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John Stapleford, CRI and SBDC founder, dies at 74

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NEWARK – John Stapleford, a founding member and former director of the libertarian Delaware-based think tank Caesar Rodney Institute (CRI) and the founder of the Delaware Small Business Development Center (SBDC), died Aug. 25 at age 74.

John Stapleford | PHOTO COURTESY OF CRI

A well-known economist in Delaware, Stapleford was a published author and frequent Op-Ed contributor to newspapers across the state, including frequently in the Delaware Business Times. Over the years, Stapleford penned columns regarding taxes, land use, health care regulation, and unions, among many other topics.

After service in the U.S. Air Force, including a tour in Vietnam, and earning a Ph.D. in urban and regional economics from the University of Delaware, Stapleford began a long career as a researcher and teacher in economics and public policy. His many positions included director of the Bureau of Economic Research at the University of Delaware, professor of economic development at Eastern University, and senior economist at Moody’s Analytics. After retirement, he continued to work as a consultant and analyst, including for the Caesar Rodney Institute.

Stapleford wrote the founding charter for the Delaware SBDC in 1984, launching the group that provides free training and consultation to startups and small businesses looking to grow. At that time, Delaware was one of the few states without a SBDC.

“John viewed entrepreneurship as a primary economic development tool,” recalled Clinton Tymes, who served as the Delaware SBDC director for 20 years from 1993 to 2013.

Unlike others he encountered in his long career in business development though, Tymes said that Stapleford was different than the typical number-cruncher.

“I kidded John all the time that he was my favorite economist with a heart,” he said. “John was always about helping the underserved. He did that through his work as an economist. He lived life that way by working with his church and a few organizations in the city of Wilmington that help individuals who had come across hard times. He had a big heart.”

Stapleford also took his principles to heart, Tymes said, recalling how he was often critical of the banking industry’s power in Delaware, and credit card giant MBNA in particular. In 1995, the company donated $2.5 million toward the creation of the university’s College of Business and Economics – today named after the late former MBNA chairman Alfred Lerner.

“Rather than work for something he didn’t believe in, he basically shut down the Bureau of Economic Research,” Tymes said with a laugh, referring to the office that was frequently called upon to study large hirings and layoffs around the state. “That was John.”

After a long professional career, Stapleford dialed back by launching his own consulting firm, DECON First, and began working with the CRI in 2010. In the think tank’s early years, he often served as its director or chairman during periods between leaders.

“What John wanted to do was to be the policy director for the Economic Center. He loved research, and he would have loved if that was all we had him do,” recalled David Stevenson, a friend and fellow CRI center director, who noted that nonetheless Stapleford was an adept leader who helped move the nonprofit forward.

“He was the professor,” Stevenson said, noting that his move from the commercial to nonprofit world was a huge leap and Stapleford served as a mentor. “He set the tone for the whole organization, which is ‘We’ve got a question and we don’t want to assume what the answer is. Let’s dig into it.’”

As an accomplished economist, Stapleford stressed that CRI analysts needed to use the best data available, critique those that were available and be transparent with what they found.

“John would say that ‘if the numbers are wrong, you’re starting off in the wrong place,’” Stevenson said.

CRI often writes about and publicly campaigns against the status quo, which can lead to heated debates with officials and stakeholders. Despite those anxiety-raising moments, Stapleford was “unflappable,” Stevenson said.

“He just presented the case, and I don’t know that I ever found an example of somebody challenging him successfully on his work. It was always solid, and that set the example for the rest of us,” he added. “People may not like our answers, but if they’re looking at the data, they have quite a hard time challenging what we said.”

A memorial service was held Friday for friends and family, but donations may be made in Stapleford’s name to Sandy Cove Ministries in North East, Md., or to the UrbanPromise School in Wilmington. To send an online condolence, visit www.stranofeeley.com

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