By County Manager, Chris Coudriet
In 2014, New Hanover County commissioned an economic development strategy, commonly referred to as the Garner Report. The goal of this document was simple – provide a clear focus of how the county can foster economic development through three key components: retaining and growing existing area businesses, increasing private business employment and investment in the county, and recruiting emerging business sectors to our community.
That study helped in designing and adopting the county’s 2018-2023 strategic plan, which focused on Intelligent Growth and Economic Development, Superior Education and Workforce, and Superior Public Health and Safety.
Last year, we contracted with Greenfield, a local economic development firm, to review and update the Garner Report to provide a comprehensive look at what we have accomplished thus far, what is in the process of happening and what we can expect in the future. This Economic Mobility Report was just adopted by the Board of Commissioners as the county’s economic development strategy for the coming years.
Eight years since the Garner Report was unveiled, the review clearly shows how far our community has come. And though the year 2030 seems far off, it’s important to think about what opportunities we can foster over the next eight years to help our community continue to grow.
Many of the recommendations in the Garner Report have gone from conception to completion over the past eight years. Water and sewer lines have been extended along US Hwy 421 to help encourage new business development in this portion of our county. Significant upgrades have been made to the facilities at ILM, making the airport an even greater economic driver and welcome mat in Southeastern North Carolina. We have developed a Comprehensive Plan and created a Unified Development Ordinance to align with future growth opportunities and needs. And the county has advocated for continued improvements to state-wide incentives for the film industry, which has had a record year and is a major economic driver for our area. I could keep going, but I hope you get the point – a lot has been accomplished.
While growing New Hanover County is important, we understand that the entire Southeast Region is an intertwined economic ecosystem. The revised study shows that while a majority of our county’s workforce does reside here, 44 percent of people working in New Hanover County do not call it home. It’s why the continued support of the North Carolina Southeast micro-marketing alliance has been important to aid growth in New Hanover, Brunswick, Pender and Columbus counties so that entire region is attractive for businesses and residents.
The combination of devastating storms, particularly Hurricane Florence, and the COVID-19 pandemic certainly had a major economic impact on our county over the last four years. However, because of the diverse array of employment opportunities we have worked to establish here, recovery has been easier to see.
Which brings us to the reason the Garner Study has been refreshed – where do we go from here?
Data from the 2020 Census gives us metrics on where our county’s population stands. In 10 years, New Hanover County grew by 11.4 percent, higher than the state’s total of 9.5 percent. While the total number of individuals choosing to call our county home is climbing, the age range of those residing here has seen a shift. The total population of those under 18 fell by 5 percent over a 10-year period, while the total population of those 65-and-over rose by 4.5 percent.
From an employment perspective, approximately 25 percent of the county’s total jobs are tied to retail trade or the accommodation and food service industries, two of the lower wage sectors. Finance, utilities, professional/scientific/tech services, information and manufacturing make up approximately 20 percent of all county-based employment.
This is where the disconnect lies, as the gap between entry-level and long-term professional employment is significant. Approximately 36 percent of all jobs in New Hanover County pay less than $750 a week or less than $39,000 per year.
Closing this margin will mean focusing on several primary target sectors to create opportunities for true middle class employment opportunities that will bring balance to a currently unbalanced local economy.
Those opportunities include expanding existing business in our area and creating conditions that allow for jobs related to warehouse and logistics, life science manufacturing/pharmaceuticals, technology companies and offshore wind to either grow or establish themselves in our county. Additionally, we need to continue working to keep the state film incentive policy effective and robust to sustain the existing industry base but also ensure more growth for the community as new film projects move from vision to action.
Other target sectors where we would like to see new employment creation include boat building and repair, aerospace, building materials and companies connected to the emerging blue economy such as weather prediction, ship communications, dredging and dock construction. This sector has close ties to the life sciences and pharmaceutical manufacturing sectors as well as offshore wind.
How we do that comes down to one thing – New Hanover County must be an attractive place for potential businesses and new employees to call home.
Our goal is to provide resources to our students, both young and old, so that when they graduate from our public schools or colleges they are prepared to enter the workforce as ready workforce capital. We must continue to make living in our county affordable, with a focus on helping families achieve generational wealth through property ownership. We must make New Hanover County a place people know not just as a tourist destination during the summer, but as a place to call home year-round.
Additionally, companies must see a ready-to-start workforce along with the space to put a facility for their business and a community that is eager to welcome them. It’s something we’ve taken great pride in for a long time, and we have no intention of changing our attitude in that regard.
Over the last eight years, New Hanover County has seen significant growth. We have welcomed families and businesses to the region, creating the vibrant prosperous diverse coastal community we all envision. Eight years from now, we hope to see even greater strides in building a balanced economy with advancement opportunities for all who seek them. That is today’s goal and, with some hard work, something that can become tomorrow’s reality.
To learn more about the 2022 Economic Mobility Report, click here.