The Wilmington Chamber of Commerce’s flagship initiative, Cape Fear Future, released its second annual Regional Economic Scorecard on Wednesday to a captive audience at the convention center downtown.
The bottom line? The Wilmington region continues to exhibit steady economic growth, but there are opportunities for improvement in several areas.
“The aim of the scorecard is to give our community and its leaders a baseline from which to develop goals that will enable economic progress,” Dick Blouse, interim president and CEO of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, wrote in the report’s introduction. “The scorecard provides an objective depiction of where our region stands against peer cities that compete with us for the skilled workers, new businesses, and entrepreneurs who are driving the world economy.”
The scorecard was first launched last year, after a task force of business and community leaders selected seven metropolitan areas, based on population size and a mix of economic assets comparable to the Wilmington region, to act as peer cities. These cities are Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Asheville; Savannah, Georgia; Mobile, Alabama; Roanoke, Virginia; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Pensacola, Florida.
Charleston and Raleigh were selected as aspirational cities because of their exceptional growth and ability to maintain quality of place.
Scores were presented in five areas: human capital, innovative activity, entrepreneurial environment, quality of place, and traded sector employment.
Each indicator is compared to the national average. For example, an index of 110 for the Wilmington region means that this region is performing 10 percent above the U.S. average. On the flip side, an index of 90 means the region is performing 10 percent below the U.S. average.
The human capital index scored Wilmington at 103, a rise of four points from last year. By comparison, Raleigh was at 117 for this category and Myrtle Beach was at 83.
The region’s lowest score came in the innovative activity index, at 60. This rates the environment on how it generates new ideas and new businesses, and new products and processes for existing businesses. The score of 60 is a 12 point improvement from last year.
“This is very difficult to measure,” explained Adam Jones, the UNCW economist who pulled together all the data. “But we are seeing an uptick in this area.”
With the exception of Raleigh, all the peer cities scored below the U.S. average of 100 in the innovative activity category.
“The Innovative Activity Index indicates that the work we’re doing as a community is creating an environment that supports business formation and growth,” said Diane Durance, director of the UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, in the scorecard. “It’s encouraging to see a positive movement in the index as the university and other area institutions of higher learning continue to graduate a workforce equipped with the essential skills needed by our most promising companies and to provide entrepreneurs throughout the region with the knowledge, connections and resources they need for success.”
In the entrepreneurial environment category, the Wilmington region scored higher than the U.S. average, at 106. In fact that score was above all the peer cities as well as both Raleigh and Charleston.
“Wilmington is ripe with the opportunity to usher in a new age of economic development based around entrepreneurship,” said Sean Ahlum, director of business development at Castle Branch. “Our city is known for its quality of place and possesses a strong economic base in real estate, manufacturing, tourism and the creative arts.”
Wilmington also beat the U.S. average in the quality of place index, with a score of 109. Asheville was tops at 115, whole Mobile came in with the low score at 80.
The region did not do well in the traded sector employment index. This score looks at employment that produces goods and services sold outside the region and provides a source of income for the region as a whole. Wilmington scored a 66 in this category, topping only Pensacola and Myrtle Beach. Savannah and Chattanooga both scored 96. None of the peer cities reached the U.S average of 100.
“There are still areas of opportunity,” UNCW economist Jones said after the scorecard presentation. “The traded sector is an area of opportunity where we need to put some focus, quality of place is still extremely high here, but there are some areas of concern there and areas of opportunity there as well.”
Overall the chamber reported several key areas to focus on based on the scorecard:
- Employment: Economic growth continues to be steady, but growth in average annual pay continues to lag.
- Entrepreneurship: The region continues to be defined by its small businesses. While there has been improvement in the business services sector since last year, the numbers are still well below the national average.
- Traded Sector Businesses: The lack of a strong traded sector correlates with Wilmington’s status as a community of small businesses. As traded sector jobs tend to pay more and therefore stimulate growth in regional wealth, there is significant opportunity to improve the local traded sector industry.
- Crime Rate: As part of the quality of place index, data indicates a sharp change in the Wilmington region’s position on the crime rate index, ranking at 13 percent worse than the national average.
The chamber plans to continue releasing these scorecards annually, using the same peer cities for comparison.