The 27th Sussex County Today and Tomorrow Conference focused on the economy, equity and education during an Oct. 27 hybrid presentation. Attendance at Delaware Technical Community College in Georgetown was limited to 100 people, so the event was also available online.
Before the conference started, there was a moment of silence for Frank Calio of Laurel, who passed away Oct. 19. Calio, 83, former state elections commissioner and director of Sussex County Economic Development Office, was a founding member of the conference planning team.
Welcoming remarks were offered by Mark Brainard, Delaware Tech president, and Sussex County Council President Mike Vincent.
Bobbi Barends, vice president and Owens Campus director, served as emcee. “Focus on action and what you will do with what you learned today,” she told attendees.
Keeping pace with growth
Keynote speaker Dr. David Tam, Beebe Healthcare president and CEO, touched on all three elements. Tam, who began his new job 20 months ago at the onslaught of the pandemic, said there is nothing lower-slower about Sussex County. “There has been nothing slow in my life the past 20 months. My wife Rebecca and I are so grateful to be here,” he said.
Tam said the county's population has grown more than 20 percent and the housing rate has increased more than 30 percent over the past decade. He said there has also been a significant growth in the county's diversity index in terms of age, race and the LGBT community.
As the population grows, the demands for healthcare services also rise. He said Beebe has hired more than 80 doctors and providers over the past two years. “We are proud of that, but how many front desk staff, technicians and nurses will we need?” he asked.
He added that emphasis has been placed on a more diverse medical staff.
Tam said opportunities for the future include a focus on healthcare as an economic engine, increased educational and research initiatives, recruitment of more workers, addressing the social determinants of health, and growing and developing educational partnerships.
During a question-and-answer period, Tam was asked about a Sussex County medical school.
“I love it,” he answered. “We have the resources to do this in Sussex County. You don't need a university to teach medical students. A school would help grow our economy and make sure trained people stay here.”
“Healthcare is a significant contributor to the national economy – 18 percent of GDP – and it has a huge role in the economy of Sussex County,” Tam said. “The question is, how do we make healthcare an integral component of the diversification of Sussex County?”
New hospital opening in 2022
Tam said the latest example of Beebe's effort to expand services and reach other areas is the soon-to-open $100 million Speciality Surgical Hospital at the intersection of Route 24 and Warrington Road near Rehoboth Beach. The facility is for short-stay planned surgical procedures, including orthopedic, bariatric, breast and spine surgeries. It's scheduled to open in summer 2022.
The hospital will have 24 private short-stay rooms, four operating rooms with robotic technology, 20 pre-op and recovery bays with imaging, lab and pharmacy services, and a walk-in care center.
Living where they work
Joe Conaway, chair of the Sussex Economic Development Action Committee, said the highest salary listed in the presentation was $55,000. “On that, you can afford a $138,000 home,” he said.
The average price of a home in Sussex County is more than $397,000, a 13 percent increase over the past year. The price is driven up by the average cost of a house in the resort areas. In the Lewes area, the average price is nearly $547,000, a 28 percent increase since last year, and $615,000 in the Rehoboth Beach area, a 24 percent increase.
“It's time we faced the issue. We don't have a housing problem, we have a salary problem,” he said.
Tam said he understands that many nurses and other hospital staff can't afford to live near the hospital.
“We can figure out how to raise salaries, which would increase heathcare costs, or we can move out into places where they can afford to live,” he said. “We have to target how we take care of patients, but also nurses and technicians.”
Tam said key staff are asked to live within 30 minutes of the Lewes campus in case they are called in for an emergency.
“What we do is a covenant relationship between Beebe Healthcare and Sussex County. We are not interested in doing anything else than making Sussex County better today and tomorrow,” Tam said.
Panel members included:
Sheldon Hudson, Millsboro town manager, and Trisha Newcomer, director of City of Seaford economic development and community relations, who spoke on the economy.
Lillian Harrison, founder and executive director of Elevated Community Development Corp., and Jose Quinones, broker, Linda Vista Real Estate Services, who spoke on equity.
Heath Chasanov, Woodbridge School District superintendent, and Justina Thomas, vice president for Delaware Technical Community College academic affairs, who talked about education.
Jobs with the most Sussex workers
Leisure and hospitality – 14,898 jobs, average annual pay, $21,729
Transportation and utilities – 1,736 jobs, $36,367
Professional and business services – 1,406 jobs, $46,307
Manufacturing – 10,524 jobs, $46,425 (includes poultry plant workers)
Education and healthcare – 12,371 jobs, $55,323