Kent sees manufacturing growth despite pandemic
Manufacturing has always been at the heart of Delaware’s economy, but it’s pulse may be in Kent County these days after it landed four companies in the past year that will bring roughly 179 jobs to central Delaware.
The First State is home to roughly 550 manufacturers, with many small to midsize businesses. Overall, total annual output from the state is $4.8 billion and the industry employs about 5.86% of the workforce, according to the National Association of Manufacturers.
Kent County’s 70 manufacturers, including heavy hitters like Kraft-Heinz and Procter & Gamble and highly specialized plants like ILC Dover, helped it weather the pandemic. The average annual wage for manufacturing workers is $44,336, there were at least 4,800 jobs in the sector located in Delaware’s smallest county as of 2017.
Recent wins for the county like Avalon Industries, USA Fulfillment Inc., Duratech and Shoreline Vinyl all fit Kent Economic Partnership Executive Director Linda Parkowski’s vision for the future. All are bringing under 200 employees, fitting into that target demographic of small to midsize companies. They all focus on specialized work, like textiles for military bags, PVC fencing or other components, and packaging.
All came for the same reasons that make the county so attractive for this sector: location and land. Kent County has 1,882 acres zoned commercial and industrial available this year, per its economic profile.
“We’re less than a day’s drive from 60% of the U.S. population and about four hours from four major cities,” Parkowski said. “In central Delaware, we have a real opportunity for manufacturing with low land cost, and a lot of land to sell, especially in industrialized zones on the market.”
For example, the Garrison Oak Business Park is $50,000 per acre and shovel-ready. Others in Kent are up at $100,000 per acre. With railroads that cross the country, direct access to three major highways, and hopes for air cargo out of the Dover Civil Air Terminal, Kent County is best seated to not only get product out, but also to create it.
“Warehousing and distribution are what’s needed in the country right now, and that goes hand-in-hand with manufacturing, because most of these companies have this need to store and get their products out there,” Parkowski said.
Fitting in that vision for Kent County is the promise of U.S. Corrugated building a $80 million facility in Dover. With its cutting-edge technology, the cardboard box manufacturer plans on bringing 159 jobs to Dover, and is looking into tapping into marketing, research and design. The project still has many hurdles to clear before it breaks ground, but officials are excited about the employer’s plans.
The state’s economic development agency, the Delaware Prosperity Partnership, is no stranger to success, and has brought in more than $600 million in capital investment from businesses arriving or expanding to the First State. It credits most of its success to a team effort including the state, Kent County and its municipalities when involved, and the proposed U.S. Corrugated project was no exception.
“They were very interested in Opportunity Zones and reached out to DPP, who then let us know. In Dover, [city Director of Planning and Inspections] Dave Hugg is pretty on top of this as well, and sent all the information available,” Parkowski said. “It’s not a done deal yet, but we’re pretty coordinated when it comes to prospects.”
Right now, the Kent Economic Partnership is marketing 80 properties, with 28 of them listed as industrial. For perspective, the DPP is working on 26 active statewide prospects in the manufacturing and logistics sector per its last report in August.
DPP Business Development Director Becky Harrington pointed out that it’s not just Kent County’s location that makes it a valuable proposition to manufacturers looking for new sites. It’s also the competitive cost of business in terms of low taxes and ready-to-move-in sites.
“Kent County’s industrial sites make it easy for manufacturers to become operational quickly,” Harrington told Delaware Business Times. “As the manufacturing sector expands or reshores as a result of noted supply chain challenges, Central Delaware should be on the lists of regional and national companies searching for competitive, well-located places for accessing the Mid-Atlantic, Northeast and beyond.”
On a local level, it’s not just a coordinated effort that helps get Kent County on the map for manufacturers. Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen said that it’s also about having a voice to tell your story and the Kent Economic Partnership does that piece well.
When Gov. John Carney came into office and signed a bill to dismantle the state economic development office and reform it under a public-private partnership, Christiansen said there were some doubts whether the smallest county would have a say. Then came the Kent Economic Partnership.
“So far, it’s all been a success, especially in terms of the long-term vision of Dover,” the mayor said. “There’s definitely some opportunities opening up for us to pick up ancillary operations from New York and Philadelphia. Warehouses and manufacturing is the way of the future.”
In turn, the expanding industry could pave the way for the overall vision of Dover: a destination filled with niche boutiques and tax-free shopping and a high quality of life for its residents.
“I do think COVID-19 is going to spur an exodus from major cities,” he said. “When it comes to manufacturers, they’ll start looking around to find better opportunities to do business at a leaner co — like the Rust Belt. One person’s loss is another person’s gain.”
The coronavirus pandemic has already exposed how fragile the supply chain is when suppliers are overseas. For large-scale manufacturers, Delaware has limited space unless building new warehouses. If the days of a long supply chain are over and manufacturers opt for a more regionalized approach, Kent County could be in the best position to tap into it.
U.S. Corrugated could be the start of central Delaware really taking off in midsize manufacturing, Christiansen said. But to keep gaining ground, the county needs even more investment in its highway interchange.
“There is this push to get interchanges on Route 50 and 301 to serve Garrison Oak and a faster route to I-95,” Christiansen said. ‘Rail and road is what they’re looking for.”
Judy Diogo, president of the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce, believes that Kent County offers the full package for manufacturers: a ready workforce and constant opportunities to develop the talent pool. The Delaware Department of Labor, Delaware Technical Community College, Delaware State University, Delaware Pathways and Polytech, give it an edge.
“We’ve always had a great manufacturing practice. Some go and some morph over the years with more technology and that really means there’s a demand for a skilled workforce,” Diogo said.
“These days you’re seeing companies make the investment with technology and their employees’ skills,” she added. “We got the workforce, we can work with them on what they need. We’re very blessed to have a strong hold on manufacturing, so we’re ahead of the curve.”
By Katie Tabeling