New industries needed to keep young people in Sussex

STEM jobs could be pathway to future economic development
October 2, 2017

Jack Berberian, founder and CEO of Troy Ventures LLC, said it will take a joint effort among businesses, schools and government to create new industries to keep young people in Sussex County. He said 80 percent of Delaware Tech graduates leave Delaware after graduation.

“If we don't grow, that will continue,” he said. “If we don't work together and don't create new industries, we'll be having this same conversation in 20 years.”

Berberian was one of four speakers at a Sept. 13 economic development forum in the county administration building sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Sussex County.

Also speaking were Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Ken Bounds, Sussex County Economic Development Director Bill Pfaff and Southern Delaware Tourism Executive Director Scott Thomas.

“I have four girls, and I want to make sure after they graduate they have opportunities and jobs to stay here,” Berberian said.

As the number of older Sussex County residents continues to rise, Berberian said, the younger generation is critical as a support system.

Among the companies he and his partner own is SecureNetMD, located on Route 1 in Lewes. He said the business has grown 85 percent over the past three years.

He said developing STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – jobs is an opportunity the county and state should embrace. “That is the roadmap for growth in Delaware,” he said. STEM jobs tend to pay higher wages, he said.

Berberian said his company is taking STEM education to students through programs at libraries, sponsoring The Tech Talk Jr. program, with its hands-on technology-based activities for children ages 5 to 12.

Berberian said it's imperative to support local businesses whenever possible. He said there is a perception that some services are not available at high levels in the state. “We need to change that because it's a hurdle,” he said.

Adaption is another key to business growth, he said. Berberian pointed to Blackberry and Sears as perfect examples of large, profitable companies that did not adapt to a changing market. “Why did they fail? They thought people would adapt to them,” he said.

At one time, Blackberry had 90 percent of the cellphone market, and today it has just 1 percent, he said.

Beyond that, he said, one of the key industries where growth has great potential is healthcare. He said the local healthcare industry is investing $600 million in Sussex County over the next few years. “We need the infrastructure and workforce to support that,” he said.

And, he added, the healthcare industry is set to go through a technology revolution with tele-health and robotics. Trained people will be needed to service the technology, he said.

Berberian, who moved to the area from Los Angeles 14 years ago, said Delaware's size can be an advantage to business growth with easy access to political leaders at all levels.

Berberian has a penchant for being on the cutting edge of new businesses in a search for niche markets. In 2000, he joined a group of executives at to launch and fund a new online legal service, which became the world's largest online legal document company.

He relocated from Los Angeles to the Cape Region and became president and CEO of Harvard Business Services and also cofounded MedTix, selling the companies in 2013.

Since then, he's opened SecureNetMD, Delaware VOIP and Delmarva Repair.

Broadband expansion key to growth

Expansion of broadband is another key to business growth in Sussex County, said Berberian. “Higher speeds and reliability would attract larger companies to the area,” he said.

As technology advances, and businesses and residents become dependent on fast internet, broadband becomes critical to growth, he said.

He said local cable companies provide service to many residents, but many farmers in rural areas are left out. That's where broadband could come into play.

He commended the state for championing the expansion of a fiber-optic line to Sussex County, but it's still a work in progress. The line from Wilmington to Selbyville will be available to businesses first and then homes. He said technology allows for fiber to be taken to towers and beamed to rural areas, including farmers.

Currently, he said, his company, located on Route 1 north of Lewes, pays $1,800 per month for fiber connectivity. “Most businesses will not pay that, but more businesses on fiber will reduce the cost,” he said.

Tourism, farming are economic engines

Tourism and farming are Sussex County's bread and butter. Combined, the two account for $3 billion annually. Add in economic multipliers, and the number increases beyond $6 billion.

More than 18,000 people are employed in tourism-related jobs in the county, and 30,000 are employed statewide in farming. About 7 million people visit the county each year.

“Everything starts with a visit that could lead to a residential relocation, a business expansion or start up,” said Scott Thomas, Southern Delaware Tourism executive director.

He said the county has always been a drive-to destination because it's within a four-hour drive of a quarter of the nation's population. “We know who we are pitching to,” he said. “People are blown away by Sussex County. We just have to get them here.”

Thomas said he looks at the 26 miles of coastal area as a cruise ship of sorts. “But there are a lot of ports of call in the 25 jewels of Sussex County – it's towns,” he said, adding town officials, businesses, and chambers of commerce are working hard to capture more tourist dollars.

He said this summer – for the first time – start-up tour companies have offered trips to locations throughout the county. “And farms is what most people want to see,” he said.

He said the county's selling points are clean beaches, small towns, history, its natural assets and an exploding culinary destination.

The growth in tourism does not come without challenges, Thomas said. At the top of the list is transportation and traffic. “Congestion is a problem, but people continue to come here,” he said.

Better use of waterways, more education about public transportation and park-and-ride options and more connections to trails are among possible solutions to the congestion issue, he said.

In addition, he said, eased restrictions on hotel development regulations and more workforce housing near jobs are needed. He said his suggestions could be addressed in the county's 2018 comprehensive plan.

Sussex poultry industry

Sussex County raises more broiler chickens than any other county in the United States. As the economic engine for Sussex, it's 70 percent of gross farm income, and nearly all corn and soybeans grown in the county go to process poultry feed, Bounds said. “Grain farming on Delmarva would not be feasible without the positive impact of chicken,” he said. “Poultry farming has always been a steady, reliable income for farmers. It takes a lot of the risk out of farming.”

He said technology in agriculture has become intensive as farmers use science to get better yields and build better poultry houses.

Farmers are also diversifying to meet market demand with agri-tourism, niche farms, farm-to-table events and farmers markets. More and more consumers want to purchase locally grown meat and produce, Bounds said.

Bounds said it's imperative for Sussex County officials to adopt new poultry house regulations including larger setbacks and vegetated buffers because poultry houses are getting larger and the current regulations are outdated. “There needs to be more attention paid to where poultry houses are placed to reduce conflict,” he said.