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At 8 a.m. on a Wednesday, cars are snaking around the new Starbucks and almost out to the street in Dover. Every pump at the Wawa across the street is occupied. Sounds of construction are playing in stereo from the north and the south of the coffee house. 

This is Dover every day these days. Streets are busy, people are moving and shops are full, especially along the five-mile stretch of U.S. 13 that runs from Sam’s Club at the north to Target at the south. It’s a growing heart of the First State. 

Kenneth Wagner is one of the people who can’t help noticing the growth. He stops occasionally on his commute from Smyrna to Dover at the Starbucks that opened in August at the site that was once a Sonic. The Doubleshot on Ice he orders is a sweet jolt of caffeine, and the WiFi-enabled dining room serves as a great temporary office. Wagner, 29, founded a church in downtown Dover in September, renting out the Schwartz Center for the Arts for Sunday worship. By December his attendance was more than 500. 

“It’s pretty exciting,” Wagner says of the growth.

Dover is the place to be, says Dan Wham, a commercial real estate agent with DSM Commercial Real Estate. His company handles leases for several properties in Dover, including the newly built Farley Plaza and, at the other end of the highway, Dover Mart. 

“It’s probably the most highly traveled part of 13 right there,” says Wham. Regional and national chains have really started to notice the area, he says, pointing to the opening of Red Wing Shoes and the Bike Line shop in Dover Mart last year.

Farley Plaza, the former site of a print shop and a pizza restaurant that closed in 2013, has been reborn as a two strip mall that looks like a mini United Nations of food. DSM never targeted the storefronts for restaurants, Wham says, but that’s the way it’s working out. It’s the first location in Delaware for the national Panda Express Chinese restaurant, the Pie 5 fast-food custom pizza restaurant and Qdoba Mexican, which serves casual Mexican-style food. There is also a Jersey Mike’s sub shop and another storefront leased to Sport Clips, a haircut salon catering to men and boys.

The owners saw the potential immediately, Wham says of Farley. It’s located between Dover Downs, Delaware State University and the Dover Mall. It’s right in the middle of lots of traffic. 

By noon, parking spots at Farley are at a premium, but that’s nothing compared to the foot traffic from the college students. Ashley Delaney ignores the “look” her husband gives her when she orders double queso for her burrito and nods to the cashier to continue with the order.

“I love this place,” she says. She moved to Dover with her husband, a pilot stationed at Dover Air Force Base, and was excited when Qdoba finally caught up with her. She admits double queso is probably not the best fit for her diet, but she’ll make up for it by buying extra vegetables across the street at the new Produce Junction, a regional chain that offers “incredible” prices on produce and flowers, she says. 

“Obviously there are enough people,” says Wham. 

More than 60,000 people live within a five-mile radius of Dover, with an additional 40,000 coming in to work in Dover every day, according to estimates by KLNB Commercial Real Estate. KLNB is handling marketing and leasing of Dover Towne Center, which is being built on the site of the former Walmart at the north end of Dover.

The 135,000-square-foot project, scheduled to open in the spring, is already 75 percent leased. Ross Dress for Less, Petco, Shoe Carnival, Ulta Beauty and Five Below have signed leases for the main center. Outback Steakhouse has signed a lease for one of the two pad sites.

It’s a very competitive market, says Wham.

But it wasn’t always that way. In 2008, it seemed that growth ground to a halt when the building bubble burst. For about five years, business on the highway crept at a snail’s pace if at all. Large box stores like Office Max, Metro grocery and Kmart all closed, leaving giant ghost spaces along the road. Several restaurants withered and closed or, in one case, burned down and just didn’t come back. 

Through it all, though, Dover kept its manufacturing base. The million-square-foot Kraft Heinz and the ever-evolving Playtex—now its own company called Edgewell Personal Care—account for more than 1,000 jobs in Dover. Being the state capital means law and lobbying firms have a large, high-salary presence. Properties like Dover Downs attract national entertainment acts and the fans who follow. There are four colleges in the city, and Dover Air Force Base employs more than 10,000 people.

