The Cape Fear Economic Development Council opened their first conference of the year with the phrase: my 2013 New Year’s resolution is…
Six panelists plucked from diverse positions in the community explored the need for and the pathways to economic growth in the Greater Wilmington Area.
And while they acknowledged the issues that keep them up at night, the words “collaboration” and “partnership” recurred as a common theme.
Several dozen people gathered in the WHQR Gallery last week to hear which three items topped this year’s economic agenda for six community leaders. State House Representative Rick Catlin was one of them.
“One of the big issues that we’re going to be tackling in the General Assembly is, as a member of the Coastal Caucus, are our beaches, inlets, waterways, rivers, harbors, ports. Those are very important assets and even though we may not be growing, those keep us from going away completely.”
Catlin also talked about the importance of promoting New Hanover County’s international assets through the Foreign Trade Council, which he now chairs. And, of course, tax reform topped the list.
“There are a lot of devils in the details on that. But the goal is to lower the burden on our businesses without raising the burden on our citizens.”
But a different kind of burden on the Wilmington Metropolitan Area, is already worrisome, said Connie Majure-Rhett, head of Wilmington’s Chamber of Commerce.
“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. That’s a dire situation. I think people always think Wilmington does well because it’s Wilmington. We’ve got a beach. We’ve got a river. But I think that’s something we all have to drill down on and look at the reality of what our economy’s made of.”
Wilmington-area leaders needed to turn a laser-like focus on creating jobs, said Majure-Rhett.
The Milken Institute recently released rankings for the nation’s best-performing cities. In 2011, The Wilmington Metro Area ranked 76th out of 200 for creating and sustaining jobs and growing the economy. Majure-Rhett compares this year’s rankings:
“For 2012, we ranked 114. We were at 76 the year before. Negative job growth caused most of that decline.”
The message that the area’s job growth is not just stalled – but upside-down – is getting through. Bill Graham, an attendee, tried to turn the focus to solutions.
“I think people in this room would like to hear what you all think and intend to do about this so that we have a visionary statement and we move the community forward.”
Although highly-specific ideas aren’t part of this discussion, collaboration, community partnerships, and entrepreneurial thinking are repeated often and held up by the six panelists as a new economic paradigm.
UNCW Chancellor Gary Miller said:
“The University of North Carolina at Wilmington has 712 formal partnerships with various entities in this county and city.”
Brett Waress, one of the panelists, is Associate Director of the South East Area Health Education Center:
"Our mission is summed up best by saying it’s teaching health and taking care, and that’s really been accomplished through partnerships – hundreds of partnerships throughout our five-county area.”
Arts Council Executive Director Rhonda Bellamy named it as one of her top three goals this year.
“To continue to foster the collaborations that we were so good at in the first year…”
As the discussion continued, Chancellor Miller kept coming back to the idea of a synergistic approach – citing examples in progress at UNCW – including a soon-to-open marine biotechnology facility. It’ll house businesses that partner with UNCW researchers. Miller also announced the creation of a department set up for the sole purpose of finding and building community partnerships.
“We are the 4th largest employer in the area, and so we feel an obligation to be a creative and a vigorous and a contributing partner in the economic development activities.”
But the audience wanted to get back to specifics. One woman asked whether panelists think Titan Cement’s plans to build and operate a new facility in Castle Hayne will be an attractor or detractor for other desirable industries.
After a few seconds of silence, Connie Majure-Rhett of the Chamber of Commerce spoke up:
“It would be nice in a perfect world to only have the kind of jobs you wanted yourself in the community. I think we need a balanced economy. And, literally, until we change the laws so that someone is not able to meet the standards of the state, the standards of the state are there.”
More silence, then the moderator gently asks if anyone else would like to weigh in. Majure-Rhett stared pointedly at Rick Catlin.
Catlin came back at her.
“You’re a troublemaker.”
And then he said that he believes Titan will have impacts on the community.
“And the question is whether those impacts are outweighed by the benefit they bring… I don’t think the benefits will outweigh the impacts. That’s just a personal opinion.”
Wilmington’s always been a tough place to work, said the Chamber’s Connie Majure-Rhett, and that’s been true for years.
“But we have GOT to get over that. We’ve just got to. And I’m really hopeful with the Chancellor and the new community college president and the new superintendent and us wanting to work with as many people as we can to make changes… And I’m really thinking that we’re at the bottom and we have to go up.”