Looking through the long lens, what is visible on the horizon for the greater Wilmington 2016?
Business developments late in 2015 indicate that PPD will bear watching possible sale or IPO.
With new film incentives in place 60 million in grant funds available for the next 18 months, Wilmington could again become a project magnet. Officials have announced a new TV series shooting and a strong possibility of a second. Meanwhile, the Wilmington Regional Film Commission continues field inquiries.
Observers will also be watching Vertex’s growth, especially in light of its December announcement of a $212 million order for 2,800 rail cars.
Meanwhile, there’s evidence of major real estate developments in Wilmington’s downtown and elsewhere in the tri-county region, continued innovation in the startup community, new programs at local higher education institutions and ramped-up tourism initiatives.
As legislators convene for the 2016 short session of the General Assembly, each will have priority issues to see addressed.
Here are some areas that are coming into focus for 2016.
Home sales broke records in 2015, a strong trend expected to continue this year, Realtors said.
“All evidence at this point in time shows that we’re still going to have a very healthy market in 2016,” said Sherri Pickard, 2015 president of the Wilmington Regional Association of Realtors, on Dec. 10.
With existing homes selling and more under construction, new businesses are likely to come to Wilmington in the New Year, commercial brokers said.
“I think 2016 is going to still be a really good year for commercial real estate,” said Grayson Powell, managing partner at Coldwell Banker Commercial Sun Coast Partners. “There doesn’t appear to be anything on the horizon that’s there to slow it down a whole lot.”
New shopping centers will be coming out of the ground, including The Pointe at Barclay at Independence Boulevard and South 17th Street in Wilmington’s midtown district. The retail project will be anchored by a 14-screen Stone Theaters movie theater, which could be open before the end of 2016, said Hill Rogers, broker in charge with Cameron Management, the company working with Charlotte-based Collett on the commercial portion of a 600-acre master planned development by Cameron Properties Land Co. The movie theater’s opening is expected to be followed by the opening of restaurants in front of the theater, with a grocery store and other businesses on the way after that. The restaurants that lease the spaces could be announced as early as this month or next, Rogers said in December.
Ogden Marketplace, a new 30,000-square-foot shopping center at the corner of Market Street and Middle Sound Loop Road, could break ground by March this year, said Charlie Worthen, principal at the company developing the center, Halpern Enterprises Inc. The center is expected to be anchored by a Publix grocery store.
New stores are planned at Mayfaire Town Center with the proposed addition of 90,000 square feet of retail space and construction potentially beginning in the first quarter, according to the company that owns the center.
While additional retail development is coming, brokers say the region could still struggle to attract more large employers, pointing to New Hanover County’s special use permit ordinance as one of the reasons.
“The special use permit is a huge barrier because it says you can’t do anything until we’ve all met and we’ve all met you and decided whether we like you,” Powell said.
A company looking for a new home would be more likely to choose a city like Charleston, South Carolina, Powell said, where there are shovel-ready sites for building new facilities.
“I can dig tomorrow or I can spend the next six months trying to see if I can get past all these different committees. Where am I going to go?” Powell said. “It’s a very poor design for economic development when you create hurdles for a company to come. It’s not very inviting, and I can’t predict that’s going to change in 2016.”
But over the next two to three years, county officials plan to update some of New Hanover County’s ordinances, using a plan that has been in the works since 2013. The county is still reviewing the fourth chapter of its five-chapter comprehensive plan, but officials anticipate being finished with the project sometime this spring pending approval by county commissioners, said county long-range planner Jennifer Rigby.
The city of Wilmington has been developing a comprehensive plan at the same time, with the next steps being a final review and potential adoption by the city council.
An increased level of local entrepreneurial activity in 2015 provided momentum for even more initiatives in 2016 as Wilmington gains a reputation as a fertile spot for startups to sprout and grow.
The landscape contains a wide range of startups, from banking software company nCino – that began in 2012 as a Live Oak Bank spinoff – to a slew of very early-stage ventures hard at work at University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, tekMountain and coworking spaces around town.
“More existing startups are growing, and as they mature, they will create more startups,” said Jim Kittridge, founder of Brand Assurance, a young Wilmington company that helps apartment communities build their online reputations.
Kittridge has drawn on local resources to get Brand Assurance off to a solid start, landing some large customers and, in December, a $50,000 grant from NC IDEA. Brand Assurance was the first Wilmington winner of the group’s grant, which the company will use to speed growth and expand its marketing efforts.
The area now has more startup- friendly technical infrastructure, including coworking spaces, maker spaces, the open device lab at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, startup bootcamps and educational events. tekMountain, opened in 2014 at CastleBranch Corp., is part of that infrastructure. Designed as an incubator space, it provides startups access to mentors, industry experts and capital through formal and informal programs and relationships in and beyond Wilmington.
“Currently we have 16 companies represented in our space, and would like to see that number double in 2016,” said Sean Ahlum, director of business development.