Justin Cressler is manager of the Dover Kraft Heinz
plant, formerly Kraft Foods. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)

“Where there is a strong employment base, people have money to spend on shopping,” says Cindy Small, recently retired director of Kent County Tourism. There is a domino effect, she says. When big box stores and chain eateries start redeveloping an area, others take an interest. 

Dover also offers incentives from the state, county and the local government—and that has gotten the interest of developers and entrepreneurs, she says. 

“Dover’s been on people’s radar for some time,” says Judy Diogo, director of the Central Delaware Chamber of Commerce. Once the recession started to ease, businesses were looking for places to go. Dover was ready for them. 

For any business willing to move into a space of more than 5,000 square feet and put in more than $15,000 in renovations, the city will discount permit and impact fees by 50 percent and give up to 10 years of tax abatement, says William “Bill” Neaton, head of the Dover Economic Development Office. Neaton is the name recited again and again when people talk about the growth on U.S. 13.

Dover’s economy is growing because of Neaton’s ability to think “outside the box” when it comes to empty big box stores, says Diogo. (She did apologize for the pun.) Neaton is known for his creativity and the personal care he takes with repurposing existing buildings and working with retailers. He is a master of partnerships, working with the city, the Small Business Administration, tourism groups, chambers of commerce and local banks to create a business-friendly atmosphere in Dover.

When Produce Junction ran into an undisclosed snag a few weeks before opening, it called Neaton, who called all the parties together and cleared the snag by close of business. 

Having a mayor, city manager and economic development office all working together is what makes the difference, says Neaton. The city invested $14 million in roadways, sewer, water and other infrastructure to encourage current businesses to stay and new businesses to come. 

Not being proprietary is a bonus as well, he says. He works with business, government and economic development offices throughout the county.

“Dover is the centerpiece of Kent County. What’s good for Dover is good for Kent County, is good for Milford, is good for Smyrna,” he says. Plus it works the other way around. “If they get a plant in Milford, some of the people will live in Dover, will shop in Dover. It helps the whole county.”

And the future still looks bright. The city’s Garrison Oak Technical Park is bringing in new businesses with high-paying technical jobs, and an 85-acre regional sports complex, with an estimated $25 million economic development impact, is under construction. The opening is set for fall. 

“I think Dover also has a reputation for having a great variety of retail options with our Route 13 corridor and our Downtown District. Easy access is a bonus for us,” says Diogo. Kent County is a tax-free shopping zone within a four-hour driving distance of more than 10 million homes. “We’ve seen a lot of good growth in the last year.”

More good news

While some cities are still on life support, Dover made it through the recession with relatively small scratches. Part of the reason for today’s firm foundation was that city administrators used the downtime in the economy to think about what was wanted and what was needed, then they took steps to prepare for the upturn they knew had to eventually come. Keeping the manufacturing base happy and bringing in a new breed of business was all part of the plan.

Planning for business growth shows in building the Garrison Oak Technical Park at the edge of the city. The 389-acre park was built with water, sewer, electric, industrial strength roads—even fiber optic cable. It is now home to the largest solar park in the state, a new clean energy power plant and an international flooring company. The new, the old and the newly repurposed are all part of what is Dover now.

Calpine at Garrison Oak

The Calpine Plant at Garrison Oak Technical Park is
capable of supplying 223,000 households with power.
(Photo by John Lewis)

Keeping the skies blue, the air clean and the lights on is what the city of Dover was thinking when it sold the rights to Calpine to build an electrical generating station at the Garrison Oak Technical Park. 

The 309-megawatt combined-cycle power plant opened in June to rave reviews. Its natural gas burning, high-efficiency design reduces noxious gas emissions, and its power capabilities have calmed a lot of people’s fears about losing power in extreme weather. 

