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For a panel discussion Tuesday night with area business and institutional leaders on the topic of New Year’s resolutions, Wilmington Chamber of Commerce President Connie Majure-Rhett set a tone with a slate of unflattering figures.
While unemployment numbers in the greater Wilmington area have improved over the year, it’s no trophy winner for creating and sustaining jobs, she said.
“There’s a story of the reality of our economy that I don’t think most people in this community know,” said Majure-Rhett.
Starting broadly for context, she said that of the 372 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) in the United States, 156 this past summer outpaced the national job growth average, while 216 did not.
“To drill down a bit more,” she continued, 23 of the 372 MSAs outpaced the national average every month since September 2010. Another 29 MSAs have fallen short of the national average every month since.
Among the failing 29, she said, was the Wilmington MSA, which covers Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties.
It’s a compelling story, she said, and one that begs for focus.
“Unemployment may be down. We can pat ourselves on the back. But if you look at job growth numbers, with fewer jobs than we had two years ago, people aren’t looking, or they’re leaving town,” said Majure-Rhett.
Her remarks aired in the first few minutes of the Tuesday night panel talk arranged by the Cape Fear Economic Development Council under the theme of “New Year’s Resolutions 2013.”
Next in line to sound his perspective was N.C. Rep. Rick Catlin, the Republican elected in November to represent New Hanover County’s District 20.
While he said his priorities are to see the state, county and business community “survive, prosper and grow,” he later called job-market sustenance and development the “biggest challenge” ahead.
He noted his own professional field–engineering, surveying and architecture–isn’t seeing a healthy level of activity. Because engineering work precedes the kinds of projects that put people to work, the slump carries a “scary” indication.
“We’re the coal-miner’s canary of the economy,” Catlin said, “and we’re all really struggling right now.
“If we were busy, then you would see some jobs coming down the road pretty soon. But we’re not busy. One of the problems is–there are some projects that are starting to take off–but if you could put jumper cables on the heart of the economy, it would take you 18 months to two years to get a permit to create the first job.”
He added the ability for major projects to secure financing these days is among core concerns.
To improve the general situation, Catlin said he’ll push in the General Assembly the importance of beaches, waterways, inlets, rivers and ports.
“Those are very important assets, and even though we may not be growing, those keep us from going away completely,” said Catlin.
He said he’s also working on the development of a Foreign Trade Promotion Council “to try to find ways to promote New Hanover County’s international assets,” including port-enhancement zones. (Related story)
“The trick to this promotion council is for it not to be government,” said Catlin. It should consist of “people who have international business experience, people who speak foreign languages, people who understand culture.”
Also on the panel was UNCW Chancellor Gary Miller, who said he too worries about job availability in the immediate economy. “But what really keeps me up at night is sort of the long view,” he said.
“We expect seniors who graduate UNCW this year to have somewhere between five to seven jobs in their lifetime,” said Miller. “Half of those jobs are not yet invented.”
Education, he suggested, should at all ages include a “need to be able to invent and be entrepreneurial in your own career, for the rest of your life.”
He said that may also place on the community a different kind of economic development outlook.
Panelist Rhonda Bellamy, executive director of the Wilmington Arts Council, said Tuesday that an appreciation for the arts will play a crucial role in local job development.
“I think our biggest challenge is overcoming the perception that the arts are somehow frivolous, and add-on, and not really given value for what they bring to the community, in terms of not only jobs but also enhancing the quality of life that we have here,” Bellamy said.
She added that when she entered her role with the arts council last summer, she met with former N.C. Department of Cultural Resources secretary Linda Carlisle, who made the point that “people decide if they can live somewhere before they decide if they can work somewhere.”
Catlin said he was supportive of the arts, adding that he was at the moment working to set up a meeting with the Carolina Ballet about raising money for a local performance.
He said a community’s cultural aspects are indeed part of the big picture, and that he first saw the concept’s weight demonstrated during an environmental trade mission to the former East Germany.
“We went to Leipzig … and everybody there was poor,” Catlin said. “They were wearing old, worn-out suits and dresses, but [art] was so important to them. It was one of their quality of life enhancers…. It is important. The problem is paying for it.”
The night’s discussion, which also included remarks from CoWorx CEO Bryan Kristof and South East Area Health Education Center Associate Director Brett Waress, covered a broad range of topics and was part of the Cape Fear Economic Development Council’s calendar of bi-monthly panel gatherings.
For more of the organization’s upcoming events, visit http://capefearedc.org/calendar.