Potential transformations on the horizon for the Wilmington area this year are many, from shake-ups or new developments at some of the most high-profile companies and institutions in the region to rewritten rules governing how growth continues.
Major employers expected to remain in the news
This year could bring significant changes to how some of the area’s major employers operate.
In one example, PPD, which has about 1,500 local employees and 23,000 around the world, could go public.
The Wilmington-based contract research organization in November submitted a draft registration statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission about the proposed initial public offering of its parent company’s common stock.
PPD went public in 1996 but has been a private company since 2011 when it was sold to affiliates of The Carlyle Group and Hellman & Friedman.
Live Oak Bank is currently the only publicly traded company based in Wilmington.
Industry watchers will continue to monitor the financially troubled company General Electric and what its attempted turnaround means for its many divisions.
The company’s latest earnings showed that while losses were not as steep as they have been for GE Power, a unit that includes its nuclear activities such as GE Hitachi in Wilmington, the Power division still lost $144 million in the third quarter.
GE Aviation, which also has a plant in Wilmington, overall has been a stronger part of the company’s portfolio.
And then there’s New Hanover Regional Medical Center.
NHRMC – with 7,500 employees – will consider proposals from outside health systems interested in buying, managing, partnering with or other models for the county- owned hospital. Officials also will research ways to keep New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s ownership structure as is but with changes to help prepare it for shifting trends in how health care is paid for and delivered.
Hospital trustees and New Hanover County commissioners have the final vote on any deal, and two of the commissioners who support exploring these options – Pat Kusek and Woody White – don’t plan to run for re-election this November. Whether or not the hospital’s future is settled before they leave office, the hospital issue is expected to be a major factor in this year’s commissioner races.
Election 2020 could be key to the year’s issues
Possible changes in the region that were brought to the table in 2019 will further be elaborated and decided upon by elected government officials in 2020.
Those new members will join two commissioners who will serve for two more years: Julia Olson-Boseman, who supports the hospital sale exploration, and Rob Zapple, who opposes the exploration.
Jonathan Barfield, who opposes a sale, has filed for re-election in 2020.
Other issues that could be decided on by the board include moving forward with the mixed-use development Project Grace, for which commissioners had requested staff and its developer, Zimmer Development Co., to review multiple options to ensure that the project is financially viable.
Other upcoming items include the redevelopment of the New Hanover County Government Center and the funding of Wave Transit. County commissioners voted to withdraw the county’s agreement with the public transportation authority, but the withdrawal wouldn’t take effect until 2021.
There are also structural changes to the board that were implemented last year that will further be observed in 2020.
Olson-Boseman was elected as chairwoman of the board, replacing Barfield, and Kusek was chosen as vice chairwoman. As chairwoman, Olson-Boseman ended agenda briefings for 2020, which were held prior to commissioner meetings.
For many statewide office and legislative races, campaigning will be in earnest in early 2020. Part of the reason is because North Carolina’s primary election date moves up this year, to March 3 from its previous time in May, in an attempt to be more of a factor in the presidential race.
Sen. Harper Peterson (D-New Hanover) and Michael Lee, a Republican, are running for the state Senate’s District 9 seat. It will be a rematch for the two after Peterson narrowly won Lee’s seat in the 2018 election.
The city of Wilmington has already seen a change on its city council after the addition of its newest member, Kevin Spears, who was sworn in in December.
Spears campaigned with a promise of representing Wilmington’s underserved residents.
Development rules on list of upcoming discussions
Wilmington and surrounding communities will continue to grow this year, with new housing and commercial space in the works. Examples include the mixed-use project Arboretum West on Military Cutoff Road, where construction was ongoing as 2019 ended, and hundreds of downtown apartments.
Meanwhile, how commercial and residential development takes shape in the area could see changes this year, with officials expected to address related regulations as the Cape Fear region remains on track for continued growth.
The city of Wilmington is updating its Land Development Code, with revisions coming to the Wilmington City Council this year.