The plant is capable of supplying more than 223,000 households—two-thirds of those in the state—with power, says Thad Hill, chief executive officer of Calpine. Its efficiency translates into lower electric bills for the Delawareans it serves.

Calpine was attracted to Garrison Oak because it possessed a number of characteristics necessary to construct and operate an energy-efficient, natural gas-fired, combined-cycle power plant, says Stu Widom, Calpine’s director of government and regulatory affairs. 

These included a viable, growing Mid-Atlantic location that would support such improvements and would enhance regional electrical reliability; sufficient supplies of water and wastewater treatment capacity; availability of natural gas supplies that could be connected to the park; nearby high-voltage electrical infrastructure; and access to a trained craft labor construction workforce.

Plus, the site has enough space to double the plant if that amount of growth is needed. 

“Calpine is proud to bring the state-of-the-art Garrison Energy Center online to help Delaware achieve the emission reductions targets set in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s recently announced Clean Power Plan,” says Hill.

Edgewell

A hummingbird is nimble and quick. So is Edgewell, says Bedford Bruno, director of global feminine care operations at Edgewell Personal Care in Dover. The hummingbird is the company symbol for Edgewell, which spun off from Playtex Energizer Personal Care last summer. 

Other than the name change, though, not much else is expected to change at the Dover site. The operation currently employs about 550 people in the production of feminine care products such as tampons. Last year, the company started ramping up to make the Stayfree Pads and Carefree Liners, and OB tampons were added to the personal care business. The plant, located on Walker Road in Dover, recently added 40,000 square feet to support the expansion, taking the factory space up to 540,000 square feet.

The product line expansion is continuing. The company expects to hire another 250 people by the end of 2017. Many of the new jobs will be highly technical, thus high paying, says Bruno. 

Playtex has been a force in the Dover economy since the 1940s, when the name of the company was International Latex Corporation. The creation of Edgewell enables the company to be more focused, says Bruno. 

Even the name is focused. The “edge” in Edgewell comes from the company’s Edge shaving preparation products and its desire to be on the leading edge of innovation, Energizer said when announcing creation of the company in spring 2014. The word “well,” for the company’s personal care portfolio of products, denotes well-being and its commitment to well-made products, Energizer said.

Kraft Heinz

Employees at the Dover Kraft Heinz factory strive every day to find new businesses for their products, says Justin Cressler, manager of the Dover plant. The plant has a track record of delivering for the company, he says. 

The 1 million-square-foot plant was opened in 1964 as Kraft Foods. Ever since, it has been an economic force in Kent County and a visual fixture on the west side of Dover. Last summer Kraft and Heinz announced the merger of their two companies, which created the fifth-largest food and beverage company in the world. 

Today the Dover facility employs 560 people in making such well-known products as: Jell-O dry packaged gelatins and puddings, Knox gelatin, Stove Top stuffing mix, Shake ’N Bake, Baker’s coconut and Minute tapioca. In the beverage area they make Tang, Country Time, Crystal Light, Kool-Aid and Nature’s Splash.

Members of Dover’s economic development community hope that the size, expandability and diversity of the factory will catch the attention of the corporate office in a positive way. For now, though, no changes are in the works here in Delaware. 

“The Dover facility is not impacted by our recent announcement and will continue to operate as business as usual,” says Michael Mullen, senior vice president for corporate and government affairs for The Kraft Heinz Company.

In Dover, business as usual means the company will continue its commitment to quality and to the community, says Cressler. Kraft Heinz volunteers mentors in the local school districts, and the company has long been a supporter of the Food Bank of Delaware.

Being part of the Kent County community is a privilege, says Cressler.

Uzin Utz

Philipp Utz is president and Lori Nield is floor
manager at Uzin Utz, a family-run company that
specializes in installation systems for
floor coverings. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)

 When Germany-based Uzin Utz was looking to expand its flooring production in the United States, company managers looked for a place that was close to urban centers in the northeast, high raw material quality from nearby vendors and a qualified workforce. They found what they were looking for at the Garrison Oak Technology Park.

