Corey Heim can ride his bike to work from his home on Rogersville Road and head to the sand and surf at Wrightsville Beach when the day’s over if he wants. That’s not something he necessarily could have done if he’d left the area after he graduated from the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
“A lot of people told me, ‘You need to go to Charlotte or Chicago or New York City; you need to go to some big city to work at a big company to get business experience,’” Heim said. “I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to stay in Wilmington and at the beach.”
Heim is now the COO of local company Dry Corp, which is based off Military Cutoff Road and makes waterproof casings. While the Cape Fear region can retain or bring in business leaders like Heim, Dry Corp founder Roy Archambault and other job creators because of their attraction to the coastal life, the area’s seaside status also presents unique challenges when it comes to economic development.
“I think the location is both a blessing and a curse,” said Mike Hargett, director of economic development and planning for Brunswick County. “The blessing part is kind of obvious: It provides for a quality of life that a lot of areas are not able to offer … And I think in today’s environment, quality of life is something that business and industry looks to in terms of their workers being satisfied and happy with their living arrangements and overall well-being.”
The obvious negative, he said, is “we only have a 180-degree radius. Half of our market is ocean, and so that puts us at a disadvantage to an inland that has full 360-degree radius for their market.”
The unique make-up of the Cape Fear region’s environment is another consideration, something that acts as a draw for visitors and residents while also being a potential deterrent to development, officials said.
“We’re surrounded by water, and we’re very protective of our water quality and our environment, and that’s one of the things that makes us a great place,” Wilmington mayor Bill Saffo said. “Citizens have come to expect and want good environmental stewardship of the area.”
Current residents and others who don’t want to see that environment change have shown a willingness to organize against anything that might, as evidenced by the opposition to Titan America’s plans to build a cement plant in Castle Hayne. In March, eight years after the firm’s efforts started, Titan officials announced they had dropped plans for the plant, citing changed cement market conditions as the reason.
In general, companies considering bringing jobs to a community want to know that they’d be welcome, said Adam Jones, regional economist at UNCW. And chemical companies, for example, see the coast as a good location, a cheaper alternative to having to transport raw materials brought in from overseas to an inland location only to use up half of those materials in the production process, Jones explained.
“We’ve sent signals to a lot of those [heavy industrial] companies to say, ‘We don’t really want you here.’ I don’t know that that’s necessarily a bad thing. We want companies looking at Wilmington that are the types of companies that we want … nevertheless, it’s still a challenge we face in trying to bring businesses to town,” Jones said.
Some businesses are a good fit because of the coast. When Mike Duncan started Sage Island almost 20 years ago, Wilmington was the natural place for the company’s headquarters, he said.
“We do web design and marketing work with a wide range of clients, many of which are focused on or benefit from coastal life. The real estate and the action sports industries in particular have offered us a lot of opportunities, and it’s been exciting to use the coastal region to our advantage in that sense,” Duncan said. “For Sage Island, working and living in Wilmington has been a great decision, for our business goals and for our quality of life.”
The state and the region are growing quickly, officials say, in some cases drawing in those who don’t mind making sacrifices.
“There’s so many people that want to live here that are willing to take lower pay to live here or willing to pay higher prices for houses,” Jones said.
And as the population numbers climb, so do the opportunities to provide goods and services and find employment.
“If you think about Wilmington as sort of being the core – as Pender County and Brunswick County continue to grow farther out, there are more of these companies around to be serviced from Wilmington,” Jones said. “Wilmington will start to look like a better place to put a branch office for banks or any other one of these professional business service companies. so we’ll start to see that grow. It’s going to take some time to get there. We just have to hit critical mass for some of these things.”
Along those lines, the city of Wilmington stands to gain if companies choose to locate facilities in either of two 1,000-acre, state-certified sites in Brunswick County – the Mid-Atlantic Industrial Rail Park and the International Logistics Park, both off U.S. 74.
Earlier this year, Brunswick County submitted the rail park site for consideration in response to a request for information from an unnamed tire manufacturing company. According to RFI documents, the company wants to build a facility in the U.S. that would lead to an investment of $485 million and the potential creation of 1,000 jobs over six years.
The RFI documents appeared briefly in emails on the county’s public terminal, which was immediately shut down after news reports about the RFI surfaced.
“We don’t have any new information currently about it,” Hargett said when asked whether the county is still in the running for the project.
But a company like the tire manufacturer choosing the Brunswick County site would have an impact on the entire region, officials said.
“That’s the kind of development that will help Wilmington as well because when it comes in, then you can sell services to the tire plant or whatever it is that’s out there from Wilmington,” Jones said. “That starts to create this atmosphere – before you know it, Wilmington goes from being a small town to a fairly large city.”
The lack of a strong state incentive program has hurt and continues to hurt the Cape Fear region’s and the state’s recruiting chances, Saffo said, pointing to the area’s loss of potential Continental Tire and Caterpillar plants and some film industry revenue.
“We regained a little bit of it [the film industry] because of the grant program, but these are three direct examples of companies that we should have had in this community that we lost, that could have employed a lot of people,” Saffo said. “I think it’s problematic.”
Local incentives, provided in the Wilmington and New Hanover County municipal budgets to support existing companies that meet job and investment milestones, are helping, Saffo said.
But he used Charleston, South Carolina’s economic development successes, including the creation of new jobs by Boeing, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz plants, as examples of how another state has used major state-funded incentives to its advantage.
Like the Wilmington area, a big part of Charleston’s appeal is its quality of life, said Kenneth Canty, president and CEO of Freeland Construction Co. Inc., headquartered in North Charleston.
“The best part about Charleston is the fact that it’s a wonderful place to be. The city’s really spent a lot of time building up a livability factor that is definitely one of the best in the country,” said Canty, who moved from Boston to Charleston in 2002 to work on the construction of the city’s Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge over the Cooper River.
Since Canty bought a majority share of his company, a general contracting firm, in 2008, Freeland Construction has grown by about 1,400 percent, Canty said. But along with growth in the Charleston area has come the need for better infrastructure, he said, and Charleston competes with inland cities for infrastructure dollars from the state.
“The construction of the Ravenel Bridge was a great start, but we’ve got to bring everything up to that standard,” he said.
In the Wilmington area, infrastructure improvements, such as efforts to extend water and sewer along U.S. 421, are paving the way for more potential economic development, officials said.
Saffo said he believes an increase in the area’s room occupancy tax of 6 percent could help offset the cost of infrastructure needs. But state legislators would have to allow the increase, and they’re under pressure from hospitality industry lobbyists not to do so, he said.
While infrastructure improvements, including adding more bike lanes, are important, Heim said he recommends that those leading economic development efforts continue to focus on the area’s quality of life.
“Keep the reasons people want to be in Wilmington intact – keep the environment, the beaches,” he said. “The natural aspects of it are why people want to be here.”
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