City, County Officials Hear Update On Economic Development Priorities

By Cece Nunn, posted Nov 17, 2014
City and county elected officials heard recommendations Monday from government staff members and organization leaders on ways to improve the area’s economic development efforts, based on the Garner Report: Pathways to Prosperity.

In August, members of the Wilmington City Council and New Hanover County Board of Commissioners met and chose six economic development priorities among the recommendations outlined in that report, prepared by Atlanta-based consulting firms Garner Economics. 

Summaries of the priorities-related discussions follow.

Three-county marketing alliance
Revisiting the idea of creating a micro-marketing alliance among New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties, Steve Yost, president of the North Carolina’s Southeast, a regional marketing organization, told Wilmington and New Hanover officials that N.C.’s Southeast, Wilmington Business Development and the Brunswick County Economic Development Commission have been meeting to come up with ways to do just that.

“Our planning has really been based on utilizing key regional assets to build this marketing strategy,” Yost said.

Instead of "micro-alliance," Yost said, the group is referring to the team project as a Wilmington region marketing initiative because, he said, “Wilmington is the brand name here.”

An industry recruitment mission set for May 2015 is in the works, as well as a tour next year for site selectors, Yost said.

He said the group plans to come back to the governing boards in January of next year with a final plan for the initiative. That plan will come with a way to measure its success.

“We want to establish metrics from the get-go so that you can see what results, what activity, what productivity is being generated through the initiative,” Yost said.

Film incentives
Local officials hope the state legislature, when it convenes in January, revisits the question of setting aside more funds to attract filming to the area. This year, lawmakers replaced film tax credits that expire at the end of 2014 with a grant program that contains $10 million in funds for the remainder of the fiscal year ending June 30. That is a drastic reduction from the amount North Carolina is currently paying to qualifying productions in the state through its tax credit program.

Beth Dawson, a county commissioner who is a also commissioner representative on the Wilmington Regional Film Commission, said the local film panel and other officials are working on strategies to deal with the issue.

“We will continue to advocate for this industry and for this benefit to our economy in southeastern North Carolina,” she said Monday.

Part of that advocacy will be an ongoing effort to get the backing of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, for which Dawson has been serving as a member of the tax and finance steering committee.

So far, the TV show Under the Dome is the only production with confirmed plans to film in the Wilmington area in 2015, Dawson said.

Wilmington mayor Bill Saffo said he hopes legislators will boost the program they came up with to replace the tax credits, assuming they don't reinstate the film tax credits.

“How we improve that grant is going to be very critical to the industry,” Saffo said.

While plans to extend a water line across the Cape Fear River to the Flemington community on U.S. 421 are underway, governmental staff members are recommending that officials consider how best to proceed with additional water and sewer service along that corridor in order to attract more industries and jobs.

Beth Schrader, policy and strategy manager for New Hanover County, said the staffs have identified five zones along U.S. 421 that involve more than 950 acres of land with the potential to be developed immediately.

For example, Zone 1, which starts near the Pender County line, encompasses 384 acres that could be ideal for the targeted industries of food processing, precision manufacturing and cold storage if the water and sewer infrastructure is in place, she said.

The estimated project cost for a three-section water and sewer project would be $12 million, with the potential for an additional $3.5 million to be spent in the future for expansion, Schrader said.

Although no official vote could be taken at Monday's meeting, city and council officials agreed informally to allow their staffs to come back with a detailed funding plan for the project.

“The biggest, most long-term paradigm shift and game changer is if we can accomplish this project, in my opinion,” said Woody White, chairman of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.

At the end of Monday's session, officials planned to meet again on the recommendations in the next 90 days, said Jim Roberts, one of the discussion's facilitators and director of the Center for Innovation and Enterpreneurship at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Check back later for more information on additional Garner Report recommendations the city and county discussed Monday afternoon. 
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