Pender County officials have been working on the county’s Unified Development Ordinance for a little over a year, said Kyle Breuer, county planning director, at a Wilmington- Cape Fear Home Builders Association event in November.
“We’re trying to take that into the next level, moving that forward towards adoption,” Breuer said.
As it works on its outdated UDO, New Hanover County will be completing a reorganization and streamlining of the county’s locally adopted development regulations in February, said Wayne Clark, New Hanover planning and land use director. Also starting early this year, Clark said, county officials plan to address some significant development topics, including setbacks and building heights.
Frank Williams, chairman of the Brunswick County Board of Commissioners, said Brunswick is expected to continue working on the need for expanded sewer capacity in the northern portion of the county.
He said he is not in favor of development rules that are too restrictive.
“There have to be reasonable regulations, but we try to make sure they’re balanced and efficient,” Williams said, “and we’re always looking for ways to improve there.”
GenX, opioid lawsuits could be moving forward
Several local public health lawsuits remain on the table in 2020.
Discovery in the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority’s 2017 federal lawsuit against The Chemours Co. and DuPont could wrap this summer, one of many steps in the litigation process leading to its anticipated 2021 trial.
The lawsuit stems from the emerging contaminants GenX and other PFAS found in the Cape Fear River, the source of much of the area’s drinking water.
The chemicals are tied to decades of discharges by Chemours and Du- Pont into the Cape Fear River from the Bladen County-based Fayetteville Works plant.
CFPUA and its ratepayers have spent millions of dollars on measures to address the impacts of the companies’ PFAS releases, states the utility. It has also started work on a $43 million project to add enhanced capabilities at the Sweeney Water Treatment Plant to treat for PFAS.
“Our position hasn’t changed: Chemours and DuPont should be paying the costs to address the results of their decades of PFAS releases,” CFPUA spokesman Vaughn Hagerty said, adding that he could not comment further on the pending litigation.
Similar cases from other local entities, including Brunswick County, which runs its own water utility, are also pending in federal court.
Brunswick’s case is in the discovery phase, which will run through August, county officials said. A proposed class-action case brought forward by a few area residents is also pending.
And as the area continues its fight in the opioid crisis, the city of Wilmington, New Hanover and Brunswick counties have pending opioid lawsuits remaining among thousands of cases in a large multidistrict litigation taking place in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Ohio.
In October, local leaders were encouraged by a $260 million settlement involving two test-run cases in Ohio, stating that they were good bellwether cases.
The local governments’ litigation against drug distributors and drugmakers alleged to have played a role in the opioid crisis will likely continue this year.
UNCW, CFCC expected to gain students, more space
Wilmington area higher educational institutions will add more space and offerings in 2020.
The University of North Carolina Wilmington is offering several new degree programs, including master’s degrees in health care administration (online), film studies and filmmaking.
The campus too is growing. Major ongoing construction projects include Veterans Hall, the Seahawk Quad and repairs and renovations to Dobo Hall, which was damaged during Hurricane Florence in September 2018 along with several other campus buildings.
“Our goal in 2020 is to sustain our strategic growth in a way that best serves our students, employees and the community as well as the needs of the state,” said UNCW Chancellor Jose Sartarelli in December.
As the school continues to boost enrollment, grow new programs and further its research output, “we will continue to focus on quality and purpose, and collaboration within our campus,” Sartarelli continued, “and with the community and state legislature, will help fuel our success in reaching our 2020 goals.”
Cape Fear Community College is expanding its offerings in Pender County with a growing footprint in Burgaw, and this spring will offer diesel mechanics, welding and HVAC classes in Burgaw, among others.
CFCC is also developing two new college-wide curriculum programs to launch in fall 2020 –health and fitness science and public safety administration – in response to area employer needs.
Fall 2019 enrollment was up 5% and was trending up for spring 2020.
“Everyone at Cape Fear Community College has been working diligently to increase our enrollment, and it’s working,” CFCC President Jim Morton said. “From short-term training that provides students with great career options, to University Transfer programs that help students succeed and avoid overwhelming debt, CFCC continually strives to create educational options that work for everyone.”