November 5, 2001

Major emphasis in promoting economic growth in northern Delaware will be on redevelopment with an eye toward promoting expansion of existing businesses, according to Ronald Walker, president of the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce.

"It's easy to go out and find another farm and build on it," he said. Meanwhile, older properties are allowed to deteriorate to the point of becoming detriments to the communities which surround them.

"When businesses feel it isn't worth it to spend the money [to make improvements] blight settles in," he said.

The chamber of commerce has joined with county government to form a New Castle County Economic Development Council, which it describes as "a partnership [to promote] quality of life through responsible economic development."

Walker said that the problem is defining what is responsible and meets community needs without imposing a burden. "You always have those who don't want to see change. They want the jobs and the convenience [of nearby stores] but 'not in my backyard'," he said.

Redevelopment often is an acceptable form of economic growth -- especially in cases where it results in removal of blight and putting such properties to constructive use.

Walker cited the redevelopment of the former Triangle Mall on Churchmans Road by Household Finance as an example of what can be done. An even more dramatic example was the construction of apartments on the site of the old Budd Co. plant in Newark. In both cases, "they took properties that were run down and a problem and turned them into beautiful and beneficial facilities," he explained.

In Newark "it was the difference between having an eyesore and problem in the heart of town and having 13 acres of prime property," he added.

Photo courtesy of the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce

Ronald Walker

Yet another significant example was development of the old Dravo Corp. shipyard and adjacent largely abandoned industrial property into the Christiana Riverfront project.

Once such approaches become generally recognized, the idea will spread, he said. "There are a number of old strip [shopping] centers that would lend themselves [to redevelopment] very easily."

He said that seeking out such sites and promoting their redevelopment for commercial ventures will promote the general vitality of the entire area. "It has to be recognized that the county isn't going to be able to come in and turn them all into parks," he said.

On the other hand, redevelopment where there is existing infrastructure, such as sewer capacity and roads, provides for an appropriate husbanding of county resources.

Walker endorsed the effort now underway to modify the Unified Development Code to pave the way for such improvements. "The U.D.C. might have put the kiss of death on redevelopment projects in many cases," he said.

While economic development is generally measured in terms of success in attracting name corporations and major employers, Walker said the real gains lie in encouraging existing small and medium-size businesses to expand and new ones to come into the area. Eighty percent of the firms which belong to the county chamber of commerce have 25 or fewer employees.

The county development council, he said, is an important step toward that end.

Unlike its predecessor New Castle County Economic Development Corp., which was active in the 1980s and into the 1990s, it will not be promoting specific sites, such as the county airport, or providing financing. It will, however, work in conjunction with the Delaware Economic Development Office. Research and development activity, particularly in biotechnology, is a primary area for development.

Walker said that the economic slowdown, which many observers link to the Sept. 11 attacks, have had a serious impact on travel-related business in Delaware, but "the jury is still out on how much our economy will be affected by terrorism."

The answer lies in the so-called ripple effect and that is both direct and indirect. "If business is off at the Christiana Hilton, it directly impacts those who sell supplies to the hotel and the dry cleaner across the street. ... If people think it better to err on the side of being overconservative [in their spending], it impacts an even wider circle," he said. "We'll have to wait and see."

2001. All rights reserved.

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Read related story: County wants to make redevelopment easier
Go to the New Castle County Chamber of Commerce Web site





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