Because of burgeoning resources, several entrepreneurs who had left Wilmington are taking another look at the community as a place to grow, said Jim Roberts, who himself launched two new resources in 2015: the Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington and Wilmington Angels for Local Entrepreneurs.
The outlook looks sunny for one local venture in particular that has attracted investment. Next Glass plans to move all its operations into new quarters downtown in early January, according to chairman George Taylor.
In December, the company hired a team to work with sales manager Brandon Walker. The team will sell new business products launching in the first quarter. Walker believes prospects for Next Glass are bright.
“We have a pretty firm grasp on who we are and what market we serve,” he said. “In 2016 we will make a name for ourselves.”
As Wilmington continues to prepare this year for the influx of visitors who will attend the PGA Tour’s Wells Fargo Championship golf tournament in 2017, new hotel rooms and attractions are coming soon throughout the region.
The announcement in December that the PPD Beach 2 Battleship triathlon event has become part of the Ironman network may bring more people to the area in the fall of this year.
At Carolina Beach, a Hampton Inn & Suites with more than 100 rooms is under construction at 1 Harper Ave. and is on track for a potential fall opening, said Jerry Haire, project manager for the town of Carolina Beach.
Haire said the town is updating its plans for extending the Carolina Beach Boardwalk, after N.C. Coastal Resources Commission in November approved the town’s third request for the project. The 875-foot extension, which would run from Harper Avenue in front of the new hotel to the Pelican Lane public access, is expected to go to bid in January, with construction potentially beginning in March.
“We’re looking at various options for phasing the construction for the summer season, and it may involve doing part of the work in the spring and if needed by continuing in the fall,” Haire said. “But there’s no final decision on that yet.”
The town celebrated the completion of renovations to the boardwalk, a popular tourist spot, last year.
Recent and upcoming building projects in downtown Wilmington are also expected to draw more visitors to boost the economy.
A 92-room Hampton Inn is also under construction in downtown Wilmington with an opening planned later this year. Construction crews are expected to start building more hotels downtown in the coming months, including the Wilmington Convention Center hotel, a 186-room Embassy Suites; and a 125-room Aloft Hotel franchise by Starwood Hotels planned to be incorporated in the Coastline Conference and Event Center.
Along with more accommodations, more businesses could be calling downtown home.
“I do see a continued improvement in the variety and quality of retail in downtown with Redix being kind of the flagship that came on [in 2015], but we’ve had some other retailers that came on at the end of last year . And we’ve seen an upgrading in some of the shops as well,” said Ed Wolverton, president and CEO of Wilmington Downtown Inc. “So that is certainly going to be trend.”
One of those businesses could be a grocery store, he said.
“I think there will be some movement toward meeting some of the [downtown] demand for groceries. It may not be of a … chain store, but I think you will see some expansion into the market by entrepreneurs to meet the demand for grocery items,” Wolverton said.
If voters approve the Connect NC bond issue in March, both CFCC and UNCW will receive funds to make physical improvements.
Earmarked for UNCW is $66 million to construct a 165,000-square-foot academic facility in its College of Health and Human Services.
An allocation of nearly $6 million for CFCC would go toward new construction, repairs and renovations. CFCC already has county approval to move forward this year on construction of three new North Campus buildings, designed to accommodate expanding vocational- tech programs including a new veterinary technology program.
Already, the college’s Humanities and Fine Arts Center in downtown Wilmington is drawing large audiences to performances, and plans are to add even more shows to the spring and summer 2016 season, according to CFCC president Amanda Lee.
Two CFCC programs that launched in 2015 – baking and pastry, and interpretive education – have proved successful and will continue in the new year, Lee said.
The college is working to transition its certified nursing assistant program from continuing education status to a part of the regular curriculum, which will make the popular program available to more students and qualify it to offer financial assistance.
“We’re also looking at adding an auto customization program,” she said.
The new year will see the rollout of UNCW’s strategic plan, developed during fall semester of 2015, according to chancellor Jose Sartarelli.
The plan will be a road map to achieving Sartarelli’s major goals, which include a concerted effort to make the campus more global and diverse in vision and student body makeup, to enhance recruitment of what he terms “the best” freshmen and transfer students, to bolster online and distance education offerings, and to add master’s and Ph.D. degree programs that align with UNCW’s mission and strengths and for which there is a need in the market, the chancellor has said.
Another major area of focus for the university is to improve retention of students, to increase six-year graduation rates and to continue narrowing the gap between the rate for white students and the rate for students of color, Sartarelli said.
In the near term, UNCW is making plans for a major event in March: the formal investiture of the chancellor. Margaret Spellings, the UNC system’s new president, is expected to attend.
The N.C. General Assembly holds a short session in 2016. While many major issues, from business incentives of various kinds to sales tax distribution, were resolved in the very long session of 2015, some large matters remain.
Tax reform looms large among those likely to demand legislators’ attention this year.
Of the delegation from Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties, all incumbents except for Rick Catlin (R-New Hanover) have declared their intent to seek another term.