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Economic development repaints the landscape below the C&D Canal

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Sam Waltz

The paper’s focus on Kent County in this issue gives me the chance to reflect on one of my favorite topics, Kent County and central Delaware. 

Kent County, Dover and all of central Delaware – roughly from the C&D Canal (OK, yeah, I know that’s in New Castle County, but it’s still Central Delaware – all the way through Dover to Milford and below Harrington, from the Delaware Bay marsh on the East to Delmarva farmland in the west all are special to me. 

When I came to Delaware in April 1975 – almost a half-century ago -I lived in Dover, where I built a home in the then-expanding Fox Hall. Even before that, more than a half-century ago, when the U.S. Army Counterintelligence Corps had stationed this Illinois farm boy in Center City Philadelphia, I used to journey into all of Delaware during the time of the 1968 riots and occupation. 

Central Delaware when I arrived was on its last vestiges of provincialism, a modernization being hastened by the economic development in the region. Its crown jewels already included Dover Downs, Kraft Foods, ILC Dover as well as International Latex and many others. Kent General Hospital was another jewel, another great anchor in Dover. 

It benefited too from a disproportionate public sector investment, from the State of Delaware capitol infrastructure to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware State University, Wesley College and much more. 

Today, Kent County has grown and prospered on that transitional foundation of the 1960s and 1970s, and much there is good ¬- at least on the surface. 

Del State seems to genuinely prosper, and the state, the city of Dover and Kent County governments seem to be doing well in the state’s capital city. 

At Delaware State, where I covered a commencement address in May 1975 by Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, America’s first prominent elected African-American mayor, is doing well under the stewardship of two Delawareans of whom we can be proud, President Wilma Mishoe, daughter of former President Luna Mishoe who I knew back then, and Provost and VP Antoine “Tony” Allen, himself with a Ph.D. from the University of Delaware. 

Wesley College, long a quiet jewel, seems in an uphill struggle to identify what it will be in its future and it clearly seems to be in transition, but under great stewardship of its President, Robert E. Clarke, former commandant of the U.S. Naval Academy, and Wesley’s Board of Trustees. It enjoyed a critical cash infusion this year from the State of Delaware, in a really unprecedented investment. 

Space-suit maker ILC Dover also is expanding into a truly international company with interests outside the aerospace and defense industries under its president Fran DiNuzzo. DiNuzzo, who has a deep and varied corporate leadership background, toured me through the facility a few years ago for a separate story here. 

Depending on who’s speaking, Kent County’s Racino (casinos at racing sites) at Dover Downtowns and Harrington Raceway may be doing well, or they may not be. The state continues to prosper from losing gamblers at the casinos (that’s why they call it “gambling” and not “winning”), but shareholders seem not to be, a situation that has a finite political shelf life. 

Public/private partnerships are making the open space more attractive for recreational facilities there. 

Lots of questions can be raised about Kent County and central Delaware’s future, from the health of its agriculture and poultry industry to the increasing suburbanization creeping in from the north. 

Not to be forgotten is the robust prominence of Bayhealth with its great Kent County campus in Dover and its new facilities at Milford, where I’ve yet to tour. 

But, for now, the trend lines appear good for much of the area. 

Sam Waltz was the founding publisher of the Delaware Business Times.  

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