Question: What does it take to attract an established business to Wilmington?
Answer: A lot of hard work, and maybe a bit of luck.
Those are the sentiments of the people in the Cape Fear region who work to make it happen. They say it is also a game of speed.
“Companies today are always in a hurry, the faster they can get to market the better,” said Robin Spinks, co-owner of Greenfield, a Wilmington- based economic development consulting firm for buyers, sellers and allies in the business of business locations – in other words a site selector.
She’s in the business of helping the buyer, meaning a company looking for a location, and the seller, being the communities and regional and statewide organizations trying to recruit those companies. The business of placing business is big business.
“We aren’t the only nice town east of the Mississippi, and this is an incredibly competitive game,” said economist Adam Jones at University of North Carolina Wilmington’s Cameron School of Business. “It is very easy to get eliminated from the site selection process. There are over 3,000 counties in the U.S., all playing the same game.”
Leading the play for the Wilmington region is Wilmington Business Development, a private, not-for-profit organization designed to assist in company’s expansion/relocation efforts. Wilmington Business Development serves the New Hanover and Pender counties and the city of Wilmington.
“It’s often said economic development is an ensemble, not a solo act. No one individual or entity can effectively and efficiently address every need of every business,” said Scott Satterfield, CEO of Wilmington Business Development.
“Different projects have different requirements. When there’s a rail or port need, we bring in our transportation partners. When water or power needs are intensive, our utility allies are front and center.”
He said the group also turns to Cape Fear Community and University of North Carolina Wilmington.
“The various players can be seen as sections of an orchestra, with WBD’s role is akin to that of a conductor,” he said.
“WBD handles recruiting,” said Scott Czechlewski, director of communications for the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce. “The chamber’s role in economic development is to help build an environment conducive to businesses wanting to locate here – quality of life, regulations, permitting, infrastructure, etc. We don’t typically have direct involvement in the site selection process itself, unless it’s meeting with folks to discuss the general business climate and some of the areas I just mentioned.”
Other entities also are involved.
“As for site selection and economic development, we have to promote the assets that we have and the investments that we have made and will continue to make,” said Tyler Newman, president and CEO of Business Alliance for a Sound Economy. “It is critical that we continue to have a regional approach – such as the coordination between our economic development partners or formal partnerships on major infrastructure investment, like what has happened up the [U.S.] 421 corridor.”
What is Wilmington’s big play, in becoming a desirable site for a company to consider?
“The Wilmington area’s great asset is its lifestyle,” Wilmington City Councilman Paul Lawler said. “Raleigh has government. Charlotte has a bigger airport and a depth of business in many categories. The Triangle has major universities and a host of related skills. The Triad has highways and convenient transportation to major markets. We have a very desirable place to live, and that’s important for businesses hiring people who want and can demand a great lifestyle. It’s our ace.”
But is that ace enough?
“Quality of life is important to us because we live here but not as much to a CEO or shareholder in another state or country. Profitability and ease of doing business are high on their list,” Jones said. “Quality of life matters to the company only in its effect on the company’s ability to attract talent.
“So what are the financial reasons companies might want to be here?” Jones added.
“Location close to a market, or close to a supplier, or a good quality labor force at a reasonable price. How these factors fit together differs by company.”
Companies with inexpensive transportation costs, such as software or app companies, can locate anywhere, so they’re primarily looking for quality talent, Jones said.
“Other companies with high transport costs, think Styrofoam plates, which are mostly air and relatively expensive to ship, will want to locate close to their markets – less likely to be Wilmington because of our coastal location,” he said.
The area’s geographic limitations also can play a factor, Spinks said.
“You also have to realize if it’s a market-based project, consumer-oriented, then you can’t be on the coast because half your market, your geography is the ocean,” said
Spinks, who has been in the site selection field since the 1970s.
“For someone to be interested in Wilmington, they are really going to have to need something specific that is in this area. That eliminates a huge number of companies that might be looking. That has to be a real reason to come to the coast.
“That makes us a lot less competitive than a Raleigh or Greensboro or even an Asheville, which has geography that has a full radius,” she added.
Ultimately, according to Lawler, it’s a game of elimination.
“It’s important to appreciate that economic development is really a process of elimination,” Lawler said. “Companies identify their requirements and then eliminate the communities that don’t meet those needs. Need a certain size airport? Eliminate all communities without that airport. Need a certain skill set in the workforce? Eliminate all communities that don’t have that skill set. Finally, they get down to the communities that meet all their needs.”
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