by Terry Rogers
Sara Bluhm, the Economic Development and Community Engagement Administrator for the City of Milford recently spoke at the monthly Milford Conversation, held at the First Presbyterian Church. Bluhm explained how economic development worked in the city and provided insight into projects within the city. Bluhm gave some background about herself at the start of the meeting.
“Everyone in this room probably knows me as Sara Pletcher, but effective December 31, I am now Sara Bluhm, pronounced bloom like the flower,” Bluhm said. “I graduated in 2004 from Milford and went to a university near Westchester, Pennsylvania. When I started, it was an all-women’s school and when I left, it was not. I studied communications with a minor in graphic design. When I was in high school, I was like, I am never coming back to this town. And then, I had the opportunity to join AmeriCorps with Sussex County Habitat for Humanity in Georgetown.”
After a year of service with AmeriCorps, Bluhm took a position at Growmark FS, bought a house and joined Downtown Milford Inc. before becoming a member of the Planning Commission. She joked that sometimes you had to “eat your words.” She left Growmark in 2017 to join Zephyr Conferences after writing her master’s thesis on the craft beer industry. When COVID hit, conferences went away and, when City Council posted the position for the economic development director, Bluhm put her name in the hat and was hired a few months later.
“The city has a story to tell, and no one was telling that story,” Bluhm said. “Unfortunately, the city gets the brunt of a lot of disgruntled things. We get blamed for a lot of things and it’s not always true. To have somebody on the other end being proactive and telling that story, it’s important.”
The 2020 census numbers arrived in the city recently and Bluhm stated that Milford had 11,190 people living in approximately 10 square miles. The top industries are manufacturing, healthcare and social services as well as retail. According to Bluhm, one of the most exciting things the city has done recently is purchase the Fry Farm on the corner of Milford Harrington Highway and Canterbury Road.
“Economic development is funny,” Bluhm said. “People think we need a Texas Roadhouse or a Target or we need X, Y, Z. What I have learned in the past ten months is that those things are not really economic development. Economic development is purchasing land and having the ability to bring in warehousing and industrial, something that is going to create hundreds of jobs. I think we are all familiar with the housing in this town. I mean, through COVID, we were seeing 50 settlements a month come through our Customer Service Department and we were averaging 20 a month before COVID. So, the housing market is booming. But we can have the housing stock but if we don’t have anywhere for those people to work, we’re never going to get the Texas Roadhouse or the Target, so it all plays together.”
The industrial park planned for the Fry Farm will not be a quick process. Although the city settled on the property in December and Bluhm knows people want to see things happening on the property immediately, the project will take time. She stated that there are utilities on the property, including a gas line that runs the perimeter of the property, but the electric and sewer lines are not enough to withstand the amount of industry expected to be placed there. The city hopes to put a water tower in the area which means they have to dig for wells and there will be the need for stormwater ponds and road systems as well.
“We won’t have retail out there,” Bluhm said. “There will not be a WaWa, nothing that will compete with anything that’s already out on 113. The front edge right now is zoned Business Professional or Business Park and that could be something very similar to what you see at the Boys and Girls Club. You’ve got dentist offices out there, doctors offices, those types, more engineering offices, more professional type offices and then behind that is light industrial, which could be a warehouse, manufacturing, logistics, anything like that.”
The one amenity the Fry Farm does not have that often attracts the type of business that would need warehouse space is rail access. In the industrial world, rail access provides an easy method for shipping. However, when staff looked for property that would be suitable for a large warehouse, the Fry Farm was chosen, for one, because it was for sale. Other land had rail access, but they were not for sale or they were not annexed into the city.
When asked if she was aware of a logistics park planned for Harrington, Bluhm said that she was and that it was underway, However, she did not see the park as competition for Milford. She explained that e-commerce was taking over and that there was just not enough warehouse space. Bluhm explained that 99 percent of the available warehouse space was leased now and there were developers who were able to lease warehouses they had not even constructed yet. The city anticipates completion of the Fry Farm in about 18 months.
