This year's Kent County Economic Summit took a hard look at attracting new talent and new businesses.
People are not aware of Delaware.
That seemed to be the issue presented at the Sept. 17 Kent County Economic Summit. The discussion at Delaware Technical Community College brought together city planners and business leaders to address two main concerns: how to bring new talent and new businesses here.
Keynote speaker Gov. John Carney said Delaware tends to be overlooked when corporations and businesses are deciding where to locate, noting other Mid-Atlantic states as strong competition.
But, he said he knows the state has a lot to offer.
“I’m more optimistic than ever that we can compete,” Carney said.
He highlighted a low cost of living as a strength and said the state needs to continue investing in downtown development and education.
When businesses are looking to move, one of the first things they consider is the reputation of the schools, Carney said.
“Frankly, the reputation of the schools here in Kent County is pretty good,” he said.
What millennials want
The first panel focused on attracting young employees but both the panelists and the governor said the county needs to focus on the talent already here, too.
“We have a lot of great young people out here. We just got to keep them here,” said panelist Verity Watson, president for Next Gen South, a philanthropic organization for young professionals.
Panelist Scott Becker, owner of Coastal Car Wash and member of the Greater Kent Committee, said it is common for people to say “there’s not much to do” in Dover and the surrounding area.
“They don’t know that [there’s stuff to do] or they just aren’t trying hard enough to look,” Becker said.
Businesses need to draw in young people by hyping up their events on social media, Becker said. By creating a sense of “FOMO,” or fear of missing out, businesses can attract young professionals to their events and give them something to do, he said.
An audience question presented a challenge: What can businesses do when the price of their outreach event deters young people from attending?
Panelist Linda Arrey Nkwenti, a captain in the U.S. Air Force, author, speaker and nonprofit consultant, said she found sponsorships help lower the price of admission.
“The more sponsors we get, the more we can offset those costs,” she said.
Besides reforming social media use, Becker said Kent County needs physical change.
Despite brick-and-mortar stores becoming less popular in the shopping world, Becker said millennials are looking for spaces to hang out with people their age, such as breweries, family entertainment centers and dog parks.
Carney agreed that Kent County needs more activities like these for young people to enjoy because that’s how they decide where to work.
“They don’t just want a job, they want all the other stuff, too,” Carney said.
Watson said if she could get anything to come to the area, she would want entertainment centers like Lefty’s Alley & Eats, in Lewes, or Top Golf, a golf, bar and restaurant.
So, what is coming?
The second panel of five representatives from the public sector hinted at new businesses coming to town and highlighted areas that need improvement.
For many people, their first impression of Kent County comes when they are driving through to southern Delaware and the beaches, said Jeremy Rothwell, senior planner for Smyrna.
Businesses along high-traffic roads like Route 113, Route 13 and Route 1 are not impressing travelers, he said.
“Our front porch is kind of shabby looking,” he said.
Still, many panelists said they were hopeful for the future of Kent County’s economy.
“I see a very bright future for Kent County across the board,” said David Hugg, Dover’s director of planning and economic development. He said the healthcare industry is an example of an area that is expanding and has “tremendous potential.”
With the new Bayhealth Hospital campus in Milford, Eric Norenberg, Milford’s city manager, agreed that healthcare is a growing opportunity because more people are looking for specialists.
As for new businesses…
In Milford, a new movie theater will be opening soon, which Norenberg said will have an economic draw from southern Delaware. The town also plans to reuse the old Milford hospital and revamp their downtown with more restaurants, Norenberg he said.
In Dover, two new downtown businesses will arrive in 2020, Hugg said. The only hint he gave is that one will be an urban agricultural business.
In Smyrna, Rothwell highlighted the new Duck Creek Business Campus, which has the potential to employ 4,000 people.
In Kent County, county administrator Mike Petit de Mange said he hopes to see the county continue partnerships like those with DE Turf and Boys & Girls Clubs.
“We need to see that continue to be a success,” Petit de Mange said of DE Turf, a sports complex operated by the nonprofit Kent County Regional Sports Complex Corporation. “I hope the community embraces it,” he said.