Talking Sussex

Bill McGowan, a community development consultant, discusses the vast size and different personalities of Sussex County at South Coastal Library as part of the 38th District Democratic Committee’s ‘Lower Sussex Conversations’ series.

Coastal Point • Kerin Magill

Bill McGowan may be a native Delawarean, but having grown up in Wilmington and moved to Sussex County in 1980, he’s still considered a “brung here” — having moved to the areas for a job.

McGowan — now a community development consultant — spent 25 years as an extension agent with the University of Delaware, followed by a stint with the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He frequently speaks to groups across the state about how to connect with each other.

He brought his multimedia presentation to the Sussex County 38th District Democratic Committee on Sunday, April 29. The presentation is the first in a series of talks to be held at the South Coastal Library, titled “Lower Sussex Conversations.”

McGowan began by asking the audience, while they watched a video with highlights of Sussex County life, to fill in the statement “To me, Sussex County is…”

McGowan filled in his own sentence with words like “pragmatism — almost too pragmatic,” “independence” and relationships.

He strongly encouraged those at the meeting — most of whom live in or near the beach area — to reach out to fellow Sussex residents to the west. McGowan said that is the key to truly understanding the county as a whole, and that not nearly enough eastern Sussex residents know what is going on a few miles to the west.

“I was in the Lewes library with 80 people one night and I asked ‘Has anybody been to Laurel?’” McGowan said. “How many hands do you think went up? None! I was the only one in the room… It’s the other end of Route 9!” he said.

“I do not need you stuck within one mile of water,” McGowan said. “I need you to get the hell out of Ocean View. I need you in Seaford. I need you in Laurel. I need you in Bridgeville.”

He said one way to start the “conversation” between the resorts and the more rural, western side is to find common ground. He pointed to groups that form around specific, countywide issues — often called citizens’ advisory committees or similar names — as good ways to meet and increase understanding of those in other parts of the county. “You find this communal issue,” he said, and often, broader conversations can result.

“You can shape ways to have conversation,” McGowan said. “It’s finding things that are important to us,” he said, listing “families” and “the environment” as topics in which all residents can find common ground.

McGowan said he is particularly fond of the 25 towns in Sussex County.

“I call them the jewels,” he said. “I’d love to see every town crankin’ and popped up and rockin’. I really would.”

He pointed to Berlin, Md., as a town whose residents and business owners got together during the hard times in the 1980s when industry was leaving the area, and turned things around by essentially remaking the town into a destination for tourists and day-trippers.

Seaford resident Cookie Garfield told the group that she welcomes any chance to meet with those across the county who share similar concerns.

“I appreciate everything I heard you say,” Garfield said. “I grew up in Federalsburg, and after 40 years in New York, I’m back home, and I so love Sussex.”

Garfield said she has had to adjust to the pace in “lower slower” Delaware.

“I had to get used to it being ‘lower slower,’ and take forever for somebody to move and get something done,” Garfield said.

The 38th District Democratic Committee’s “Lower Sussex Conversations” will continue on May 20, at 3 p.m. at the South Coastal Library, when “The Press & the People” will be the topic. The speakers will be University of Delaware professor and former CNN correspondent Ralph Begleiter and Darin McCann, executive editor of the Coastal Point.

By Kerin Magill
Staff Reporter