Flying into Wilmington for the first time in 2007, I kept waiting to see a break in the trees.
The plane had already started descending before some buildings came into view. We landed a few minutes later without seeing many signs of commerce.
For someone in search of a vibrant business community, it wasn’t a promising start.
Driving around downtown, PPD’s massive, modern, soon-to-open headquarters appeared like an alien installation amid all the historic buildings.
Common wisdom in the Business Journal world was these types of publications wouldn’t work in markets this small. A lot of business news revolves around public companies and high-flying upstarts.
In 2000, when Joy Allen started Greater Wilmington Business (“Journal” would be added later), Mayfaire was still four years away from its grand opening and any reference to a live oak related to trees.
Still, the publication quickly filled a need with coverage of real estate, hospitality, health care, finance and other important local industries.
Soon after that 2007 flight, I bought the Business Journal as well as WILMA magazine from Joy, and the vibrancy of our business community hasn’t disappointed (aside from that missing megaport in Brunswick County.)
Looking at our region on this 20-year anniversary of the Business Journal, two things stand out – we’ve made impressive progress, and we need to get our act together.
First, the good news.
Large corporations with a long-standing, significant presence in our region such as Corning, GE, Verizon and PPD are still major contributors to the local economy.
Health care, hospitality, higher education and real estate continue drawing people and their wallets to our area.
Our technology sector took several big steps forward, particularly with the creation of Live Oak Bank and its offshoots, including nCino, Apiture and the $545 million fintech fund Canapi Ventures.
Beyond the Live Oak universe, CastleBranch sprouted from cramped Cotton Exchange offices to two large buildings near Mayfaire and created tekMountain to fuel other upstarts.
Several more tech firms, including Untappd and PlayerSpace, grew up in Wilmington and had successful exits. And numerous others, such as Vantaca and Lapetus Solutions, show great promise.
Significant public investments also prompted progress. These include the Wilmington Convention Center, North Waterfront Park, UNCW’s marine biotech center (MARBIONC) and Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (CIE), CFCC’s Union Station and Wilson Center as well as expansions at NHRMC, ILM airport and the Port of Wilmington.
In the past 20 years, individual companies and institutions have shown an ability to take on big initiatives.
Yet – moving on to our shortfall – we have not shown an ability to move forward collectively on community-wide business issues.
Our region still does not have a coherent, widely adopted strategy to attract and grow companies in targeted industries that provide high-paying jobs, which are widely needed in our community.
We should put significant resources, money and talent into this effort.
While we market our region to attract tourists, we don’t do the same to attract companies and entrepreneurs. We should speak loudly about why our community is a great place for business. We have good stories to tell.
Getting this done will take a collective effort by elected officials in Wilmington and the surrounding counties, major institutions like UNCW and CFCC, large employers like NHRMC and Live Oak as well as organizations like the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, Wilmington Business Development and members of The Coalition of business support groups.
This is a particularly timely topic. COVID-19 shutdowns have individuals and companies nationwide rethinking where their headquarters and workers are located.
Our lack of organization and silence about our region’s accomplishments in the past 20 years is limiting our potential for the next 20 years.
I hope we figure it out, and everyone flying into ILM in 2040 sees the results.
Rob Kaiser is the publisher of Greater Wilmington Business Journal.