The stage continues to be set for job growth in the Wilmington area, though there’s still more work to be done, local officials and business leaders say.
A check-in on the progress leaders have made on six economic development priorities selected two years ago shows that to be the case.
In August 2014, city and county elected officials chose the tasks from a longer list of recommendations included in a report by Atlanta-based consulting firm Garner Economics.
The Garner report remains relevant, County Manager Chris Coudriet said recently. But Coudriet and others said the analysis and the six priorities chosen from it would likely need to be addressed again soon.
“I think we’re going to have to have a conversation sooner or later about revisiting and refreshing the report. But there have been a number of things accomplished,” Coudriet said.
Here is a look at the status of those six priorities:
STATUS: A project moving forward to extend water and sewer along U.S. 421 from the Isabel Holmes Bridge to the Pender County line puts a big check mark on this Garner report priority, said Tyler Newman, president and CEO of Business Alliance for a Sound Economy.
“The county commissioners, legislators and [Cape Fear Public Utility Authority] should be applauded for their continued push to provide utilities to that critical 421 corridor,” Newman said.
The New Hanover County budget approved in June includes, through a variety of funding sources, a capital project ordinance to construct the water and sewer lines.
“I’ll refer to an actual quote from the Garner report: Water and sewer on 421 is transformative from a jobs creation perspective. That is, for all intents and purposes, the industrial corridor in New Hanover County,” Coudriet said.
With a design agreement in place, water and sewer along that corridor should be available by July 2019, he said.
STATUS: Incentives for companies in the area are included in the city and county budgets for this fiscal year, which started July 1.
What is left to be done is to create an incentives “playbook” for New Hanover, officials said.
“I think site selectors need some framework to help in the decision-making process,” Coudriet said.
With the budget out of the way and so much progress made on 421, more attention can be paid to the creation of that policy, said Beth Schrader, the countys’ chief strategy and budget officer.
Even without the playbook, the county has consistently shown its willingness to provide incentives, Schrader and Coudriet said. For example, in 2015, Wilmington and New Hanover County officials voted to provide pharmaceutical company Alcami with $500,000 in performance-based incentives over a five-year period if the company chose to expand here.
“Performance-based incentives highlight our community’s willingness to support companies like Alcami that are making multi-million dollar investments in greater Wilmington. As Alcami grows its global footprint in the life sciences industry, it inevitably shines a positive light on our region – in addition to the obvious financial and non-financial benefits the company’s expansion brings our region,” said Scott Satterfield, CEO of Wilmington Business Development. “We want growth-minded companies to see our local governments as strategic partners in their plans. Sensible incentive policies do this, highlighting our pro-business attitude while also being responsible stewards of the public good.”
STATUS: In 2015, economic development agencies in the three counties set up the Wilmington Regional Marketing Initiative, a micro-regional approach.
Steve Yost, president of The Southeastern Partnership, a regional economic development organization that helped lead the micro-region effort, said, “All three organizations leverage funding to make this thing work.”
Working together is critical, officials say.
“Businesses today are very globally oriented. Their strategies rarely consider where city or county limits begin and end – and sometimes even state boundaries don’t matter. Marketing regionally makes sense from the business-factors standpoint, but it also offers greater efficiency in moving greater Wilmington’s message out to global decision makers and influencers,” Satterfield said.
The micro-region initiative is expected to gain momentum with the addition of an economic development manager to Brunswick County’s Economic Development & Planning department, Yost said.
John Allen, who previously worked as community development specialist for the city of Southport, was expected as of press time to start in the role of Brunswick’s economic development manager on June 27.
Yost and Coudriet said the cooperation between the agencies could take time to bear fruit.
“It can’t be measured in months. It really has to be measured in years,” Coudriet said.
STATUS: Newman said this suggestion is being addressed via the regional aspects of the city’s and county’s comprehensive plans.
“From a business perspective, having clear plans, regulations, policies and processes will facilitate existing and expanding businesses in the region,” he said.
City Councilman Neil Anderson said he would still like to see a one-stop shop for businesses when it comes to certain city and county requirements. “The goal there is how do we really streamline that and get it so it’s real easy for those people to not get confused,” he said.
In terms of startups, the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship continues to encourage those kind of companies, according to a presentation UNCW leaders made to the city council on June 20.
“Entrepreneurship is critical for economic development,” said UNCW Chancellor Jose Sartarelli to council members.
The city included $70,000 in its budget for this fiscal year for the CIE, but Sartarelli said during the presentation that the center would be bringing a detailed financial explanation back to the city soon after questions surfaced about whether that funding provided a good enough return for taxpayers.
STATUS: Progress on this recommendation would likely come from the state level, officials said.
For example, Newman said, a bill filed in the state Senate in May provides a wide variety of provisions and funding designed to boost economic development efforts statewide, though it was unclear at press time whether lawmakers would make any final decisions on the potential legislation before the session’s end.
Another source of sustainable funding, Coudriet said, could eventually be a quarter-cent sales tax increase but only if lawmakers allow such a tax for general purposes to be put up for a public vote.
STATUS: Film tax credits were replaced by a two-year, $30 million-a-year grant program in 2015.
“It works. It definitely reduces the amount of production from what we used to have, but yet we’re still busy here,” Johnny Griffin, director of the Wilmington Regional Film Commission, said of the grant program. “We’ve got two projects in town, and things are moving forward.”
As for the Garner report itself, officials expect to bring a group together again to consider what’s next for all of the recommendations.
“Once a year, twice a year, we ought to get back together and just look at it, go through our checklist, see if there’s any low-hanging fruit that we can go get,” Anderson said.
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