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Amidst a national financial crisis, economists say southeastern NC is faring better than average

Hannah Breisinger
The two seaports in southeastern North Carolina give the region a tremendous logistical advantage for a lot of different industry sectors, according to economic experts.

With a national financial forecast appearing increasingly bleak, economic leaders in southeastern North Carolina are sharing input on how this part of the state is faring. A recent webinar focused on the region’s current economic position, and how the area can maintain its resiliency moving ahead.

Southeastern North Carolina boasts a lot of unique assets. For one, it’s the most diverse part of the state in terms of economic sectors. Agriculture, food processing, a military presence, tourism, manufacturing, aviation -- that all has a home here.

And that’s beneficial because the area is not overly invested in one particular sector -- putting it in a more secure position in times of economic downturn. (You know, like a pandemic.)

The area is also obviously coastal -- and that doesn’t hurt either.

“The two seaports that we have in Southeast North Carolina give us a tremendous logistical advantage for a lot of different industry sectors. Hopefully, the state will continue putting resources towards building out our ports, because that can be a crucial way for our companies in North Carolina to get to global markets.”

That’s Christopher Chung, CEO of The Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina. Last week, EDPNC hosted a webinar where local economic leaders came together to share insights.

The overall consensus was that right now, the area is in pretty decent shape. For example, a number of manufacturing employers are actually seeing an increase in demand, due to changes in consumer behavior during the pandemic. People are at home -- isolating or working remotely -- and looking for ways to pass the time that don’t involve brunch plans or their local dive bar.

But that shift in consumer behavior hasn’t been beneficial for everybody. With fewer people traveling and going out, leisure,  hospitality, and tourism sectors have all taken a hit. Again, here’s Chung:

“While there's been some federal help and of course, some good state and private foundation programs -- we still have a lot of small businesses in those leisure and hospitality sectors that are kind of hoping we get to the end of this pandemic, and that they can still keep their businesses together in spite of that low demand.”

Some sectors are seeing a mixed dynamic. Hans Bean, Chief Commercial Officer of NC Ports, says the disruption has been challenging, but thanks in part to the region’s growing economy -- the pandemic is actually creating a variety of opportunities.

“We've gone from risk mitigation to adding flexibility and supply chains in terms of the international trade side that we support, to now saying, ‘Okay, how do we anticipate the new normal and become a gateway or a combination of gateways and inland platforms that help people do more business?’”

Tracey Newkirk, Co-Founder of Genesis Block, says most of the companies she’s worked with are startups and lifestyle entrepreneurs. And those companies have redirected their emphasis to their digital, social, and online presence.

“What we've seen that they've done, is they’ve done a quick shift. Really focused on getting themselves out there in front of their audience, outside of their comfort zones. They started doing Facebook lives and really pumping up their social media to get sales.”

As far as moving forward goes, Girard Newkirk, also a Co-Founder of Genesis Block, says supporting new business development is vital.

“You look over the last five years, almost 90% of the job creation that has happened has been as a direct result of new business formation. So that's our focus. We want to create 120 new businesses that are going to come through our Genesis Block doors over the next three years. From those 120 businesses, we aim to prepare them to take on 400 more employees. And from those 400 employees, we're driving up the $13-15 million in revenue for the Cape Fear region, which obviously increases the tax base and is a driver of community prosperity.”

Chung says working to support existing businesses is equally as important as supporting new ones --  whether that's working with incentive or grant programs or helping companies receive funds for training employees.

He also stresses that to maintain a strong regional economy, the area also has to continue expanding broadband access. Maintaining existing building availability is also key, so companies coming from outside the region can easily grow here, and local companies can too.

Finally, education -- investing in K-12, community colleges, four-year universities -- that directly feeds into the local talent pool.

Overall, though, Chung is optimistic.

“We're all going through a really tough environment around the whole world. And hopefully a year from now, we are back to resembling something normal. And I think North Carolina continues to demonstrate very strong fundamentals -- it's an attractive place for people to live, and it's an attractive economic climate for people to seek employment opportunities. I don't see a lot of that really changing, even in spite of this unprecedented pandemic.”
Christopher Chung

Hannah is WHQR's All Things Considered host, and also reports on science, the environment, and climate change. She enjoys loud music, documentaries, and stargazing; and is the proud mother of three cats, a dog, and many, many houseplants. Contact her via email at hbreisinger@whqr.org, or on Twitter @hbreisinger.