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Kent and Sussex Counties Make Their Mark in Delaware’s Innovation Economy

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The Mill founder Rob Herrera envisions a beer hall, bowling alley and early childhood center as part of the vision for the Nylon Capital Shopping Center. | PHOTO COURTESY OF CITY OF SEAFORD. March 2023

This rendering shows the proposed Seaford Innovation District, with a location of The Mill co-working space at its center. | COURTESY OF THE MILL

For a small state — only Rhode Island has less acreage — Delaware is very geographically and economically diverse in how and where it does business, as each of the state’s three counties has its own defining characteristics.

New Castle is the most populous, with significant banking and corporate law centers and with a major interstate highway and passenger rail lines flowing through it. The county is also the only section of an otherwise flat state with serious hill country.

Kent County is dominated by the state capitol, Delaware State University — one of Delaware’s two major universities — and the massive Dover Air Force Base. And Sussex County, with its miles of ocean beaches, is where everyone, including the current U.S. President, congregates in the summer, as well as being Delaware’s farming breadbasket.

With almost 60% of the state’s population, it’s not surprising that New Castle County and its institutions — such as the 272-acre STAR Campus associated with the University of Delaware — tend to dominate most discussions.

Yet when it comes to innovation and rising entrepreneurs, the two Delaware counties south of the Chesapeake & Delaware Canal hold their own.

KENT: Military Innovation and Workforce Development

One innovative collaboration underway in Kent County concerns a problem that employers face all over the country: workforce training, says Linda Parkowski, executive director of the Kent Economic Partnership. “We need to find the right people for the jobs available, and that’s something we have been working to solve.”

She cites partnership programs with the state-run Delaware Workforce Development Board, but also notes individual organizations in the county that have taken leadership roles. One is the adult education program conducted by Polytech High School in Woodside.

“Polytech is the perfect example of someone finding a need and addressing it,” Parkowski says. “Airplane mechanics coming out of the Air Force and other services have to go through a certification program before they can be employed to work on civilian aircraft. Previously, they had to go to upstate New York or Tennessee to get certification, so when Polytech recently offered their first class, there was a waiting list. So now they are offering more classes.”

She also notes progress in three target areas identified in the county’s 2018 economic analysis — warehousing/distribution, healthcare and manufacturing. “During COVID, we began to make demands on the supply chain for things to be delivered quicker from closer locations, and we are in the middle of that with added warehouses.

“Housing developments, many with an older population, are putting new demands on the healthcare system, and ChristianaCare is increasingly coming to Kent County along with [other healthcare providers] Bayhealth and Beebe.” In manufacturing, she cites the recent opening of Delaware Corrugated Packaging’s box factory as a win for the county’s central location.

“People are discovering us for investment,” Parkowski says, “and finding that we check all the boxes.”

For business development outside the checked boxes, Kent County’s Dover Air Force Base is a center of entrepreneurial and innovative activities. “We have 55,000 square feet of space, a collaboration zone room with a podcast room, a lab for making prototypes, 3D printers and electronics facilities,” says Brandon Vazquez, chief technology officer at the base’s Bedrock Innovation Lab. The lab is part of the service’s “grassroots programs modeled to bridge the challenges of rapid innovation at the unit level while navigating the administrative hurdles of compliance” that can slow down the speed of change.

“Anyone on base can come to the lab as well as from sister services with a problem — or solution,” Vazquez says. “We’ve just completed Phase 2 of a project with Kodiak Robotics on self-driving trucks with $750,000 in congressional funding. We’ve logged over a million miles with no driver. Another project involves a really cool device that uses radio frequencies instead of x-ray for imaging. It’s faster, safer, and while x-ray is flat, this device can detect what is inside.”

Vazquez likes to call Bedrock “our own little Silicon Valley. Bedrock is not just a concept — it’s organic. It’s real.”

