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Contact: By: Henry J. Evans Jr.

Castle’s Lewes roundtable focuses on small business (Cape Gazette)
Needs identified, solutions discussed

Lewes | August 26, 2010 - More than a dozen small business representatives from throughout Sussex County took part in a roundtable discussion on various aspects of county and state economics at a forum moderated by U.S. Rep. Mike Castle (R-DE).

The group of business professionals met with Castle Aug. 20, at the Inn at Canal Square in Lewes. The informal discussion covered topics including workforce availability and worker skills, education, housing, transportation and the state of the economy.

Employee pool

Nearly all of the business representatives have one thing in common: difficulty in finding employees who have the skills required to do a job.

“One of my biggest complaints is labor. Employees quit, go home and watch TV and make as much money as they did working,” said Susan Townley Wood, owner of the Cultured Pearl restaurant and Grubb Grocery in Rehoboth Beach.

She said business is up this year compared to last year, but not up as much as it was two years ago. Townley said retaining employees in the restaurant business is hard to do, especially when there’s the safety net of an unemployment check.

“When times get tough, the tough don’t go on unemployment. I really think unemployment is given to way too many people,” Wood said.

Nick Benz, chief operating officer for Milton-based Dogfish Head Brewery, said out-of-state people fill all of the brewery’s skilled positions.

“Finding good local people is hard. Kids here are lazy and parents look to teachers to be parents,” he said.

Lynette Palen, executive director of development for the Cadbury Foundation, said area high schools are not teaching students essential skills.

“If you want them to be strong and be able to go into business, give them some idea of what they might be able to do. Maybe they have a real talent for solar-power, maybe they have skills that are good for the construction industry. But they have no way to experience that. They’re too busy trying to get ready for the test,” Palen said, referring to the state’s standardized test.

She said the school system also uses an archaic, academic calendar, one still based on the need to have children and young adults work on a farm throughout the summer.

“We have these buildings sitting there. Get the kids in those schools and keep them busy. I think that is a part of developing those people that want to work, people we’re all looking for,” Palen said.

Christopher Weeks, business development manager for engineering firm Becker Morgan Group Inc., said he saw how nervous his daughter, an elementary school student, was about the test.

“I said, ‘Sweetheart, the test is to evaluate the teachers. They should have done their job already,’” he said.

“Teachers at all levels are so fed up with teaching kids how to take the public test. They’re not teaching real skills,” said Benz.

“They’re not teaching cognitive capabilities. They teach how to take a standardized test. That’s not preparing kids for anything except how to take a standardized test,” he said.

Scarce capital

Weeks said the lack of access to credit is affecting the bottom line of every small business.

“I hear often that there’s an inability to obtain capital. Banks say their problem is with regulators,” Castle said.

He said in some instances regulators compel banks to call loans as due in full, even in cases where payment histories are unblemished.

“If the banks are struggling it’s hard to get help from them,” said Benz. He said the state should implement investment credit and alternative energy credit programs, which the state has never had.

Benz said such programs would significantly reduce the cost of projects small businesses would like to pursue.

“We would love to put in a massive solar-energy project, but we can’t put up $4 million for a $5 million project,” he said.

Castle said he wasn’t aware Delaware lacked the type of programs Benz described.

Sharon Gray, business advisor for Delaware Small Business Development Center, said while the economy is in a slump, is the time to look ahead.

“It’s good now to start thinking about strategy,” Gray said.

Tom Colucci, president of CNC Solar in Rehoboth Beach, said the process of obtaining government grants for projects is too complex.

“I looked at a 75 page application and I said, ‘We’re not doing that,’” Colucci said. He said the government heavily subsidizes the solar-energy business but, overall, subsidies don’t help keep prices down for the consumer.

“Government subsidies are like a drug. I don’t want to be government subsidized,” Colucci said.

But Wood might have summed things up best. “Reality has set in. We’re not living the high-life anymore,” she said.

Home, office and transit

Castle asked the group to tell him about housing and transportation in Sussex County.

“There’s nothing going on in the western part of the county,” said Chris Johnson, co-owner of O’Neal Brothers Inc, a Laurel building materials company. He said although there is some business in the eastern, resort corridor, it too has slowed along with the overall economy.

Ted Becker co-owner of the Inn at Canal Square, said most of the inn’s housekeepers live well west of Georgetown, in areas where housing is affordable for them.

The group agreed that many workers make enough money for a house payment, but do not earn enough money to make a down payment.

Benz said those who commute traveling east and west on the county’s two-lane roads, already experience slow going.

“The east-west travel time is only going to become untenable,” he said.

Colucci said affordable small office space doesn’t exist in the resort corridor but as it’s developed in western Sussex County, people complain.

“No one wants to work in a building that’s out in the boonies. Is there going to be more traffic? Of course it’s going to create more traffic. Do you want a job?” Colucci said.

“There’s no public transportation here that’s viable,” Becker said. He said it routinely takes as much as 2-hours to travel from Lewes to Milford on public transit.

Castle said people are drawn to Sussex County because of its high quality of life and low taxes.

“I talk to a lot of people in Washington who want to retire to Delaware. The future is positive for Sussex County,” he said. Castle said he and other members of congress are continuously working on legislation specifically aimed at helping small business.

He said the roundtable discussion is the kind of thing that “translates into positive actions that should be taken.”

He said there isn’t a single square-inch in Sussex County in which someone doesn’t have an interest.

“It’s very difficult to deal with these issues in just a broad, political point of view. These are state issues and I hope you all would keep everybody informed. Not just state, but any elected officials and the chamber of commerce about what your needs are,” Castle said.