Delaware Economic Development Office Secretary Alan Levin stopped by this week’s Sussex County Council meeting on Tuesday, part of a re-launch of the office as it is reorganized from specializing in types of business to focusing geographically, on the state’s three counties. And Levin said the changes in DEDO include an increased focus on the state’s tourism business, which is a major element of the economy in Sussex.
“Unfortunately, we learned we had all of our eggs in two baskets – banking and manufacturing,” Levin said. “We have two [car manufacturing] facilities now vacant, and the financial services and credit card industry is not what it used to be.”
The new DEDO, Levin said, will focus on how to make things happen for the state’s existing businesses.
“Most people who come to DEDO are experts in their fields, but they need someone who can make a deal for them,” he said.
DEDO will now have a lead official in each of the state’s three counties, though Levin said the Sussex County official had yet to be named because the person chosen for that job hadn’t yet officially accepted the post. The appointment was expected by the end of the week.
When that person does get in place in Sussex, Levin said much of his or her job may focus on tourism, as will the jobs of six other DEDO employees.
“One of things in the reorganization that we’re most proud of is tourism,” Levin said, noting that the DEDO tourism department formerly had only one person working on tourism issues full-time. Now, he said, there will be six people working “365 days a year,” dedicated to Delaware tourism.
“There’s no reason why we can’t have $2.5 billion in tourism in 2010, and most of that is in Sussex County,” Levin said. “This is low-hanging fruit. This is easy.”
Levin said Linda Parkowski, head of the DEDO tourism department, and five others will now be working full-time on tourism.
“That’s all they do,” he said, pointing to new initiatives already under way, such as an effort to bring cruise ships into the Port of Lewes. The 175-pasenger ships will go up and down the Delaware coast, heading into port at Lewes but also offering activities off Rehoboth, Bethany and Dewey Beach, and from Lewes to Milford.
Levin said DEDO has also been working on a new “geocaching” initiative. Geocaching is basically a treasure hunt using global positioning system (GPS) devices. “We’re trying to do it for cultural and historic places in Delaware,” he explained.
He also mentioned a recent TV filming session for Gov. Jack Markell, to become part of a CNN production involving actress Marilou Henner, called “The Art of Living,” in which Markell was filmed biking in Rehoboth and racing a car around Dover Downs last week.
Levin described the show as “a pitch for Delaware.” It cost the state $17,000 and will be aired at least 15 times in November, nationwide, he said. “This is a good opportunity to spotlight Delaware,” Levin added.
State looks to help Delaware businesses
Levin said DEDO was now focusing on opportunities it had never taken advantage of in the past.
“None of us are happy with current unemployment status in this state,” he admitted. “We hope it’s going to get better, but we don’t know that. You and your constituents know how tough it is,” he told council members. “Will there be other layoffs coming? Probably. Will things improve? We think so.”
Levin said DEDO’s, and the governor’s, focus right now is on “retaining what we have.” He said state officials in their contacts with Delaware businesspeople weren’t hearing so many complaints about state rules and regulations these days but were looking to find out what they can do to make things easier for businesses.
“What I think has happened is the state and municipalities have recognized that we really are all in this together,” he said.
Levin pointed to new state programs aimed at helping Delaware businesspeople. The Small Business Limited Investment for Financial Traction (LIFT) Program, for instance, is aimed at small businesses, designed to allow them to pay down a line of credit at a rate of $12,500 per year two years.
“It’s an opportunity for these companies to really get past what we think is the worst of this recession,” he said, noting that the program already has 42 loans completed or in process, to businesses with between three and 50 employees that have been in business for three years or longer and thus are past the most precarious time for a new business.
Council President Vance Phillips said he’d particularly taken note of the appointment of an economic ombudsman, who Levin said was drafted from an assistant counsel position to “run interference and break through barriers” for Delaware business.
Blended gas, farming regulations concerns for council members
The council members also took time on Aug. 25 to question Levin about other business and economic issues.
Councilman George Cole, who lives in Bethany Beach, said he was hearing complaints from the local boating community about the state-mandated blended gasoline and its impact on the marine industry and its boats.
