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NCC Chamber honors Coker, Branner, Matos, Chase

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Bebe Coker New Castle County Chamber of Commerce

Longtime civil rights and education advocate Bebe Coker received the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce’s Lifetime Achievement award on May 1. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

WILMINGTON – Longevity and impact seemed to be the common thread among the four winners of the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce’s awards presented at Monday night’s 101st annual dinner.

A record-breaking crowd attended the Chase Center on the Riverfront to celebrate civil rights and education advocate Bebe Coker, Middletown Mayor Ken Branner Jr., Latino advocate Maria Matos, and JPMorgan Chase as each were recognized with the chamber’s biggest honors.

Branner, who has served as the leader of the fast-growing southern New Castle County town since 1989, received the chamber’s 2023 Free Enterprise Award in honor of his efforts of building a significant employment center in his town that now includes projects by Amazon, Datwyler, Breakthru Beverage and soon, WuXi STA Pharmaceutical.

New Castle County Chamber of Commerce Ken Branner

Middletown Mayor Ken Branner Jr. received the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce’s Free Enterprise award on May 1. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

The mayor, who accepted his award early in the program so that he could return to Middletown in time for a town council meeting, said the secret to his town’s booming growth was simple.

“I don’t say no to any business that wants to relocate to Middletown and bring jobs; it’s always a yes. If we think it sounds good, and it’ll be a plus for the town, we tell them yes and then we figure out how to get it done,” he said.

Recalling the negotiations with WuXi STA, which is investing $500 million and creating 500 jobs in a new manufacturing campus on the southern edge of the town, Branner said the company said it would need 700,000 gallons of water and wastewater capacity a day. He told them it wasn’t a problem, and then later turned to his staff.

“They said, ‘We can’t. We don’t have enough capacity to be able to do it.’ So what are we doing? We’re building a new wastewater treatment plant. That’s what it takes to get the job done and the staff supports us,” he said.

Don Mell New Castle County Chamber of Commerce

Don Mell, site lead for JPMorgan Chase in Delaware, received the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce’s Economic Impact award on May 1. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

In a first, the chamber awarded JPMorgan Chase its Economic Impact Award, honoring the multinational bank’s commitment to Delaware as its largest for-profit employer and its hundreds of millions in new capital investment in facilities here this year.

Don Mell, executive director and site lead for Chase in Delaware, thanked the chamber for the award and noted that the bank’s relationship with the state dated back to 1915, when it financed DuPont’s munition sales to France and Great Britain during World War I. In the last few decades, its technology and credit operations have flourished in the First State, employing more than 11,000 people.

“We doubled down in Wilmington and New Castle County, and I’ll tell you why. It’s very simple, and I have colleagues who really can confirm, I can’t tell you a place in the United States where it’s easier for us to do business than in the state of Delaware, New Castle County and Wilmington,” he said.

Maria Matos New Castle County Chamber of Commerce

Latin American Community Center President & CEO Maria Matos received the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce’s Community Service award on May 1. | DBT PHOTO BY JACOB OWENS

Matos, the president and CEO of the Latin American Community Center in Wilmington’s West Side since 1994, received the Community Service Award for her decades of work to expand services to the state’s Latino community and helping lead COVID-19 outreach to the community. She told the crowd that she was honored to be recognized along with Coker, who she considered a mentor.

Stressing that Delaware’s entrepreneurial and hard-working Hispanic community was motivated by trust, she has worked to connect government and private institutions to the thousands of families and small businesses in the state. The LACC’s success is due to core business principles of strong staff, a firm business plan and a commitment to quality, Matos said.

“One of our principles is to listen to our clients. So, surveys and conversations ensure that the community needs are headed in the right direction. If not, we course correct because why are you going to provide a service if nobody needs it?’” she said.

Many in the crowd Monday night were there to celebrate the work of Coker, a lifelong educator and policy advocate who received the chamber’s Lifetime Achievement award.

Gov. John Carney said that Coker “has spent a lifetime pushing me to do more.”

“Talk about speaking truth to power, this woman knows how to do it. But her focus has always been a commitment to making sure our most vulnerable children get what they need at school to be successful,” he said.

A soft-spoken Coker, 87, was thankful for the honor bestowed upon her by the chamber and said in reflecting on her life’s work, it came down to service for others.

“We are here to serve each other regardless of what color you are, what you feel like, what your gender is. It doesn’t matter,” she said to a rousing applause.

Coker has long sought to redress the issues caused by the bussing of Wilmington public school students in the 1970s, and better support the state’s public school system overall. She said in her remarks that teachers should be thought of as “educational engineers” to better reflect their investment in our society.

“We’ve had this thing called public education for a long time, and I think we just need to remember that things wear out after a while and they need to be refurbished,” she said. “[We’ve] got to stop playing down the benefits of an education … and stop doing all this talking about how important teachers are and instead pay them for it. Give them what they need.”

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