SUSSEX: Oceanic Research and Mixed-Use Collaboration

Few people outside Sussex County realize that Delaware shares its southern border with Maryland; though the state isn’t large compared to others, it is almost 100 miles in length. Even fewer realize that Sussex is home to an emerging Innovation District and a University of Delaware college dedicated to cutting-edge research in climatology, meteorology and other fields.

According to Bill Pfaff, director of Sussex County Economic Development, the ocean beaches in the county’s east are dominated by the hospitality industry, while the county’s west side is characterized by farming and small manufacturers. Each has its strengths and needs.

“In our county planning process, we determined there was a need to support the local hospitality industry with a resource center,” Pfaff says, “so we opened a kitchen incubator this spring to fill a void in commercial kitchen space. It can be used for a small catering business getting off the ground or a farmer wanting to add value by taking food products to market or by a local food bank. Now someone in Sussex wanting to get into the hospitality business has a resource.”

In the western part of the county, Pfaff is excited about the Delaware Coastal Business Park next to Coastal Airport in Georgetown. “We’ve just completed Phase 2 of development,” he says. “The park has 30 acres of shovel-ready sites, already outfitted with everything needed — water, sewer, retention ponds, electricity, internet, roads.”

Last December, Great Outdoors Cottages, which designs and builds high-quality cabins, park models and cottages for the campground and resort industries, opened a 34,000-square-feet manufacturing facility at the park. “It will eventually employ 150 workers,” Pfaff says. “With 11 acres at the park, it is our biggest partner from a land standpoint.”

Similarly, Pfaff says, Sussex is trying to lure developers into its development zones and has had success with Tail Bangers, an artisan dog treat company, which has expanded with the aid of a $1.4 million loan granted by ExciteSussex, a county economic development fund. The loan allowed Tail Bangers to buy the facility it was renting, add 3,000 square feet to its existing bakery site and another 5,000 square feet to another of its facilities on Highway 113. Additionally, West Sussex Business Campus, a government-funded facility, is currently under construction.

A larger area of targeted development is emerging within Seaford, once known as the Nylon Capital of the World until DuPont reduced its huge manufacturing facility there and eventually sold it. Today, many of its businesses are shuttered, but a new project, the Seaford Innovation District, is taking shape where the town’s main shopping area — the Nylon Capital Shopping Center — is currently located. Last December, Gov. John Carney unveiled the city-state-nonprofit project, funded by $3.1 million from the City of Seaford, $2 million from the state and $500,000 from 9th Street Development Company.

9th Street’s Rob Herrera, best known for developing the company’s The Mill workspace in Wilmington, says, “The half toward the highway will be commercial properties, and the back will be what I’m calling the institution portion. The Mill will be the glue in between.”

The new center will likely house, in addition to a location of The Mill and several businesses, a higher education hub focusing on workforce development training, a medical facility and an early learning center. Completion is targeted for 2025.

Finally, the Lewes area, where the bay becomes an ocean, is growing as an innovation and learning center — one focused on the vast bodies of water at its front door.

“Research and education into ‘blue tech’ are large parts of our mission,” says Fabrice Veron, dean of the University of Delaware’s College of Earth, Ocean & Environment, which operates the Lewes campus. “We have staff here, student housing for both graduate and undergraduate students, and labs and offices, but we also have marine operations with two ocean-going vessels,” Veron says.

The campus is the site of cuttingedge research into a variety of fields, from underwater robotics to climatology and meteorology to environmental isotopic studies to wind turbines. One of its most-promising research undertakings is Project ABLE, funded by a $1.3 million two-year grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, awarded to the college in collaboration with Delaware State University. The project is geared to making the state a leading national center in the application and development of autonomous systems, artificial intelligence and workforce development in support of advancing the Blue Economy. (A term used to describe the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth and jobs.)

“I see ABLE as a partnership between universities and private and federal partners where there is synergy for development and application of technologies, such as mapping the seafloor and enabling renewable energies,” Veron says. “All partners are at the table, representing defense, energy, security and the environment.”

Editor’s note: a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Delaware shares its southern border with Virginia, not Maryland.

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