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Scott Satterfield says he hears it all the time: New Hanover County doesn’t have much available land for business growth.
Not true, he assures.
By his meter, there are 6,000-plus acres of uplands out there that could entice covetable prospects.
If only they were outfitted with the right infrastructure.
“Water, sewer, potentially gas,” Satterfield, CEO of the private nonprofit Wilmington Business Development, listed off. If those utilities and more were in place at those properties, this area might just have an easier time attracting new companies to build here, contribute to the tax rolls and hire locals.
His comments aired from a panel assembled Tuesday by the Cape Fear Economic Development Council to discuss points made in the recently released “Pathways to Prosperity” report from Atlanta-based firm Garner Economics. Commissioned by the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, that report, among other things, underlined the lack of water and sewer hookups at potential industrial sites here.
Panelist Robin Spinks, vice chairwoman of the Coalition for Economic Advancement, a locally based nonprofit established in 2009 for “responsible economic development in southeastern North Carolina,” said adequate infrastructure is primary for businesses looking for available land; New Hanover County might want to consider stepping it up to compete with outfitted lands elsewhere.
“They all want shovel-ready sites,” Spinks said.
Making that a reality here, said Satterfield, would “do nothing but benefit this region.”
But how does that happen?
“It’s just money that needs to be spent,” Spinks said after moderator Rachel Lewis Hilburn of WHQR raised the question and asked whether installing vital infrastructure could be treated like an incentive.
“It’s leadership, it’s money, it’s a lot of things,” Satterfield said. “You know, it takes the will of the political leadership to go after the funding, and it also will take the will of the private sector as well, and general taxpayers.”
For the broader region, there may be grants to pursue; the N.C. Rural Economic Development Center, a private nonprofit funded publicly and privately, has awarded grants for infrastructural improvements that result in job creation in rural areas, like Brunswick and Pender counties (though New Hanover is considered urban).
In 2009, the N.C. Department of Commerce’s Industrial Development Fund pitched in $500,000 to help Columbus County run water lines to an undeveloped industrial park that straddles the border with Brunswick County, whose government paid for the park’s sewer lines.
Called the International Logistics Park of North Carolina, the two-county site in 2012 found acclaim as one of Southern Business & Development magazine’s 10 most likely places in the southern U.S. to land “the next big kahuna,” or a large industrial prospect that could create, for instance, 1,000 jobs.
The park is also a “North Carolina Certified Site” under the N.C. Department of Commerce, meaning the state will work to make land-shopping companies aware of it. To get that certification, the Brunswick County Economic Development Corporation (EDC) had to document, among other things, the availability of water, sewer and industrial-level power on the site.
EDC Executive Director Jim Bradshaw suggested Tuesday that New Hanover County would have to “bite the bullet” and arrange for similar investments to increase the marketing power of its available land.
Reached Wednesday morning, Woody White, chairman of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, agreed it’s a vital initiative.
“We have discussed for years the need to get water and sewer under the river, and we are excited about the plans we have right now, of beginning that process,” said White by email. A member of the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority board, he noted that agency–in partnership with Duke Energy Progress–plans to run water lines to the Flemington community, near Duke’s Sutton plant, across the Cape Fear River from downtown Wilmington. He said he and fellow commissioner Tom Wolfe are pushing to run sewer lines simultaneously.
“There is still a large price tag to get water and sewer up [the industrial U.S. 421 corridor] once we get across the river,” said White. “But it’s a start.”
Tuesday’s panel discussion touched on several other economic development ideas, like a tri-county-area partnership of sorts that could market the region as one–another recommendation in the Garner report.
It adds that this area should target the industries of life/marine sciences research and development; “high value office operations”; precision manufacturing; and aircraft assembly, modification and maintenance–each of which pay above-average wages and are projected for growth.
But with the talk of job development came a question for the panel about the importance of other, more lifestyle-oriented amenities.
“How are we going to compete against other places in the United States for the talent that we need to work the jobs [recommended in the report]?” asked Allen Davis, an urban planner with the City of Wilmington. He said he agreed those jobs are needed in this area, but some talented job seekers might also be looking for larger-city features and culture.
“And that actually is a component of the Garner report, is capitalizing on the uniqueness of place,” Hilburn added. “And are there ways we can do that more effectively?”
Spinks said Wilmington and its coastal vicinity has that uniqueness, and that it draws young people to attend UNCW, for example. “They come here, they want to stay,” she said, “but those entry level jobs just are few and far between in this town, and they have to go away and create a career so that then they’re independent enough to come back in their 50s, like a lot of us did, and have something, a business, that we can bring back with us.
“And so it’s really important that we try to bring new jobs here…. From our perspective, we think that the jobs need to come first. And so we really need to focus on bringing in those higher wage jobs, and then all of that support and all of that ‘place’ will happen.
“And I think that we already have ‘place,’” Spinks said. “It just needs to grow.”