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Joe Conaway: A lifetime of putting his talents to use for the greater good

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“If you don’t grow, you die.”

Joseph Conaway, 81, a longtime Sussex County educator, county official and land use advocate, may have been talking about his philosophy for land development when he said that, but in many ways, it also is a reflection on how he’s lived his life.

Born and raised in Wilmington, Conaway came to Sussex County in 1967 to serve as principal of Bridgeville High School, where he helped one of the most diverse schools in the state navigate the rocky early days of integration.

Conaway applied to be county administrator in 1973 and was subsequently appointed. He served for 13 years, and afterward served a short stint as the state’s chief deputy insurance commissioner.

Photo by Eric Crossan

After leaving office, he opened a land-use consulting business and has been involved in many of the county’s largest projects over the past three decades. Today, he still shepherds projects through the county’s planning and permitting process.

His passion for land-use planning led to his desire three years ago to lead the Sussex Economic Development Action Committee (SEDAC), a nonprofit created in 2007 to help champion job growth and retention in the county.

SEDAC has worked to bring employers into schools and developed Sussex County Open For Business, a monthly job fair that brings resources together for business owners of all sizes.

A primary goal of SEDAC is to create more jobs for young residents, and Conaway noted that the Delmarva Peninsula has the highest out-migration of 18- to 25-year-olds in the country. That was first reported in the ’70s but has only grown worse, he said.

While he’s committed much of his life to serving the county’s youth, he has spent much of his 80s looking to aid the older members of his community.

Sussex County has seen explosive growth of residents older than 55 in the last decade. Today, about one in three county residents is over 55, whereas a decade ago the number was one in four, according to census data.

Because the county is still playing catch-up in providing many essential services for older residents, Conaway said, he agreed to join CHEER Inc., a 48-year-old county nonprofit that serves those over age 50 with community center programs, housing and services for the homebound.

After initially contributing to the CHEER Foundation, the fundraising arm of the nonprofit, he moved to the board of directors in April. Since then, he has helped CHEER plan for a new $1.6 million kitchen facility.

“We cook for Meals on Meals in a state building with old equipment. They do 1,700 meals a day (about half of which go to homebound residents) in a kitchen that’s not equipped to do 800,” he said. “If it breaks down, I don’t know what we would do. There are people in this county who would go hungry and we just can’t have that.”

The General Assembly provided about $650,000 and the county council added $200,000 for the project, Conaway said. Adding privately secured donations, CHEER has raised almost $1.5 million.

CHEER CEO Ken Bock said that without Conaway his organization would not be preparing to break ground on the much-needed project.

“His counsel has been invaluable to us in terms of providing guidance, developing ideas and events to raise funds for this project,” Bock said. 

Conaway said he’ll keep giving back to the community because he benefitted from a lot of older folks who made things possible for him.

“What a waste it would be if I stopped trying to contribute,” he said, noting that he’s perturbed by the election debate of whether certain candidates are too old to serve. “If you have a talent, I don’t think you should waste what you have.”

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