Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Report: Wilmington ranks in top 10 cities for economic success

Wilmington ranked number 7, jumping 14 spots this year, as a best-performing large city in the U.S. (Port City Daily/file)

WILMINGTON — The Port City, cited as having a diversified economy, climbed 14 spots in a year, due to its economic growth, in a nationwide analysis of metropolitan areas.

Since 2015, Milken Institute has released its “Best Performing Cities” annual evaluations. Last year, Wilmington ranked number 21 as a best-performing large city, up from 37 in 2021. For 2023, the municipality is listed in the number seven spot out of 200 comparable-in-size locations.

Milken — a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank — analyzes metro areas’ economic growth nationwide by assessing new job creation, wages, and local investment and policy changes that influence business. While it highlights Wilmington has strong multi-industry growth, it also shows improvements needed in affordable housing.

“An up-and-coming coastal community, Wilmington stands out for its robust wage and job growth numbers — evidence that the economy is coming back strong after the pandemic job losses,” the report indicates.

Highlights include job growth in the city increased 8.8% and wages spiked 44% over the last five years. 

“In Wilmington, collaboration is not just a buzzword; it is the driving force behind our community’s economic progress over the last 10 years,” Wilmington Chamber of Commerce CEO and president Natalie English told Port City Daily. “Wilmington is a vibrant and resilient city on the rise.”

English attributed the progress to the “bipartisan” city council and county commissioners, both focusing on the economic well-being of the region. 

City council member Luke Waddell pointed to Wilmingon’s targeted investments in economic development and job growth. He specifically noted the city’s work attracting new high-tech employment opportunities, while supporting the expansion of “homegrown” employers, such as Live Oak Bank, nCino, and Vantaca. 

“Wilmington is home to global leaders in financial technology and the recent surveys reflect a positive outlook for continued job growth in this area,” Waddell said.

The Milken Institute noted a 19% increase in high-tech gross domestic product growth locally. This impact is one of three factors used to compare the cities. Milken also accounts for labor market performance and access to economic opportunities, as well as how different areas leverage local resources to boost their economies.

In 2022, Wilmington City Council approved $695,000 in incentives for four companies — later revealed as GE, Port City Logistics, Live Oak Bank and MegaCorp — while commissioners approved more than $1.9 million. In total, the economic boost led to New Hanover County gaining more than 1,000 jobs, $110 million in payroll and more than $125 million in capital investments.

“Wilmington is not only competing regionally or even nationally, but we are competing and succeeding on a global scale to bring jobs, opportunity, and prosperity home to this community,” Mayor Bill Saffo said.

The chamber has worked closely with elected officials, as well as partners at Wilmington Business Development, to implement strategic economic development initiatives, English added.

“By streamlining regulations, offering incentives, and providing targeted business support, our community has attracted and retained a growing number of diverse industries, empowered entrepreneurs and stimulated new job creation,” she said.

The report notes Wilmington is experiencing a shift in its economy, moving from a mostly tourism-driven market to include more varied industries, including professional services and education.

“Our resilient tourism market was a big contributor to our post-pandemic rebound, but also our local economy has become much more diverse thanks to significant investments in health services and technology,” Saffo said.

Despite the city’s economic boost, with employment opportunities growing and a population increase of almost 1% annually, labor force participation has declined, Milken reports. In 2021, Wilmington’s urban area had a population of 285,905 with a labor force of 152,062, according to the North Carolina Department of Commerce. 

However, English pointed to UNCW and Cape Fear Community College helping prepare students for the local workforce and tailoring skills for needed jobs. The Milken report also acknowledges the local schools as an economic asset:  

“A growing talent pool at UNCW will continue to give the Cape Fear region a competitive advantage.”

Between 2011 and 2021, the education and health services sectors in Wilmington grew 85.2%, while the professional and business services increased 73.5%.

Novant New Hanover Regional Medical Center, New Hanover County Schools and UNCW remain the top three employers in Wilmington, each of which has more than 1,000 workers.

As of last spring, educational services positions earned an average of $963 weekly, the county reported in its economic mobility report. Workers in the healthcare field earn about $1,089 weekly in Wilmington and comprise 17.5% of the area’s workforce.

The tourism industry saw a 45.4% jump with 23.9% more jobs in the leisure and hospitality sector since 2011.

Wilmington International Airport and the local tourism authorities have partnered to promote the city as a destination for business and leisure travel, English said. This has attracted investors, visitors, and businesses from across the country, “generating a ripple effect” fueling growth.

Also working to its advantage is the North Carolina State Ports Authority’s Port of Wilmington. The entity recently earned the top spot as most productive port in North America by the World Bank and S&P Global Market Intelligence. It also shows NC Ports is ranked the 44th most productive terminal in the world.

Over the last five years, NC Ports has invested more than $356 million in infrastructure improvements aiding in its efficiency. 

It’s planning to improve vehicular congestion and transportation efficiency with a new intermodal facility to divert nearly 250,000 container boxes from trucks to rail over the next decade. Construction is anticipated to begin in January 2024 and finish by early 2025.

“As we look ahead, we believe Wilmington is poised to become a magnet for investment, a hub of opportunity, and a model of economic resilience,” English stated.

While Milken Institute generally noted positive improvements in Wilmington, it also reported a high demand for housing with increasingly limited supply. More affordable housing options are needed, the report shows, a priority for both Wilmington City Council and New Hanover County Commissioners.

The Port City ranks 130th in Milken’s affordable housing metric over the last five years; among other tier 1 large cities, only Austin and Dallas have less affordable housing than the Cape Fear region.

Large and small cities were each broken into five tiers based on their ranking performance. Wilmington, Raleigh and Burlington are all listed as tier 1 — the latter city being a “small” metro area.

In fiscal year 2023, the City of Wilmington began allocating 1-cent of its 39.5 cents per $100 valuation of property taxes to affordable housing initiatives.

According to the North Carolina Housing Coalition, 52% of New Hanover renters and 22% of homeowners find home affordability difficult. Fair market rent in Wilmington is currently $1,258 for a two-bedroom, meaning a household needs to take home $50,360 to afford to live there. The area’s median income is roughly $56,000; however, the average salary for a healthcare worker is $28,480, a construction employee earns about $36,360, and a local police officer makes roughly $47,310.

Fifteen North Carolina cities — large to small — landed on the report this year. Raleigh ranked number three, moving up 13 spots from 2022.

One North Carolina city saw the greatest gain from 2022 — Asheville was listed as number 165 last year, jumping 118 spots to 47 in 2023. According to Milken, it was driven largely by the recovery of the city’s leisure and hospitality sector — up 37.4% between 2020 and 2021.

Miliken ranked Provo, UT, in first place. 

Other cities in the top 10 list include Austin, Nashville, Boise and Dallas. Common themes in each city are a growing high-tech sector, a rebounding leisure hospitality sector and higher level of access to broadband internet.

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