need to find ways to bring infrastructure to sites, involve developers in discussions about funds needed, and challenge county officials and others to identify potential sites in each county that are consistent with their long-range development plans.

The business community stands ready to support the governor, the General Assembly and county and municipal officials to build a robust and sustainable economic recovery. But we must act quickly to ensure our employers – and the economy as a whole – are able to rebound as fully as possible and Delaware is in a better position to compete with other states for much-needed jobs.

Robert W. Perkins is executive director of the Delaware Business Roundtable.

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