The $1.25 billion New Hanover Community Endowment leaders want public input, talk transparency and county boundaries
The New Hanover Community Endowment was created to manage over a billion dollars in proceeds from the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center. WHQR spoke with the endowment’s top leaders — Chair and President Spence Broadhurst and Vice-Chair Hannah Gage — about the latest developments, future plans, and some lingering concerns.
The endowment was set up late last year by the county to manage nearly $1.3 billion dollars from the hospital sale — the private, non-profit board is tasked with investing the money which could, even with a relatively conservative level of risk, generate roughly $50 million every year, forever.
So, what has the endowment been up to?
For the last year, the Board has “faced inward,” according to Vice-chair Hannah Gage, working on operational details.
“It’s the unsexy stuff. Because with this kind of entity people are just interested in how much money is there? And how much can we ask for? And we understand that. But we've been very measured," Gage said.
The endowment expects to open up the application process for grants in September of 2022. But first, the board wants to hear from the public.
“We want individuals, agencies, nonprofit partners, all the people that are interested in improving the community," Gage said.
Endowment President and Board Chair Spence Broadhurst says two upcoming listening sessions will help steer the direction of the board.
“We have a blank piece of paper on how we go about accomplishing that. And so that's what these community listening sessions are all about," Broadhurst said.
It will be a year before the board starts really looking at actual requests for funding — and even longer before the endowment starts cutting checks. But one concern on the horizon is where funding will go.
The endowment’s sizable billion-plus dollar principal comes from the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical center, which became such a valuable asset by expanding far beyond New Hanover County lines. In the years leading up to its sale, over half of the hospital’s patients came from the six surrounding counties.
But, while patients from those rural counties undoubtedly helped increase the worth of NHRMC, the endowment was explicitly tasked with spending money solely within New Hanover County — something leaders both in and outside of the county have voiced their frustrations about.
Asked if the endowment is considering this issue, Gage says the board would focus on New Hanover at first, but thinks there will be an “evolution of thought” over time.
“I think that we're not blind to the fact that what happens here, you know, overflows and the other thing is, I think five years from, we don't want this to be the perfect place to live surrounded by nothing but poverty in need — that doesn’t help anybody," Gage said.
Another issue that has dogged the endowment — and the hospital sale process which created it — is transparency. The county created the endowment as a private entity, freeing it from public records requests and open meeting laws. County officials argued this would avoid undue restriction of the endowment’s ability to get a good return on its billion-plus dollar investment — although there are other endowments that also generate successful returns, despite being public bodies.
But, when state attorney general Josh Stein cleared the sale deal at the beginning of this year, he included a provision for annual public meetings, and the public posting of grant criteria.
Broadhurst said he’s happy with the level of transparency.
“I think the county commissioners did a masterful job in setting up this endowment. I really think structurally it was the right thing to do. And from a process standpoint, I believe it was borderline genius way to set this up. Having said that, we do recognize as public money that came to us, we have the highest level of accountability baked into everything we're doing," Broadhurst.
Gage added that the board would be posting quarterly presentations, grants, audits, and financial information online at the Endowment's website: NHCEndowment.org
The first public listening session will take place on October 26, 2021 at 7:00 p.m. at the Wilmington Convention Center, and the second will be held December 1, 2021 (location TBD). Both sessions will be streamed via New Hanover County Government TV’s website and YouTube channel. Online sign-ups for the meetings can be found here.