“We’re going after site readiness funds that the state has announced is available through grants,” Bluhm said. “There are two levels, and we are applying for level one which is up to $100,000. This will help cover the engineering costs, traffic impact studies and the concept master plans, soft costs that people don’t necessarily think about. Hopefully, in the budget it is up to be renewed for fiscal year 2023 at the state level so we can go for level two which is when we are ready to put shovels in the ground. It can be up to a $1 million grant so that would take pressure off taxpayer dollars. I will also say that the purchase of the Fry Farm was not part of a recent tax increase. We used reserves that were sitting in the bank not making any money. The goal here is to break even. We will replace what money we took out as we sell off lots. We don’t want to make cash from the purchase, just create jobs.”
Other land purchased by the city includes about 19 acres near the former Rookery that they hope to keep as green and open space. The land is not far from river access and the city is hoping to put in soccer fields, baseball fields or other outdoor recreation options, Bluhm explained. Although it may not appear that this type of space is part of economic development, Bluhm explained that it does provide for better living. She also is involved in the Waterways Infrastructure and Investment Network created when a national press organization reported that the Mispillion River watershed was a multi-million dollar opportunity.
“This network looks at how we can preserve the area, but also have economic development,” Bluhm said. “We look at what it would look like if we have businesses that offer boat rides or whatever might be and includes everything from Milford to Slaughter Beach. I think this is a great resource out there.”
The Milford Wellness Village, located in the former Milford Memorial Hospital vacated when Bayhealth moved to their Sussex Campus, is another great addition to Milford, Bluhm stated. She suggested that anyone who had not been to the Milford Wellness Village should do so.
“There is a cafe that is open to the public for breakfast and lunch,” Bluhm said. “Mier Gelley who purchased the property, walks the walk and talks the talk. Everything he said he was going to do, he is doing. He’s filling it with tenants that I think are good for the community. He’s also invested his own money and time into his business. The PACE Program, I know he won’t appreciate me saying this, I call it adult daycare, but it’s so much more than that. If you have a loved one that is elderly, that needs respite, they can go there for the day. They have showers, there’s a hair salon, there’s rehab, there’s food service. They’re waiting on their final approvals from the health department to open, but it’s beautiful. It’s where the old ER was. Polaris is the assisted living and they just opened Phase II of that. I think we need those beds just as much. Everyone was like, well, we have Genesis, we have Milford Place, but we have an aging population and I don’t really see it as competition.”
When she first started with the city, Bluhm began working with Bill Clifton who owned The Brick Restaurant in Georgetown. The building was leased to the state for offices and Clifton closed that location. Since that time, he has been looking for a location in Milford and Bluhm has been working with him to find space. He is a Milford native, and his mother owns Fortunata’s Bakery. Bluhm explained that he needed time to close out The Brick, regroup and figure out his next steps. In addition, the Food Bank purchased 11 acres in the Milford Business Park next to the Veteran’s Home. They plan to break ground on a new building this spring and have put their current building up for sale. Bluhm is working with them to find temporary facilities if their building sells before the new building is ready.
“We’ve heard from a retail developer outside of Philadelphia who really thinks Milford and this area is growing and do he has called and talked to us a couple of times,” Bluhm said. “We’ve got ideas at this point, large commercial tracts, we have a lot of it in the city. That’s why we don’t like for people to come in and buy land and then try to get it rezoned for something else. We have a significant amount of commercial property already zoned, I think over 150 acres, down Route 1 and Route 113. It’s just a matter of time until the people who own it are either willing to give it up or do something with it, but there’s definitely interest.”
Another part of Bluhm’s job is business retention, helping businesses address issues that will allow them to remain in Milford. She recently helped Euphoric Herbals find warehouse space to help her manage her growing e-commerce. Bluhm found a location on Airport Road that will allow the owner to continue her e-commerce while still keeping her retail shop open.
