In previous Insights, I’ve talked about the importance of regional planning as a critical element for the next 25 years. To ground this policy orientation, FOCUS has been actively seeking public input on residents’ perceptions, hopes and concerns. While doing this, we’ve heard some thought-provoking insights that should be considered as we pursue our regional planning goals.
So I want to share certain "perception adjustments" as three teaching moments. In considering these, they may just challenge some of our assumptions and help us reorganize our expectations for the future of the region.
1. Although not always given credit for it, our regional residents clearly see, and consider, a region and world with broader boundaries.
Wilmington has long been the regional draw, but now “Wilmington” reaches beyond the city limits. The city is the urban hub for the region and is used to being the center of attention. After all, Wilmington has the largest port in North Carolina, the fourth-busiest airport in the state, and a regional hospital system that serves all of southeast North Carolina. It is the site of a university and community college. It is the media market, commercial hub and retail services center for all of the beach communities. So it is traditional that the governing and economic center gets top billing and engenders some envy and jealousy. But when it comes to decisions that impact our area, the role also carries increased responsibilities.
We polled several hundred attendees at our recent FOCUS Breakfast and Forum on how they defined our region. Although two-thirds of the attendees were from New Hanover County, including Wilmington, they largely saw the region as a broader symbiotic area for growth and development. The political boundaries did not matter so much in terms of identity or desires.
An anecdote: When I’m sitting at Thalian Hall listening to the people behind us (and we all do it), I hear that these proud “Wilmingtonians” live in Leland, Topsail Island, Southport, Wallace, Burgaw, St. James, Porter’s Neck, Carolina Beach, Monkey Junction – the list goes on.
We already live cohesively as a region. We shop together, eat together, attend functions together, and struggle together in ways that we don’t always think about. We really want many of the same things, if given a CHOICE.
Residents from Wilmington and Brunswick, New Hanover, and Pender counties are consistently showing that they don’t see their own world within set boundaries. We are a people that regularly talk about the possibilities in terms of a greater spectrum and a wider range of choices.
Our regional center is supported by people from all over. The urban center feeds the region … and the region feeds the urban center. Wilmington gets that, the public gets it, and by 2040 the additional 300,000 people living in our regional will get it too – if we make it happen.
But, it’s not just a matter of understanding the benefit of these symbiotic relationships; it’s about understanding how to make regionalism happen. We need to find a way to plan and act cohesively in “Greater Wilmington.”
2. We can’t continue to hang our hat simply on the “god-given assets” of our area.
Sometimes what’s most interesting about data is looking at more than just the high points. In
the same breakfast polling, we asked attendees what they appreciated most about the living in our region. Climate and natural resources ranked highest in value, which is no surprise – it’s a wonderful place to live. The natural resources and environment is one of our area’s greatest assets – that is why we stay, come or return.
What ranked lowest on the list were “jobs, schools and public safety.” What’s most intriguing about this dichotomy is that the major draw to our area is what comes naturally, and those things over which we have most control aren’t viewed as favorably. We haven’t yet been able to influence or change these social concerns into regional assets.
A strong, vibrant region needs balance and continuity in both natural and social assets to develop. It’s important that we monitor and protect the natural resources that have become our area’s calling card, but we also need to step up our efforts in shaping those other livability factors – such as primary and secondary education, public health care, and affordable housing – things that not only draw people and business to our region, but also keep them here.
3. If we want to improve our economic conditions, the status quo won’t get us there.
Sometimes, data shows us that growth may not be growth at all. And certainly an increase in size or mass is not development.
FOCUS has looked at both population growth and job growth. When we put them side by side, we see something interesting. Both population and job growth are expected to increase at strong rates. But, they are both trending as parallel tracks. What does that mean for our region? The strong public concern around our area’s current economic growth and job development won’t change if left to the status quo. If we’re not happy with our prospects now, we won’t be any more satisfied 25 years from now either. Bottom line – we need development, not just growth. Bigger isn’t necessarily better. Better is what makes the difference in our daily lives and future opportunities. It’s going to take a concerted effort to work together in creating a strong, unified economic development plan to actually develop the economy beyond current needs. The greater Wilmington region of Pender, New Hanover and Brunswick counties together offer the components of land, labor and capital to generate powerful opportunities.
Singularly, we each limit our potential. As a united region, we can pool our resources and tap into our broader creativity and social capital. A plan that builds our region into a stronger economic center will give us the advantage we need to get ahead of the game in creating jobs and expanding our economy opportunities.
By speaking, the public has given us several teaching moments. What do you think?
We expect to uncover other ah-has as we continue our growth research and develop the regional plan for sustainable development. Everyone is encouraged to follow along and contribute in the process. Tap into our FOCUS Resource Center to access maps, data, patterns, trends and networks. We’re sharing the information that can help us define a unified direction and make more balanced development decisions.
Al Sharp is Project Director for FOCUS, a community-based planning consortium. FOCUS empowers local planning groups, businesses, and civic organizations through data gathering and public input, helping them to zero in on new opportunities to thoughtfully grow their own communities and our region. To learn more about FOCUS, sign up to receive our newsletter at focussenc.org.
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