Dover/Kent County MPO Sees ‘Inseparable’ Link Between Economic Development and Transportation

January 3, 2022 – 

Marilyn Smith sees a very clear role for the Dover/Kent County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) in supporting economic development efforts.

“I came from an economic development background, so I see economic development and transportation – anything that gets people or goods from Point A to Point B in Kent County, particularly those initiatives that will be primarily funded with federal dollars — as inseparable,” says Smith, who joined the MPO in December 2020 as executive director, replacing the retiring Reed Macmillan. “I don’t know how you can realistically pursue economic development without the transportation infrastructure in place to support it. It’s not my job to go out and attract companies. But it is my responsibility to make sure that we don’t miss opportunities because someone said Dover or Kent County doesn’t have the roads to get us from A to B.”

“Like everyone, things were humming along before the pandemic and then everything came to a screeching halt,” she adds. “Things started coming back right as I came on board [in December 2020]. We had to assess where we were with the projects that had started, asking whether anything had happened that would change the scope of those projects and our ability to work with our consultants to complete them.”

At the beginning of the current fiscal year on July 1, the MPO prioritized some new projects and started working on those.

“A lot of our projects are focused on rail and freight movement, and a couple are devoted to bicycle and pedestrian,” said Smith, whose previous role was supporting a Democratic Congressman from upstate New York and is now responsible for overseeing the daily operations of the MPO while ensuring compliance with Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT) and Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) directives and oversight requirements. “We also have a few more traditional projects on such things as interchanges and traffic movement.”

Smith says it’s been an “interesting adjustment” coming from a state the size of New York.

“It can take you the day to traverse from end to end in New York,” she said. “Delaware is small. There are two degrees of separation between everybody. You don’t have that same bottleneck that I oftentimes experienced in a big diverse state where people are very far flung and you have lots of bureaus or departments. It certainly does allow us to move things quickly. If there’s a question, you can find someone who has the answer pretty fast.”

One of the things that she enjoys about her new role is the work that’s already been done to focus on the county’s strengths.

“We’re not chasing 100 things in Kent County, we’re focused on the things that we have determined we can be good at, or where we see opportunities,” she says.

For example, Kent County economic development officials commissioned a study that indicated the county should pursue opportunities in logistics warehousing, given the proximity to so many large population centers, the proximity to ports, the proximity to rail, and the availability of some large parcels of land that could lend well to that kind of business to that industry.

Over the past few months, the MPO and others in Kent County finished up a few projects that were started before Smith’s arrival, including the Harrington intermodal study, the Dover Air Cargo study and the City of Dover’s update of its bicycle and pedestrian plan, providing each entity with a solid roadmap.

Smith says there are a lot of places that do a pile of studies that ultimately just gather dust in a drawer, but the Dover/Kent County MPO has a history of providing solid recommendations and implementation plans so that the municipalities can take them and run and see something good come out of them.

“The City of Harrington and Kent Economic Partnership came to the MPO in 2019 and asked us to look at four largely undeveloped parcels – one owned by the city itself — that are adjacent to the rail spur in Harrington. The owners were willing to discuss the feasibility of a multi-modal industrial park but didn’t know exactly what it would look like. So the MPO’s study was designed to talk to the railroad and a potential terminal operator and explore the likelihood of goods and commodities coming in and out via rail versus completely being transported by truck.”

“One of the studies we finished in the last couple of months was how we could connect the Dover Air Cargo facility north of the Air Force Base and the Garrison Oaks Industrial Park that are a few miles apart,” she says. “There are a lot of one-lane roads with no shoulders, no striping, that go through residential areas. We needed to ask what we can do to make these things workable for each other because we’ve apparently had some site selectors respectfully pass on pursuing it further simply because of transportation and connection issues.”

Smith also sees opportunities to move forward with addressing other infrastructure opportunities that are already in the pipeline, such as separating commercial traffic from residential traffic at the East Camden and West Camden bypasses.

“I think it’s a mixed bag,” she said. “I think there are some places where traffic moves pretty well and supports industrial development and some places where we still have some work to do.”

But the Kent County organization is not focused just on industrial property. Where some might look ahead and see an opportunity for large family-owned farms to sell their land, Smith sees potential for farmers to change their business models to moving their products on rail cars instead of by truck.

“People are having problems finding truckers, fuel prices are going up, and we need to be very concerned about air quality,” she says. “This is a great project because it seems simple, but it could be really transformative for decades to come.”

Smith also says Kent County is working hard to make sure that anything that organizations like the MPO are working on do not leave out traditionally underserved or disenfranchised groups of people.

Focusing on those issues are at the top of MPO’s list as it looks at previous studies on passenger rail and some of the challenges with that, she says. “I think some people are changing their views that passenger rail in Delaware needs to be Amtrak. I grew up in Utah and they were having to figure out how to deal with hosting the 2002 Winter Olympics. In the 20-plus years since moving from Utah, the light rail system that was designed to move athletes and spectators to different venues has expanded to being a primary way of moving people north and south and east and west.”

“Transportation can transform the lives of people,” she says. “I think the importance of having access to transportation to get to work, getting to education, meeting basic life needs like health and food often gets overlooked and we’re [Dover/Kent County MPO] committed to addressing those challenges.”

‘Epiphany” brought Marilyn Smith to Delaware from Upstate NY

MAGNOLIA — Marilyn Smith and her husband spend their weekends in the car, getting to know the state after moving here from Upstate New York in early 2021.

“It obviously serves a professional purpose for me,” says the executive director of the Dover/Kent County Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO).

“My husband is a school bus driver so he’s all over the place,” she says. “Sometimes he just says, I have got to take you to this place where I went and picked up kids the other day. You’ve got to see this.”

An undergraduate of Weber State University, with a master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Utah, Smith came to the Dover/Kent County MPO from a role as senior economic development advisor for Democratic Congressman Paul Tonko (NY-20).

The parents of two children, Marilyn and Steve are empty nesters who enjoy “grabbing our kayaks and going in a different body of water that we haven’t been in.”

Smith says she is “very pleased that there are four distinct seasons here,” particularly given that her last stop in Upstate New York often found her shoveling six feet of snow. “I also like that Magnolia is 10 minutes from my work. In New York, I was commuting an hour each way, so I was driving a minimum of 500 miles a week. I love that I can work until six o’clock if I want to and that it’s not after seven when I get home.”

She’s not ready to talk about “favorite restaurants” given the pandemic (“we are very pleased to have found a couple of good Mexican restaurants because where we came from wasn’t known for good Mexican food”), and she says she loves watching the planes flying into and out of Dover Air Force Base.

“We are close enough to the flight path that will never get old as long as I live, and we’re 10 minutes from the beach, so what’s not to love?”

The Smiths had their eyes set on Delaware well before the MPO position became available.

“We had been vacationing for a few years and we had said, we’ll retire to Delaware. And one day last summer, I had an epiphany and said maybe they shouldn’t wait to retire to move to Delaware.

“It occurred to me that when you retire and go to a place, you plop yourselves down in that place and you expect that community to just embrace you for the rest of your life, but you don’t have any skin in the game. That was really a motivating factor for us. It’s easy to have skin in the game when you have kids because you have the PTA and youth sports and all this and that. As an empty nester couple, we’re really pleased that we have been able to get out and start building some of those relationships.”

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