If you haven’t visited the University of Delaware campus in Newark in several years, you’re in for a surprise. As you near the railroad bridge on Del. 896, look to your left. Gone is the Chrysler sign and the cars that flanked it. Gone, too, are many of the old industrial-looking buildings. The water tower still stands, but it wears the UD logo.
The Chrysler plant, once as much of a fixture as “Ag Hall” across the street, is now UD’s Science and Technology Campus. The university, which purchased the site in 2009, completed the “decommissioning and demolition” phase in late 2011. “Now we have essentially 271 acres of largely vacant land,” says David Singleton, vice president of facilities and auxiliary service.
If the university has its way, those vacant acres will give way to office buildings, research centers, residences and the services and retailers to support them.
This past spring, Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Bloom Energy planned to break ground on a manufacturing facility. The company makes solid-oxide fuel cells that convert fuel into electricity via an electro-chemical process instead of combustion. Not only is it cleaner, but it also converts the fuel at nearly twice the rate as traditional technologies. The company site, which will occupy 50 acres, will employ at least 900 people.
Instead of student residences and classrooms, the majority of the campus will hold companies like Bloom, Singleton says. Some will be profit-making business; others might be nonprofits and medical research organizations.
The idea for the campus partly stems from the Delaware Technology Park, which is adjacent to university property. The park, which has an affiliation with the university, has 54 tenants in five buildings. “I’m full up right now,” says J. Michael Bowman, the park’s chairman. “We have the ability to add one more [multi-tenant] building.” As companies grow too large for the park, they could move to the new campus. “It’s the logical place for them to expand,” Singleton says.
The technology park focuses on the life sciences, which include human health and biotechnology. Big Pharma often fishes in research parks for new products to acquire, Bowman notes. “They’re like the scouting team looking at the minor leagues.” The new campus will likely follow that path.
As Bloom demonstrates, renewable energy is another focus. Don’t expect app developers to ante up for space. “They’re not the rainmakers that will occupy a big building,” Bowman says.
Since the site is near the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland, which is under expansion as part of the Base Realignment and Closure Program, there’s been talk of an Army presence. “We have already established a variety of partnerships with the Army’s Aberdeen Proving Ground, including educational programs, and we are hopeful that they will ultimately consider locating a facility at our Science and Technology Campus,” Singleton says. “However, that is one of our longer range goals and isn’t yet in active negotiations.”
While the city is looking forward to the new businesses, it’s also happy about the potential for new residences, says Mayor Vance A. Funk III. “There’s a shortage of owner-occupied residences, and there is a limited area on which they can be built.” Residences on the site, however, may include apartments. Ideally, many of the employees on the campus would occupy them.
Funk is also excited about a possible new train station or, at least, enhanced service. (The line cuts through part of the property.) The university is working with SEPTA and Amtrak to improve railway service. “We envision a transportation hub with a station and retail such as a coffee shop or bank branch,” Singleton says.
The challenge, of course, is the economy. “We haven’t seen one like this since the Great Depression,” Singleton says. “But we’re sensing a lot of interest. Bloom is a great catch for us. They’ll be a big employer and they’re developing a promising new technology that will grow, expand and evolve.”