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Community, Business Leaders Discuss Inequalities And Growth

By Cece Nunn, posted Feb 11, 2015
Addressing inequalities throughout the Cape Fear region will help improve the bottom line for everyone in the future, officials said Wednesday at an event hosted by a regional planning consortium.

FOCUS, a growth and sustainability program developed by more than a dozen agencies and funded by a $1 million federal grant, presented its Equitable Growth Profile for the Cape Fear Region on Wednesday morning and held a panel discussion on some of the profile’s findings.

“Inequality and poverty contribute to many of the problems we face in this community,” said Earl Sheridan, Wilmington city councilman, as he addressed those who attended the FOCUS event at Cape Fear Community College’s North Campus.

The Equitable Growth Profile for the Cape Fear Region, developed by a research- and action-based institute based in California called PolicyLink and a University of Southern California program, outlines demographic trends and indicators of equitable growth in an effort to highlight “strengths and areas of vulnerability in relation to the goal of building a strong, resilient economy,” the profile says. The profile defines the region as New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties.

It will be up to the community, including business leaders and elected officials, to use the information FOCUS has gathered to meet the challenges the profile identifies, said Adrienne Cox, project manager at FOCUS.

“FOCUS is handing the baton to you all,” Cox said Wednesday, adding that public-private partnerships can be one of the major vehicles for future change, a statement echoed by speakers throughout the event.

As she spoke about some of the profile’s findings, a senior associate with PolicyLink highlighted a PowerPoint slide showing images of impoverished areas, including crime scene tape and abandoned buildings in disrepair.

“We expect them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” PolicyLink's Sarita Turner said, referring to children who live in areas like the one shown on the slide.

But, Turner said, it’s unrealistic to expect a child to aspire to greatness in an environment that lacks opportunity and is permeated regularly, for example, by the “sound of gunshots and smell of urine.”

That’s another reason why equity, defined in the profile as “full inclusion of all residents in the economic, social, and political life of the region, regardless of race, ethnicity, age, gender, neighborhood of residence, or other characteristics,” is essential, Turner and other speakers said.

“If we continue in this way, this whole income irregularity issue – it’s going to continue to affect us in a greater and greater way,” Turner said.

The growth profile says although the unemployment rate in the region is declining, the rate is substantially higher for black residents compared to white residents, and the median hourly wage decline all races have experienced since 2000 has been worse for black workers: 8 percent compared to 3 percent for white employees. But Latino workers earn $6.80 an hour less than do white workers and $2.60 an hour less than do black employees, the profile’s researchers found.

Meanwhile, the area’s Latino population has grown at the fastest rate, expanding by 189 percent in 10 years, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics cited by the profile, while the number of black residents has declined, from making up 24 percent of the region’s population in 1980 to 14 percent in 2010.

“This is a great region if you’re 65 years old, ready to retire and you’re white,” said Pastor Robert Campbell of New Beginnings Christian Church, one of the speakers Wednesday morning who was asked to give a perspective on the equity profile.

Campbell said the important thing now, knowing what the issues are, is to get people together who are willing to work hard, “take small victories and begin to turn this thing around.”

Referring to population estimates that add tens of thousands of people to the region over the next decade, Kurt Taylor, founder and CEO of app developer NextGlass, said, “We need to be investing in bringing those good jobs to the area.”

Incentives are an important factor, said Taylor, who explained that his company will be headquartered in a building in downtown Wilmington undergoing renovations started last year that were eligible for the state’s now-expired historic preservation tax credits.

Marie MacDonald, president of the Lower Cape Fear Human Resources Association and human resources director at the growing background-check company CastleBranch, said exposing people to opportunities as soon as possible can help lead to more equity in the future.   

“If we do not target our youth at a very young age, we are going to continue to talk about this year after year,” she said referencing a Student at Work program she’s been involved in.

Like Student at Work, other programs in the region currently aim to improve equity and increase opportunities. Another speaker Wednesday, Ben David, district attorney for Pender and New Hanover counties, said Hometown Hires has put 97 people back to work already.

Hometown Hires is an initiative between private, public and nonprofit organizations that matches residents with local employers “who want to help break the cycle of generational poverty in the Cape Fear Area,” the program’s website says.

“Lifting one person out of poverty might involve a whole family of nine or 10 people,” David said. “That’s a game changer.”

Links to the Equity Growth Profile of the Cape Fear Region and other research FOCUS has put together, including its Health & Wellness Gap Analysis report, are available on the consortium's website.
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