“The proximity to our customers, also to the fast growing Canadian market—good traffic connections and a modern infrastructure—played a major role with this strategic decision,” says president Philipp Utz.

Uzin Utz, founded in 1911, is a family-run company that specializes in professional installation systems for all types of floor coverings.

Its state-of-the-art Dover factory opened in September with production space, research and development labs, and areas for application testing and customer training. The company expects to produce some 25,000 tons of filling compound each year. Filling compound is used to level floors and fill holes or marks before flooring is applied.

Uzin Utz also has plans to add about 15,000 tons of tile adhesive to the production mix by 2018, turning the plant into a two-shift operation. The company plans to double the number of factory workers from the current 15 by the end of the year. Three chemists also work in research and quality control at Dover. In the new training center, sales employees, wholesale and trade customers will be instructed in technical finishes, the correct applications and practical possibilities for use, says Utz. 

Matt Schuster (left) and Elijah Perkins stack bags of
filling compound at Uzin Utz. (Photo by Joe del Tufo)

OSCAR

Some day doctors will be able to know almost immediately when cancer starts to form in a person, using only a single drop of blood. We’ll watch ultra-high resolution images from distant planets, and viruses will be identified by how they move—all thanks to OSCAR.

OSCAR, the Optical Science Center for Applied Research, the newest building on the campus of Delaware State University, is a reflection of the university’s dedication to science, engineering and economics. Actually, the building reflects everything. It is designed to look like a giant prism with a mirrored exterior. 

Everyone has heard of fiber optics, flexible transparent fiber used for sending information and transmitting television shows, but that is a small part of optics, says Dr. Noureddine Melikechi, head of the department and consultant for NASA’s Mars program. The science of optics includes anything that uses light and lenses. Current research at OSCAR is conducted on measuring greenhouse gases, identifying viruses, building lasers that can vaporize rock, sending high-definition images millions of miles and detecting tumors too small for conventional detection. It’s everything from nanotechnology to the really big picture. 

Delaware State University’s new Optical Science Center
for Applied Research. (Photo by John Lewis)

​Melikechi is most excited about the work OSCAR isn’t doing yet. OSCAR was built to share. Entrepreneurs who need technical research for their product ideas can go to Delaware State to use equipment such as super powerful microscopes and laser labs, as well as the expertise of the scientists at OSCAR. 

“We can create new jobs and companies in this region,” says Melikechi, as he opened an empty lab with a sign on the door that reads, “Your Company Name Here.” 

“This could connect the dots between all of us,” he says.

AAA in Dover

Dover now boasts the first AAA Mid-Atlantic Car Care Insurance Travel Center in the state.

Opened in November, the new location took over a former Blockbuster Video in Greentree Shopping Center on Del. 8. Twelve jobs were added to the new facility that now provides services such as insurance, travel help, roadside assistance and tour books for AAA members, as well as car care service that is available to everyone, says Jim Lardear, director of public and government affairs for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

“Adding car care to our traditional offerings in Dover gives us the opportunity to interact with both members and nonmembers alike,” Lardear says. “AAA has nearly 140,000 members in Delaware, and our trusted name will extend that same peace of mind to the general public when they bring their cars to us for service.”

The new center was a $1.6 million investment for AAA Mid-Atlantic. The Dover location is more than 8,000 square feet and houses eight car bays. It offers service on Saturday and Sunday to accommodate busy families, says Berni Koch, president and chief executive officer of AAA Mid-Atlantic.

“We are excited about this new enhanced location. By adding the availability of auto services to our other valuable amenities, we know we can continue to expand on our mission to provide trusted services to our members and nonmembers alike,” says Dover store manager Donna Jackson.

Services include maintenance, diagnostics and repairs such as tires, brakes, tune-ups, air conditioning and cooling systems, battery replacements and electrical work.

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