Kent County sets its sights on becoming regional distribution center
DOVER — KRM Development Corp. plans on breaking ground this fall on the first of several spec buildings in its Duck Creek Business Park, raising hopes of turning Kent County into a distribution stronghold in the region.
The 200 acres of land has sat for years waiting for the right timing to bring the next big thing to the outskirts of Smyrna, between Route 1 and 13. Now that utilities and other infrastructure are set, KRM Development Vice President Bryan Matthews sees the first 69,000 square-foot spec building ready to go up soon.
“We don’t want to narrow our focus, so we [our going to] build a combination of straight office and flex space. The idea is to meet the needs of all kinds of businesses, be it warehousing or strictly office,” Matthews said.
KRM Development, the real estate arm of the Dixon Group of Chestertown, Md., has built its name with two business parks in Maryland and leasing space that ranges to 60,000 to 100,000 square feet. Once built out over the projected 20 years, Duck Creek Business Park may infuse around $477 million in economic development and around 4,000 jobs, Matthews said.
Early plans for Duck Creek Business Park are subdivided into 27 lots, although Matthews said that it would be feasible to join two lots for a larger building. But time will tell, as KRM models itself as building one building and starts recruiting for tenants before building another one.
The larger the company is, the more attractive the Mid-Atlantic region is, Matthews said — and that puts this business park in Kent County in “a pretty good spot.”
“In my experience, the larger target areas depend on access to good roadways to both the north and south with the right infrastructure in place,” he added. “Based on the initial interest we had when we first started making plans here shows there’s great potential for this location.”
Available space and being centrally located is what manufacturers and distributors are looking for these days, which make Kent County ideal for business.
Kent County’s optimism is rooted in its central location in the state. N.K.S. Distributors will be consolidating both warehouses in one property in Smyrna —bringing 100 jobs with it —because of the central location.
“It’s all about that location, location, location,” said Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce President Judy Diogo. “Kent County is really in a perfect spot with the access we have to I-95, and there’s land available for growth. It’s difficult to find in some places.”
“When 70% of your inquiries are in distribution, logistic warehousing and manufacturing, then you need to pay attention,” Kent Economic Partnership Executive Director Linda Parkowski said.
According to the 2018 comprehensive economic study by Rockport Analytics, Kent County’s top three biggest potential growth industries are business/legal services, logistics/warehousing and healthcare. This month, Parkowski is working with a list of 15 potential projects, all manufacturing, ranging from healthcare goods to plastics and textiles.
Previous studies show that the skilled laborers and technician sector face a job shortage, with around 1,170 annual job openings in Delaware, with nursing assistants and home health aides close behind at an average of 776 positions opening on an annual basis.
Before, Kent County would be ideal for small to medium manufacturers with prospects ranging from Harrington to Smryna. But these days, Parkowski said that land with at least 20 acres and infrastructure is what really draws hot interest.
“That seems to be the sweet spot, or two 10-acre lots that can be combined,” Parkowski said. “There’s a number of large parcels for industrial parcels throughout the county, but the industrial parks with one acre or two are not faring as well.”
Infrastructure remains a key draw for any future development, as the county learned when it lost out on the Amazon fulfillment center in 2012. The e-commerce giant pulled out of a possible site in Smyrna once town officials said infrastructure would be ready once they were ready to build, and not before.
Amazon then moved north to Middletown, taking hundreds of jobs with it. It was a hard lesson learned for Parkowski and others in the county, as officials mounted efforts to make sites shovel-ready.
“The infrastructure is there at Duck Creek, and that’s why we’re seeing activity there because the need was realized. There’s ready to move properties like Garrison Oak technology park in Dover,” she said. “Utility providers are really stepping to the plate every time we have solid projects come in.”
Other big draws include access to Route 1, as both Little Heaven and South Frederica are looking to revise their comprehensive plans with eyes set on major developments that depend on the interchanges that were recently built. The popularity of the DE Turf Sports Complex may inspire more services like restaurants and hotels, while Little Heaven could draw another corporate center like Duck Creek Business Park.
While the county may be on the precipice of growth, Diogo pointed out it’s important to focus on what would keep people in Kent County to live as well as work.
“We have the ability to be downtown in 10 minutes where the hustle and bustle is, or literally drive another 10 minutes and be back in a rural area outside Dover,” she said. “As we’re seeing an increase of businesses coming in, we’re seeing an increase in pay, so I think we’re seeing the housing market even out. There’s a lot we have to offer people to come and stay here.”