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Sitework Begins in Northeast Delaware On $170M Agile Cold Storage Facility

Mon October 23, 2023 - Northeast Edition #23
Delaware Business Times

After only 18 months of initial discussions, Agile Cold Storage officially began sitework Oct. 20 on a new $170 million facility at the former Claymont steel mill property off Naamans Road in northeast Delaware.

The 265,000-sq.-ft. warehouse at the First State Crossing business park lies near the Interstate 95 interchange and within 10 mi. of the Port of Wilmington. Although the entire project is projected to be built over the next five years, Agile representatives are planning to have the first phase, encompassing 165,000 sq. ft. of space, completed by early 2024, Delaware Business Times (DBT) reported.

But what was also critical to bringing the project to fruition was the relatively quick turnaround from first discussions to putting a shovel in the ground, Agile Cold Storage President and CEO Don Schoenl said. The Delaware Prosperity Partnership started conversations with Agile in August 2022, and New Castle County's Jobs Now program accelerated the plan review process.

"It's not an overstatement to say that if you didn't have expedited ability to approve projects, we probably wouldn't be here right now because our competition would be building somewhere else," Schoenl told the groundbreaking's assembled guests. "Even though it has been a while that we've been talking about it, in our jurisdictions we still wouldn't be here today about to break ground on part of the facility."

Headquartered in Gainesville, Ga., Agile Cold Storage is a three-year old, third-party logistics provider that stores and distributes products for other companies. Although the company itself is young, its management team has 20 years or more of experience in the cold storage business; Schoenl himself previously held key roles with Nordic Cold Storage and AGRO Merchants Group.

Those connections helped form Agile's customer base, which he said include the largest fruit and vegetable importers from South Africa and Morocco as well as protein exporters from South America, Australia and New Zealand.

The Port of Wilmington was a major draw for the company, with more than 6 million tons handled, much of which is exported fruit from Central and South America as well as Africa.

The port ranks among the top gateways for fruit and juice concentrates, and maintains an 850,000-sq.-ft., on-dock refrigerated warehouse complex. It also is a chief banana port in North America, with Dole Food Co. and Chiquita Fresh North America bringing in cargo on a weekly basis.

Schoenl noted that among Agile's clients, which he declined to name, many are looking to bring products from Ohio and Pennsylvania to Wilmington for exported overseas. Right now, existing customers that are utilizing the Philadelphia terminal are being shipped to South Jersey and then back west to end users.

"We couldn't make this investment without the infrastructure from the Port of Wilmington and the tremendous road infrastructure being right here on I-95," Schoenl told reporters following the Claymont event. "But it's also about the availability of qualified labor. You can build a great building in a great location, and if we don't have great associates to work with our service, levels won't be where our customers need it to be."

Agile Has Big Plans for Claymont Area

The next warehouse slated for Agile's second phase at First State Crossing may include next-generation technology and automation. The company has two warehouses in its home state of Georgia and a third on the way, which will use automated storage and retrieval systems. In the next six months, the company has its sights set on starting projects in Pennsylvania, Buffalo, Chicago, Dallas and New Orleans.

"This is not just the old warehouse I worked with in college," Schoenl explained. "This has technology, and then you're looking at a whole different skill set in education of technical work and automation. It's not just driving a forklift or pallet truck."

In total, Agile plans on bringing 130 jobs to Claymont, supported by a $4.56 million taxpayer-backed grant. The company aims to hire 100 people once the initial phase of the warehouse is open. While there will be support services in human resources and IT, most of the staff hired will be loading and unloading containers.

The average annual salary for those Agile employees is estimated at $56,000, and company representatives told DBT they plan to hire mainly from the Claymont community.

"This area had been neglected, and that is not the case anymore," noted Brett Saddler, executive director of the Claymont Renaissance Development Corp. (CRDC). "I've always looked at what's happening here as a snowball going down the hill. It starts out slowly, and then it picks up speed. I am incredibly excited about Agile and what it means in bringing technical, good-paying jobs."

Business Park Growth May Revitalize Region

First State Crossing is quickly becoming a hub of economic activity to revitalize Claymont, which has stumbled since the community's Evraz steel mill closed in 2013. Local officials and the CRDC have been working on affordable housing projects to attract residences, but projects at the business park like a speculative warehouse have given hope to many residents that some of the jobs lost with the mill can be replaced.

The business park also sits across the street from another redevelopment project where New York-based developer KPR will raze the former Tri-State Mall and build a 525,000-sq.-ft. distribution center.

New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer pointed to the construction zones as signs of progress for northern Delaware.

"This is a meaningful site to people of our state and the whole region," he told DBT. "We are in competition every day, not just in New Castle County and Delaware, but in the Philadelphia area and the country. If we can't win the day with a cold storage site by our port, there's another port that will get the benefits, so we must win."

When elected county executive, Meyer created the Jobs Now program, which offers an expedited plan review to non-residential developers to bring new or add jobs to the county. Applicants may have a pre-exploratory meeting with the county's planning, engineering, permits, and inspections divisions, as well as public works, the Delaware Department of Transportation (DelDOT), and the state Fire Marshal's Office.

After that, the county and state review teams identify possible challenges and a timeline for hearings. Applicants then provide plan submissions in that timeline, which are reviewed by county staff within five days.

"In the past, when it came to permits, licenses, and zoning variances it would take forever," Meyer said in speaking to DBT. "So, we wanted to create a program that eliminates that problem because time is money. I think it matters more than any sort of benefit that we're giving out like tax benefits to look an investor in the eye and say, ‘If you want to create jobs here, we're going to help you do it.'"

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