“We have new investors downtown,” Bluhm said. “Obviously, Zack and Marissa have the Penney Square building and just announced they purchased the old M&T Bank building. So, you know, they’re young and they’re excited and they want to see Milford grow. I think, again, there’s people that walk the walk and talk the talk. The Parker Group just purchased Millie’s old spot here on the corner. They are going to put apartments upstairs and have retail downstairs. I think they are going to have two offices and then, hopefully, a restaurant.”
Bluhm explained that people often comment that someone purchased a building a long time ago, wondering why nothing had changed or been done with the building. She stated that the historic preservation portion of a renovation takes a long time. If a building is historic, the owner cannot touch the building until the historic preservation experts review it to see what they can and cannot do. She also mentioned that Art Helmick, owner of the Milford Movies Six received approval for land near the theater at a recent council meeting.
“He has purchased the property and the one next door, the ERA building,” Bluhm said. “He plans to revamp that whole space, which I’m pretty excited about because that’s kind of the entrance into Milford and, right now, not very pretty. So, it will be bringing some life back into that area. We do not know what, he has two fast food chains that are looking at that and he is not ready to tell us who it is which is smart. Because until you have a signed contract, you need to keep that information close, unlike the guy who announced that Aldi’s was coming I the council meeting way before he should have.”
Since Bluhm has been with the city, she has attended between 10 and 15 ribbon cuttings. She also created a business newsletter that is sent to anyone who has a business license in the city who have provided an email address. She created the Milford Advantages flyer for those who are looking at opening a business in Milford. The flyer is also available on the city website, Grow in Milford. This is a new site that will make business resources more accessible.
“The building inventory knowledge, this is something I have gone around with DMI and the Economic Development Committee,” Bluhm said. “Everyone kind of knows what’s available but how do you access that information and does it come off once it leaves the market? There’s the Delaware Prosperity Partnership which stemmed from DEDO and they have developed a Zoom Prospector. It is national software, but anyone can go in and add building inventory. So, if there is vacant space, it can go onto this, realtors can add it, I can add it, anyone can really have an account and add to it. I am trying to keep that updated and will link that directly to the Milford site and the Grow Milford site.”
Bluhm offers presentations to businesses for new employee orientation or simply to encourage people to live in Milford. She has done presentations at Milford School District for new teacher orientation and Bayhealth when they started their residency program. She stated that those are the people who want to live in Milford, pointing out that approximately 70 percent of residents end up living where they did their residency. The city is also providing 10 percent of their American Rescue Act Plan (ARPA) funding as grants to non-profit organizations.
“It’s pretty much up to about a $50,000 grant level,” Bluhm said. “The grant application is on our website. Any non-profit who is looking for funding, I recommend them to apply. The grant must fit into ARPA guidelines and all that is explained on the website.”
In addition to her other duties, Bluhm has also been instrumental in creating what will be an app called My Milford. The app will allow someone to report issues that they see, such as a pothole, incorrect curbing or uneven sidewalk. They can open the app, take a photo and send it in as a report. Other citizens who see the same problem can open the app and see that someone else has reported it. They can then follow the progress to see when the situation has been resolved.
“There is a social engagement aspect to it, but it will actually make less work for us,” Bluhm said. “We won’t get phone calls to report the same problem five or ten times. Things like ‘my trash wasn’t picked up.’ I get that one a lot. The app will streamline the requests as they come through and they get directly assigned. So a sidewalk issue goes directly to Public Works. We are getting a new ERP, but that will be a two-year process and we did not want to wait that long for an app. We also now have Bucky, named for the Milford Buccaneers, who is a chatbot on our website. He crawls the website so if you have a question, you can ask him things like how do I get a building permit, how do I report a problem or an outage. We actually used it for the recent storm. We are really just trying to cut down on customer service calls because, as you can imagine, it can get pretty overwhelming. And with COVID, people are working from home, when we close our lobby, people can only use the drive thru for all of those things.”
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