Overall traded sector employment growth in the region dropped compared the majority of its peer cities, according to the new Wilmington Regional Economic Scorecard released Wednesday at the Wilmington Convention Center.
This is the third scorecard presented by Cape Fear Future, an initiative of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, as a benchmark for the region against peer cities using hard data and way to see if the region has improved in key areas of economic development, according to officials.
The annual release of the scorecard is intended to help business and community leaders and elected officials make decisions concerning factors that affect the region’s economic health, according to chamber officials. The scorecard consists of data for New Hanover and Pender counties (the Wilmington Metropolitan Statistical Area), as well as Brunswick County when data was available at the county level.
The economic scorecard sizes up the defined Wilmington region with comparative cities, Asheville; Chattanooga, Tennessee; Mobile, Alabama; Myrtle Beach, South Carolina; Pensacola, Florida; Roanoke, Virginia; and Savannah, Georgia. It was also ranked with what the report described as aspirational cities Raleigh and Charleston, South Carolina.
"The regional economy is a lot like a road trip. It's a journey with no end almost. And as we go through it, sometimes we're going to find that we are on a different road," said Adam Jones, regional economist and professor at University of North Carolina Wilmington, who presented the findings to an audience of about 200.
" ... So when we talk about these changes in numbers, as something goes down, don't take it as the sky is falling. We have not failed. Realize this is a story about an evolution and a change in the economy over time. And we should be having the conversation [about] do we like this road?"
In trade sector employment the Wilmington region fell below most of its peer cities, with an index score of 64 in comparison to a national average -- a 2 point drop from last year's report. The national average is set at a score of 100, with scores in the report ranking above or below that average.
"This is probably a little more important than what folks may think about what it is," said Jason Wheeler, CEO of Pathfinder Wealth and chairman of the scorecard committee. "What the traded sector is, is basically bringing other people's dollars into our community.
"I think that we look at that as a key indicator as well, and this is something that both public and private sector can collaborate and see where there may be an opportunity to improve this."
The opportunity to improve in the traded sector was also noted in last year's economic scorecard.
The emphasis within the region has changed, Jones said. Nationally there is a sift into the more service-based economy, "but it's been more of a dramatic shift in the Wilmington area," he said.
Mostly, the community thinks of large companies like Corning and GE, Jones said. Thinking more broadly about the sector, there may be opportunities for growth in this area through companies that people typically don't associate with a traded sector -- companies such as Live Oak Bank and nCino, he said.
"This isn't our strong point. I think there are opportunities here. And when I say there are opportunities, this is where we need to think broadly about what those opportunities are," Jones said.
UNCW was also listed as an opportunity in this area, which is now sending more products to its students outside the region with distance education, he said.
"We've seen some declines in some [traded sector] employment in those sectors but shifts toward other sectors," he added. Business and professional services have more than doubled across the board, along with hospitality and tourism for the region.
"We have seen a dramatic change in where folks are employed. Now whether or not that's good this is a value judgment. We want the community to be involved," he said.
In the Innovative Activity index, the Wilmington region scored 60, ranking top among its peer cities. Still, that score was a 9-point drop from last year's report, and fell below its two aspirational cities, with Raleigh topping at 188.
The innovative index measures areas such as employment in technical positions, patents issued and science-related graduate students.
Jones said there are opportunities in this area, especially in the area of knowledge workers and those in technical positions in computer, science and engineering jobs. Another note for improvement was in the number of patents issued in the region, Jones said.
Measuring the talents and abilities of the workforce, the Human Capital index fell 3 points from last year, with a score of 100, meaning it matched the national average. But the area still placed above
most cities in the report with the exception of Roanoke and Charleston at 103 and Raleigh, which topped again in this index at 125.
This index is based off indicators looking at ratios of knowledge workers, the employment rate and high school and college graduates. For the Wilmington region, this score is was driven by a change in knowledge workers, Jones said, "As we lose the really technical, the really high skilled employment, that shows up in both of this indices," he said.
In just the knowledge sector indicator alone, which is based off a 2016 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, the Wilmington region ranked second among its peer cities but dropped from an employment index of 107 in last year's report to 99 this year.
Jones didn't share optimism about the knowledge and technical workers in the region, calling it a need for improvement.
A notable index, where the Wilmington region has been strong over the past three years of the scorecard, is the region's entrepreneurial environment. According to that index, the region scored 98, placing at the top of its peer cities.
Jones attributed the strength of this ranking to the number of small- to mid-sized business within the region and the gains recently in proprietors income shares. This index measures this area, as well as total establishments, proprietor's income share, and business services.
"I think this is a positive sign that we see the folks that are risk takers and entrepreneurial, having more income and capital in their pockets, which does well for the future. So I think this is one that we can be excited about," Jones said.
Though Jones said challenges lie on the business services side, in terms of the ratio of businesses that provide services to other services compared to other cities, much of which he attributed to the nature of being a coastal city.
"We want to look for where are the firms that have the right set of preferences, and the right entrepreneurial attitude such that we can bring resources to them and help them grow," he said.
The Wilmington area also ranked at the top in the Quality of Place Index, which scored Wilmington at 115, just below Asheville at 116. This was a 1 point gain for the region from last year.
This is a large part due to strides made by law enforcement in the region in lowering crime, Jones said. Also the community is scoring high on health care access, culture and recreation and shorter commute times from the workplace to home, Jones said.
To read the full Wilmington Regional Economic Scorecard report click here