Throughout a round of holiday gatherings, conversation inevitably turned to the state of our state. Whether Democrat, Republican or independent, Trump voter or Hillary booster, informed and caring people I’ve encountered over the last few weeks have uniformly expressed a deep concern, sometimes bordering on despair, about Delaware’s future.
Given all we have experienced in 2015, it is not hard to see why. There is an abiding fear that things could get worse, questions about what will keep our children here and sorrow and bewilderment over the poverty and crime that have ravaged Wilmington.
Yet, paradoxically, despite this sentimental nadir, I’ve also never encountered a greater sense of resolve, urgency or collective interest in, forgive me, making Delaware great again.
Heading into the New Year, this engagement, determination and common purpose has me hopeful. Here are five opportunities to believe this energy can translate into positive change in 2016.
1. A new president for the University of Delaware. The appointment of Dennis Assanis, a teacher and engineer with a passel of MIT degrees, is promising. Dr. Assanis has intriguing global experience with both government and industry research collaborations, and a record of building programs in energy and computational science. Expectations were high for his predecessor, Pat Harker, but there is a feeling his tenure was a disappointment, characterized by squabbles with faculty, missteps on a power plant and an ill-considered law school, and an athletics program lacking clear direction. The UD presidency is one of the state’s most precious and influential jobs; we can look forward to Dr. Assanis taking up full-time residence on Kent Way in Newark and pushing the school to more effectively define its 21st Century identity as a world-class research university that can and must supercharge our economy. And beyond that, what if 2016 brought announcement of, say, a UD Biden Center for Politics and Government in downtown Wilmington?
2. Elections for governor and mayor of Wilmington. At such a pivotal time for both the state and its largest city, these elections provide an opportunity to challenge candidates to do more than mouth happy platitudes. We need candor and immediate action. Wilmington is in crisis, and it is difficult to understand how voters can accept the status quo. More than a handful are currently running in the Democratic mayoral primary and none of them should be considered serious unless they lay out a compelling vision for the city and specific plans, with clear targets for measuring success. At the state level, the candidates should have in mind a one-term governorship. The big moves and structural reforms a strong leader must make – and the fights with powerful constituencies that will inevitably follow – require courage and a willingness to put the state’s future over their personal popularity and ambition.
3. A bustling little cultural economy. The Delaware Theatre Company, helmed by a magnificent board and the intrepid and wired-in executive director Bud Martin, recently broke box office records with its run of Diner, a production that garnered an extensive review by influential New York Times critic Ben Brantley. A positive Times review does not a cultural hotbed make, but New York City is right up the road and hundreds of thousands of Times readers with plenty of cash will visit a spot like Wilmington to catch dinner and a play and even spend the night. From the budding distillery/brewery action in Smyrna to thriving restaurant groups like SoDel Concepts in Sussex, packaging these assets into a connected critical mass will build buzz. It’s a First State story that needs to be shrewdly marketed to audiences throughout the East Coast.
4. Business is taking the lead. This fall, Corporation Service Company (CSC) broke ground on a new 150,000 square foot headquarters just outside Wilmington. The global leader in business services is flourishing under CEO Rod Ward, and at a rough time like this we are lucky CSC is committed to investing and hiring here in Delaware. We are also fortunate that through a reenergized Business Roundtable, Ward and other business leaders are taking a stand in support of badly needed policy and budget reforms that will make it a more attractive place for new businesses and employers already here. Other innovative private sector efforts like businessman Paul McConnell’s 1313 Innovation and the new coding academy Zip Code Wilmington are nurturing an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Wilmington and providing critical training and placement into high-paying local jobs.
5. We are Americans. Ladies and gentlemen, we turn towards the New Year with infinitely more reason to be optimistic than any people on Earth. Look around the globe. For all our problems, and the complexity of our lives, there is a simple, profound promise of freedom at the heart of the American experience that is nowhere else to be found. This is a gift that makes anything possible.