County looks to entice businesses to make Sussex home

With continuing concern about jobs in Sussex County, county council members on Oct. 25 discussed potential economic development incentives designed to bring new companies, and new jobs, to the county.

First on the agenda could be SeaWatch, the largest clam producer in the world, according to County Administrator David Baker, with 350 people employed at their processing plant in Milford and 80 new employees added just last March. The company has clams coming in from throughout the Mid-Atlantic – from Maine to New England. They’re trucked in from New Jersey, where they process, can and freeze the clams and make clam chowder and clam juice for sale, primarily to other companies – such as Campbell’s, Progresso, Cisco and Red Lobster, Baker said – for use in their products.

SeaWatch has two other processing facilities, one in Massachusetts and one in Easton, Md., with a vacant facility in Accomack, Va. Baker explained that the company was considering whether to expand operations at the Milford facility or restart the Virginia facility as part of their plans to expand and further diversify their business, with plans to add tomato, chicken noodle and vegetable soups to their line of products, which would be sold under the name of a “very well-known soup company,” he said.

He said they were asking the State of Delaware, City of Milford and Sussex County to provide information that might help them determine which facility to use, including possible economic development incentives, with hopes of making a decision by Nov. 1.

The potential gains for Sussex County and its workers are significant. At least 50 new jobs would be added initially, starting around $10 per hour for most workers. The governments would also stand to benefit from the investment of some $600,000 in structural changes and $1.9 million in equipment purchases.

Local trucking companies and the local printing companies that produce SeaWatch’s labels would also see increased business, and Sussex County’s agricultural sector could benefit from the potential use of local produce in the new products. Clam-shell vendors and pallet recyclers supplied by SeaWatch would see even more supplies coming in.

In addition, Baker noted, previous increases to SeaWatch’s staff have already made an impact on local businesses, causing them to add new employees to serve the SeaWatch employees. Some 40 percent of those employees walk to work, he said, increasing demand for services and reducing the housing vacancy rate in the area.

The City of Milford, Baker said, had already made an offer to provide incentives should the company choose to expand in Milford. That includes economic development rates on sewer, water and electricity for three to five years.

Baker noted that SeaWatch CEO Jerry Gordon had made it clear that there really was a decision to be made by the company, that they weren’t angling for incentives with a choice already final.

Incentives that could be provided include tax abatement, permit fee abatement and additional EDUs for sewer service.

“I don’t think the little we can offer is going to make a big difference,” Councilman George Cole said. “Milford is offering more than $100,000. But we’ve got to be at the table and be part of it.”

Council President Michael Vincent was in agreement on that count.

“We’ve met with people in the last year about bringing business to the county. We hear that, in some cases, it’s not so much that we bring a large magnitude of credits or money as it is the fact that everybody is willing to come to the table – from the State to the County to the City. Lord knows we want jobs in this county.”

Baker said his intention was to determine whether the council was interested in providing some incentives, and, if so, to take those ideas back to SeaWatch, to be followed up upon at a later date. He said the County could offer reduction in the $600 per year the company pays it in property taxes, possibly to be matched by the school district, if they were willing. Other areas for possible incentives include building permit fees, economic development loans and economic development funding from an existing program.

The incentives would run about $800 per job created, up to $40,000 over a number of years. If the jobs didn’t stay, the incentives would also go away.

Baker also noted that he expected the State to be offering incentives, likely on a much larger scale.

Cole asserted, too, that Sussex County’s fee structures are already much lower than some other areas in the region. “Without doing anything, we’re already offering an incentive,” he pointed out.

With support for working with SeaWatch expressed by the council, Baker also reported on Oct. 25 on a more generalized program of economic development incentives, with much of what he suggested regarding SeaWatch forming the basis of a potential formalized program for the County.

Under the proposal, the County could offer benefits to companies creating 10 or more full-time positions, up to $800 per new employee. Those benefits would cease if the job numbers don’t meet expectations or if the company doesn’t meet other goals. He said each proposal would be given individual consideration.

Incentives could include property tax abatement for 10 years, either at a flat rate or gradually reducing over the 10-year period, from 100 percent to less. The school district in the area in question could also be approached for matching incentives, he noted. Other kinds of county fees could be reduced or waived, and loan programs would also be considered.

Councilwoman Joan Deaver said she had an idea what might be one factor dissuading companies from relocating to the county.

“I think the biggest problem is the lack of adequate roads,” she said. “We’re very business-friendly, with our rates and everything.”

Baker noted that County representatives do emphasize the county’s low taxes, training facilities and proximity to the metro regions of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, D.C., when discussing the county as a potential business location.

“Our intent is not to try to offer a large amount that might be a real basis for a company coming, because that’s not going to happen, but to support the city or company, to show we will provide some incentives for the company to come here.”

Cole said he’d like to see the County’s economic development staff offer a pamphlet that would compare the costs of doing business in Sussex County with the (likely higher) costs elsewhere, showing clearly, “without giving you one dime of incentives, what we offer.”

Vincent said he’d like a spreadsheet or something similar to detail those comparisons.

“It’s not necessarily the value of what we have to offer but that we’re at the table,” Vincent said, that the County needs to demonstrate. He asked for a week or two for the council to consider possible changes and additions to an economic incentive program before the council would vote on putting it in place.