When Jim Bradshaw markets Brunswick County to business prospects, he does so as “the Wilmington region.”
“They know Wilmington,” the head of the Brunswick County Economic Development Corporation said, even if his own county–which he said isn’t as easily known to outsiders–represents a difference in pace and land activity from that New Hanover County metro hub.
The Wilmington region–the counties of New Hanover, Brunswick, Pender and, by some definitions, beyond–brims with as much diversity as its willingness to grow up with new, high-paying employers and a sizzling innovation sector. There’s also an array of efforts on how to best attract such economic growth–and they don’t always agree.
That came into focus Thursday morning during a panel discussion at the Wilmington Convention Center, in the Greater Wilmington Business Journal’s “Power Breakfast” series. “I think it’s really important that all of these [regional economic development and representative] entities have their marketing key messages aligned,” said panelist Robin Spinks, vice-chairwoman of the Coalition for Economic Advancement, a local nonprofit established in 2009 for “responsible economic development in southeastern North Carolina.” The proposed, and controversial, Titan Cement plant is among projects with the group’s support.
Spinks and Bradshaw shared the stage with Hal Kitchin, 2013 chairman of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce Board; Scott Satterfield, CEO of Wilmington Business Development; and Lloyd Smith, co-founder of the Cape Fear Economic Development Council (which, unlike Spinks’ group, does not support the Titan plan).
Differing from other efforts and recommendations, Spinks opined this immediate region isn’t standalone enough for its own, individual brand. The resources this area can boast stretch from as far as Duplin, Columbus and Onslow counties, she said, implying the “Wilmington region” isn’t just a tri-county cluster.
“If you look at the traffic on Saturday, it’s just as bad as it is on Wednesday because all of those people are coming to Wilmington for their services,” she said.
A recently released draft report from an Atlanta-based company called Garner Economics suggests the development of a “unified brand” in efforts to recruit new business. It says that Satterfield’s group, which covers New Hanover and Pender counties, should link with Bradshaw’s Brunswick County agency “to lead the formation of a new group that will solely focus on branding and marketing this three-county micro region.
“These three counties combined, pooling their resources, would have a significant impact on marketing the sub-region effectively to site location advisors and to companies directly,” says the report.
Already in progress is a separate regional branding effort in partnership with New Hanover County, the City of Wilmington, UNCW and numerous local business officials. Though the timeline may slide, they’d hoped to have a brand concept ready in April and a strategic marketing plan by the end of June. Economic development is its core focus as well.
Panelists Thursday didn’t specifically mention that project, though some did back the general idea.
“We need to understand what our product is,” said Smith. “We need to understand what we’re marketing.”
They also emphasized the region doesn’t need to stop at its existing, proud qualities; it needs to foster new economic growth–of some kind.
Whether that’s the heavy industry of a cement plant, the job-multiplying innovation sector, the creative film industry–or all the above and more–went into some debate, but for Kitchin the bottom line was ensuring the Wilmington region becomes increasingly attractive to future generations.
“Do we have the kind of local economy that is going to cause our kids, once they’re done with school, to come back to Wilmington?” he posed.
He said he didn’t think the answer was a solid “yes.”
“We’re never going to be Atlanta. We’re never going to be Chicago or New York. But we can be a better Wilmington,” said Kitchin, who noted the City of Wilmington’s recent purchase of nearly 7 acres on the northern riverfront for a new park and events space that he said could be a great quality of life driver for younger people.
Spinks agreed it’s important at times for local leaders to invest in quality of life assets “that people will come here to enjoy.”
“Sometimes they have to do things that on the surface appear to be unpopular,” she said, “but when looked at in retrospect, they’re what we knew we should have done–we just hated to open our pocketbook and do it.”
She and other panelists referenced the push for a publicly financed minor league baseball stadium on the riverfront, an idea that Wilmington voters shot down overwhelmingly in a 2012 referendum.
Satterfield said it’s not enough to focus only on future improvement; this area’s established industries need maintenance as well.
“I’m telling everybody in this room,” he said. “Never take for granted some of the great employers–the employers that have been there for many years–employers that have paid a significant amount of tax base in this community. Don’t think they can’t do this somewhere else.
“Don’t think that they’re not being told all the time, every March and every June and every September and December, when quarterly earnings come out, where they can do it better.”
He noted the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners’ recent approval of $500,000 for Fortron Industries–operator of a polyphenylene sulfide plant off U.S. 421–so it can expand here with at least $50 million in capital improvements.
“This is one of the top-five taxpayers in New Hanover County,” Satterfield said.
His agency has been involved in numerous cash incentive deals with existing large employers, including GE Aviation, Live Oak Bank and Castle Branch. Wilmington City Council is also often at the table in the dealmaking, meant to retain these employers and add to their job base.
Another panel suggestion for public bodies was ensuring water and sewer service at all available industrial properties. That could dramatically improve interest from industries looking for new land.
But if there was a bottom line Thursday, it was that economic development is too nuanced to file in one cabinet–accounting for small business, too–and that for the Wilmington region to grow, it’s going to have to act on some consensus.
Jack Barto, president and CEO of the 6,000-employing New Hanover Regional Medical Center, offered to step in in that regard Thursday.
“I think it’s time we get together and define what job growth, economic development, what it looks like in our region, so that we’re all on the same page,” Barto told the panelists and hundreds in attendance Thursday.
Plotting that direction will involve frank meetings that minimize the barriers and differences of opinion and instead focus on the good, common denominators. He offered to facilitate meetings to accomplish that.
The Wilmington region “is too good a place to not have direction,” he said.