Although some economists and business leaders are starting to warn about a potential slowdown in the nation’s economy this year, many in the Wilmington area are holding onto high hopes for 2019 and continued expansions.
For the Cape Fear region, recovery from Hurricane Florence will be ongoing, while growth in the housing market and commercial development sectors are expected to continue. The tech scene in Wilmington is also predicted to gain more traction.
Housing and development
There’s no doubt that more new homes and new residents are headed to the Cape Fear region in the coming year.
But the residential real estate market could face some challenges.
“I believe several factors will come into play for 2019,” said Chris Bryan, residential and commercial real estate sales manager for Coldwell Banker Sloane Realty and Sloane Commercial Real Estate based in Ocean Isle Beach. “The primary concerns will be building material costs, the shortage in labor force and interest rates. Building materials are at an all-time high, and labor is increasingly more difficult to find; both of these factors will drive up the price of new construction, which might sway buyers to purchase an existing home versus new construction.”
He said the previous trend for more than four years has been the opposite, with buyers choosing new construction versus existing homes.
“Another variable will be mortgage interest rates. They have tempered somewhat going into the last month of 2018 – maybe that will set the tone for 2019, we’ll see,” Bryan said. “Our market is positioned for another healthy year in 2019. I predict that 2019 will be a mirror image of what we experienced the first eight months of 2018 (pre-Hurricane Florence) barring any unforeseen events.”
Harold Chappell of NextHome Cape Fear, based in Wilmington, had a similar opinion, saying that while 2019 will look a lot like 2018, it will differ in at least three ways.
“No. 1: There should be more inventory available for buyers therefore leading to longer marketing times for sellers. No. 2: Rising interest rates will begin to squeeze out more first-time homebuyers; and No. 3: Agent growth will slow, but the professional agent will find it a great market in which to work.”
“Millennials and baby boomers will be competing for the same houses,” Chappell predicted.
Meanwhile, more residents are expected to attract more commercial development, and progress is set to be made on large public projects, including the potential start of construction on North Waterfront Park in downtown Wilmington.
Construction will continue on River Place, a mixed-use project created by Wilmington’s public-private partnership with East West Partners. And New Hanover County officials are expected to evaluate proposals for the public-private partnership Project Grace to redevelop a county-owned block in downtown Wilmington.
The progress of some projects were affected by Hurricane Florence, which hit the area Sept. 14. They include the New Hanover Regional Medical Center Orthopedic Hospital under construction.
“While the pre-storm target completion date was late 2019, NHRMC is working with the contractor to determine the storm’s impact on the timeline,” said Julian March, hospital spokesman.
New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties will continue to face tasks related to recovering from Hurricane Florence and look at ways to prepare for the next hurricane season, which begins June 1.
For example, in October, New Hanover County opened a Hurricane Florence Recovery Coordination Office.
“In recognition of where we are, where we need to be, and to ensure that New Hanover County helps with an effective, long-term and resilient recovery, we are redirecting some of our existing talent toward a focus on Florence recovery,” New Hanover County Manager Chris Coudriet said. “The Hurricane Florence Recovery Coordination Office will manage our contract support, help set priorities and direct supplemental resources that come our way.”
County spokeswoman Kate Murphy said in December that the Hurricane Florence Recovery Coordination Office will remain open and focus on long-term recovery in 2019.
“We will continue to work on housing, economic recovery, infrastructure recovery and community planning and preparedness,” Murphy said. “Additionally, this office will coordinate the facilitation of federal and state recovery programs, like Hazard Mitigation Grant Programs and Community Development Block Grants, in New Hanover County.”
Artificial intelligence and blockchain are two sectors of the technology industry that will emerge more in 2019, along with more local investments, officials said.
“There is a lot of energy surrounding AI and interest from the UNCW faculty and business professionals in our region, so I expect it activities will accelerate in 2019,” said Diane Durance, director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. “There is also a lot of interest in blockchain, and I expect we’ll see more educational programs and meet-ups related to that technology.”
The CIE serves as a resource for startups and business owners in the community and holds events, programs and educational training.
The center has an incubator space and in November it launched a team-based mentoring program that will continue to grow this year, Durance said.
“We currently have four high-potential ventures working with mentoring teams and plan to increase that number to 12 in 2019,” she said.
The center also has a portfolio of companies it assists with direct consulting. There are 24 companies currently active in that portfolio, and the CIE expects to add a company every month in 2019, Durance said.
Another big potential tech area for Wilmington is related to marine science and fisheries, Durance said.
CIE will again host a Fish 2.0 regional workshop, where entrepreneurs developing aquafarming related technology can try out their pitches in front of an audience before a Fish 2.0 global competition.
Wilmington-area startups may have more opportunity to develop their companies because the outlook for additional investments in 2019 is strong, Durance said.
“I’m seeing more interest on the part of local investors in taking a look at our best and brightest opportunities,” she said.
In the local startup scene, Wilmington-based companies, such as Untappd and Sportgait continue to develop its products and add employees.
Untappd, a software company with a networking app for beer drinkers, has about 100 employees and is working on a new product that is expected to launch in 2019.
While officials with the startup did not give details on the new product, they did say it would allow the company to partner with distributors.
SportGait, which provides platforms for concussion management, raised about $1 million in 2018. The startup hopes to raise an additional $360,000 to expand its sales reach, according to officials.
Another tech sector to look out for in Wilmington is health care technology, which is the primary focus of the New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s Innovation Center.
Launched in 2018, the center’s goal is to foster and test creative ideas for improving health and wellness, according to an August news release.
By the end of January, the center will introduce a Speed of Health Innovation Program, which will support employees and physicians developing new ideas, products or companies, March said.
In 2019, the hospital’s Innovation Center, which is housed at tekMountain, will also develop an Exponential Heath Experience Center focused on digital-enabled virtual reality technology.
The center plans to host a conference in Wilmington about health innovation during natural disasters to provide a platform for health professionals to share lessons and solutions from their experiences.