“It’s tearing them all up,” he said of reported damage to engines from the fuel. “The economic impact is tremendous on these guys going out on big fishing boats.”
Cole suggested legislation be drafted to permit “real gas” to be used and available at service stations, for uses such as lawn mowers and boats.
“An unbelievable amount of money is being spent because of that crappy gas we have in this state,” Cole said, noting that he used to go to Maryland for “real gas,” but now Maryland has the same blended gas.
Councilman Sam Wilson, who is a farmer, pointed to $800,000 in funds he said farmers spent last year to have chicken manure shipped out of state.
“It seems like these environmental people could almost be a stumbling block in many ways,” he said. “Most farmers have their soil tested. We don’t just go out and spread chicken dirt (as fertilizer),” he added, noting that farmers can’t simply go purchase chicken manure from in-state farmers, because of environmental requirements.
“I should have brought [DNREC Secretary] Colin [O’Mara],” Levin said with a laugh, but adding more seriously that he and other state officials had gone to Perdue to discuss the poultry manure program, “and they love it.”
“Of course they do,” Wilson replied. “We’re paying them.”
Levin said he knew Georgetown Mayor Edwin A. Lambden had been looking into ways of dealing with the problem and was pushing for gasification of poultry manure, as the state is not allowed to incinerate any waste. “That could come up in the next [legislative] session,” he said.
Wilson laid the blame for the costs to farmers at the feet of environmentalism.
“I call them environmental whackos,” he said, “and then you wonder why people are going and starting businesses out of state. By the time they go through the state agencies, they say, ‘Why don’t we go to Mexico instead?’
“They act like we don’t have an ounce of sense and don’t know what’s good water and what’s bad water and don’t care if we have good water,” Wilson added of environmentalists.
Farmers’ concerns had Levin’s ear.
“I don’t think there is any more important concern in this state than the agriculture industry,” he said. “It is consistent on its returns to the state. The only consistent thing in this state has been agriculture and chemicals. We can’t rely on credit cards. We can’t rely on manufacturing now.”
Wilson said some chemicals are needed in farming. Someone had said to him, Wilson recalled, “‘I don’t think we need all these chemicals in farming,’ and I told them, ‘Well, we could farm like they do in Africa, and you see how well that works out...”
Is rail the solution to coastal transportation issues?
Councilwoman Joan Deaver said one of her concerns for the area’s economy is transportation along the Delaware coast.
“DelDot sees Route 1 as way to get to the beaches,” she said. “People who live here see it as their Main Street. As the economy begins to grow, is there some way we can take good, serious look on public transportation from Wilmington to Maryland?”
Levin said DEDO had, in fact, made a $600,000 funding request to DelDOT officials on Aug. 24, for a study to look at transportation from Dover to Ocean City, Md., focusing on the possibility of rail.
“If that’s successful,” he said of the funding request, “we would get a clear view on what rail could mean.”
Levin said he’d recently asked DelDOT Secretary Carolann Wicks, “How well do buses do down there?” “Not at all,” he said she’d replied, stating that DART buses “run empty half the time.”
Levin said that was a waste of money, with the bus system an opportunity that people don’t take advantage of.
“I’ve been to the beaches all my life, and I would never think to use the bus to go to the beach,” he said. “I would think rail would be a great way to do it, more so than the bus.”
Deaver recommended that the state coordinate with local municipalities to look at the issue of public transportation along the coast.
“The state is the driver,” Levin replied. “But, in my mind, I think it’s more on the communities. They need to be the ones who drive where this goes. They will be the ones who will benefit the most.”
Finally, Phillips asked for DEDO’s assistance in bringing more jobs to Sussex County via the Sussex County Airport, which that very morning had seen the dedication of a new, improved and longer runway that will be able to accommodate more and larger aircraft.
“This could mean thousands more jobs,” Phillips said, asking DEDO’s support in requesting help from the state’s Congressional delegation on its behalf. Levin said he knew U.S. Sen. Tom Carper was already working on the issue.