An Economic Force
As goes Wilmington, so goes the state. A thriving financial service industry and new development have positioned the city as a leader.
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“The Swedes settled here because the lay of the land offered them shelter,” DiPinto says, pointing to a spot on the Christina River.
But it also offered something else the settlers would need to make a success of their venture in the New World: power. Water powered the mills that supported local agriculture, thus driving the economy of the city and state.
From those early flour mills to the gunpowder mills of DuPont Co. to, ultimately, a financial service industry that is tops in the country, Wilmington has always been about power. DiPinto, Wilmington’s director of economic development, sums it up.
“Without Wilmington, Delaware would be far more pastoral than it is today and would have been completely overcome by Philadelphia and Pennsylvania by now.”
Instead, Wilmington's economy rivals its far bigger neighbor, and it drives the economy of all Delaware. It is a remarkable story.
The seeds of local industry were planted when those flour mills were established on Brandywine Creek. With the dawning of the Industrial Age, the Brandywine, along with the Christina River and the far larger Delaware, drove factories and served as conduits for shipping goods into and out of the state. Shipbuilding on the Christina, begun in the 19th century, and armaments manufacture during World War II developed a force of skilled workers for development of the automotive and chemical industries.
“The wealth that Wilmington generated led to the development of U.S. 13 and the construction of schools throughout Delaware, which knitted the state together, with Wilmington as its head,” DiPinto says. “Today about 60 percent of state tax revenues are generated by Wilmington and New Castle County.”
By law Wilmington is prohibited from geographical expansion, which means that growth goes upward, not outward. Enter the Wilmington skyline and the city’s post-industrial revolution: finance.
“The growth of the bank card business [in the 1980s] sent banks looking for a central location where they could be serviced by the legal community,” DiPinto says.
Wilmington’s location on the Northeast corridor was perfect. “Within a 120-mile radius of the city, we are surrounded by a population of some 35 million,” says Alan Levin, director of the Delaware Economic Development Office. “We have all the benefits of location without the onerous taxation of other areas.”
Assistant Secretary of State Rick Geisenberger points out that Wilmington is the only Amtrak stop in Delaware, which—with Vice President Joe Biden’s well known support—has raised its profile among those who have commuted through. “What has filled those office buildings are the law firms that have migrated here to assist the business needs of some of the top Fortune 500 companies that have now incorporated here,” Geisenberger says.
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