Economic developers in the region are having to adapt to the ever-changing business environment in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Due to impacts, Wilmington Business Development has changed the way it operates, specifically from a business recruitment perspective, said Scott Satterfield, CEO of the private, nonprofit organization that oversees business recruitment and industrial retention for the city of Wilmington and New Hanover and Pender counties.
WBD has limited travel and marketing missions since March. The group has been utilizing technology to keep the ball rolling with potential prospects, officials said.
“A lot of the trends that were beginning to impact recruitment before the pandemic are now on the fast track. That includes digital marketing – virtual building and site tours, the use of drone videos, Zoom calls with prospects, etc.,” Satterfield said. “It’s more important than ever to have a high-quality, information-rich website.”
WBD launched upgrades to its website last year. And the organization launched a new regional interactive site and building database developed earlier this year in partnership with North Carolina’s Southeast, an 18-county regional economic development group that includes the tri-county area, and the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina.
The technologies have helped further economic development efforts during the COVID-19 shutdown, which impeded travel and business openings across the state.
There are, however, challenges to doing business on technology alone.
“If a client is looking at a multi-million-dollar investment they often want to physically have boots on the ground to see the site or building they are interested in,” Satterfield said. “As decision makers from around the nation, and around the globe for that matter, get more comfortable with travel, we will likely see more decisions/announcements made at a regional and state level.”
Because of the global impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, economic development organizations are impacted with some of the same struggles worldwide.
“Thus far, the pandemic has most communities playing defense – working hard to hold on to what they’ve got,” Satterfield said.
To that end, WBD partnered in June with New Hanover County and Live Oak Bank in a $1.3 million small business economic development grant program, which provided $10,000 grants to 130 small businesses in the county impacted by COVID-19. The funding came from the federal CARES Act and was allocated to New Hanover County.
The STEM Labs in Mayfaire Town Center was named one of the grant recipients.
“Our mission is to support the community by providing educational programs and tutoring for children. We are very grateful for these funds, as they help us to safely reopen our center and continue with this mission,” said Tina Catalone, co-founder of the firm, which offers STEM-related programs for children.
Many other businesses cited the funds as a much-needed boost of financial support during the COVID-19 economic slowdown.
“The impact of COVID-19 on local business – specifically tourism, retail, restaurants, etc. – continues to be more than significant,” Satterfield said. “We’ve worked tirelessly to put our business community in touch with the resources needed to help them weather this storm. This certainly isn’t limited to our industrial relationships.”
WBD, since the pandemic started impacting the region, has been working to connect local industries with information, specialized expertise and aid to survive and recover from the economic impacts, he said.
In these unprecedented economic times, however, industrial activity and real estate inquiries that could bring jobs and investment have remained strong. (Click here
to read more about the industrial real estate market.)
And WBD is readying for the potential return of some industry back on U.S. soil because of the pandemic, he said.
As economies begin to shift into recovery, Satterfield said he expects that the post-COVID-19 landscape will see the recruitment process more competitive than ever.
“We envision our partners, members and allies becoming even more focused, committed and coordinated as Greater Wilmington strives to embrace the opportunities that arise from this historic situation,” Satterfield said.
“We’re also working closely with our state and regional economic development partners in identifying new trends and themes surrounding the post-pandemic economic landscape,” he said. “Exciting opportunities in manufacturing, logistics, life sciences and information technology will emerge for communities equipped with quality product and ready to go workers. Greater Wilmington will be in the running for those projects and lucrative opportunities.”