Focus on Western Sussex as County aims to help business


Bill Pfaff describes programs to help Sussex County businesses, from low-interest loans to free data from local industries.

Coastal Point • Laura Walter

Small-business owners looking to grow don’t have to feel alone. They can get support from Sussex County Economic Development Office.

From attracting new industries to helping small businesses grow, Bill Pfaff’s office has a mission to promote economic growth in Sussex County, for the ultimate well-being of the community.

Economic Development Director Pfaff happened to be speaking at a Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce breakfast at Warren’s Station on the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

“Enjoy the freedom we have and the ability to create business,” said Pfaff, whose father and uncles were World War II veterans and, later, entrepreneurs.

“The east side of the county is a very healthy economic engine in its own right,” said Pfaff. “If I could split this county into halves, the two counties would look a lot different.”

Frankly, he said, coastal Delaware doesn’t need much help. It’s prime real estate for housing and businesses. But western Sussex would tell a different story.

“I’m going to call that the new frontier. Because you’re going to see changes, just like you have on this side of the county, in the next five years,” Pfaff said. “That’s where people are moving.”

People have long mourned the downsizing of the DuPont Company’s Seaford nylon plant, which was an economic powerhouse and massive employer since the mid-20th century. The Route 13 corridor has worked toward better economic opportunities.

To focus on more challenging areas, Pfaff has mapped three priority zones: No. 1 is the Nanticoke Zone (western Sussex); No. 2 is the Broadkill zone (north-central Sussex); and No. 3 is the Indian River zone (south and central Sussex, including Millsboro, Dagsboro, Frankford and Selbyville).

Those priority zones are a reference when Pfaff is playing matchmaker. When outside companies call to find their next potential site of operation, he points them toward “one of these zones, because I feel they need this business.”

When seeking economic development grants, Sussex County doesn’t typically qualify because, per capita, the income and unemployment rate are equal to or better than the national average, and there has been no specific economic injury. So other funding options have been made available.

For low-cost financing, the ExciteSussex Fund offers business loans of up to $1 million. Sussex County’s $3 million revolving loan fund can help with elements including real estate acquisition, tenant improvements or machinery. The current interest rate of 4 percent is impressive compared to what a commercial bank might charge. Any Sussex County business with 10 to 500 employees would potentially be eligible.

Businesses can also apply for a new “economic gardening” program, aimed at companies that have moved beyond start-up stage but not yet reach maturity. The goal is to help second-stage companies with customized data that addresses their strategic growth issues. Participants will get $5,000 worth of GIS, search-engine optimization, digital marketing or related business improvements. Those entrepreneurs only have to dedicate time and energy, not money, in order to participate.

Sussex County has also purchased competitive intelligence software, SizeUp, specifically for economic investment. Any Sussex business can simply visit www.excitesussex.com for details.

SizeUp lets people create customized reports for their specific industry. Tools include benchmarking to see how a business compares to competitors in the industry, as well as mapping of competition, customers and supplies. It also shows advertising and demographics, such as labor force and consumer spending in that area.

“This is the same information — tools that large businesses use to make decisions,” but now it’s free for smaller businesses in Sussex, said Pfaff. “If you use the software, it doesn’t guarantee success. [Only] you can guarantee success.”

Also opening in Georgetown is a new business park, situated near the airport and railroad line. Delaware Coastal Business Park has just welcomed its first few tenants off, of Park Avenue, with annual leases of $5,000 per acre.

“We’re continuously working to give businesses the tools they need,” Pfaff said.

Pfaff commiserated with entrepreneurs who feel local or county governments drag their feet on permit approvals. He is part of a group evaluating why those processes take so long, and where governments might be hung up.

“I’m not asking you to skirt regulations. I’m asking you to work faster,” Pfaff said he wants governments to know.

As for affordable housing for the workforce, “We have affordable housing in the county, but it’s not at the beach,” Pfaff said. “You know what the problem is? Transportation. … If you were living where the houses are affordable, it takes [too long] to get to where the jobs are.”

He shared his own personal opinions of what is needed for Sussex County’s success: light rail service would improve access to jobs and affordable housing, and people should always vote for school referendums, he said, because failure will lead to cuts in services, jobs or educational quality.

As for technological services, such as broadband, the State and County are partnering with Bloosurf on high-speed internet for Kent and Sussex by 2021.

 

Agriculture still tops tourism

 

Sussex County’s top industry is agriculture, followed by tourism.

“Agriculture is our No. 1 industry in this county. … Without agriculture in this county, the county will not exist. We would be barren land without agriculture,” Pfaff said.

Agriculture has a $4.5-billion-dollar economic impact (which includes $3.5 million direct impact, plus another $1 billion indirect impact). With 9,800 direct employees, the total employment impact is nearly 15,700 jobs.

Processing is about 71 percent of the overall agriculture economy, followed by 23 percent in animal production and 5 percent in crop production. Pfaff acknowledged that the poultry industry is “typically under attack. … But I feel our job is to educate the county … how important agriculture is.”

Asked what makes agriculture so popular, Pfaff alluded to Sussex County’s centuries of agricultural legacy: “This place is just suited for production, because that’s what you were already good at.” 

At second on the county’s industrial prevalence, tourism has visitors spending about $1.9 billion to support more than 18,000 jobs, said Pfaff, quoting University of Delaware numbers.

The Sussex County Economic Development Office is located at 2 The Circle, Georgetown. For information, call (302) 855-7700 or visit www.excitesussex.com.

 

By Laura Walter

Staff Reporter