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Local Business Leaders Weigh In On Brunswick's MSA Future

By Christina Haley O'Neal, posted May 6, 2021
Local leaders are gearing up to push once again for the return of Brunswick County to the Wilmington MSA. 

And although there has been a delay in the release of the local results for the 2020 Census due to COVID-19, federal officials are looking into the rules that could lead to revisions for MSAs around the country.

The Wilmington Metropolitan Statis­tical Area (MSA) currently includes New Hanover and Pender counties.

Local business officials were caught off guard in 2013 when the federal government, after the 2010 Census, moved Brunswick County from the Wilmington MSA and into Myrtle Beach's area. 

Chamber and economic development officials attempted to lobby then for Brunswick County's return but were unsuccessful.

Now, leaders with Business Alliance for a Sound Economy (BASE) and Wilmington Chamber of Commerce are working ahead to add their voices to the rulemaking process that goes into the new MSA designations.

The U.S. Census Bureau released its national and state population data in late April. The Census data and a set of rules that are outlined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the agency that defines metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas, will be used to draw the next MSA lines.

Those new OMB rule recommendations were released in January. And another set of rule recommendations by the Census Bureau on urban areas were released in February.

The key to getting Brunswick County back into the Wilmington MSA is just not in the raw Census data, said Tyler Newman, BASE's president and CEO.

It’s making sure those rules that guide the lines “accurately reflect the situation on the ground,” he said.

“There are really two things we have been focused on since 2013: the 2020 Census and the criteria used to delineate MSAs. Functionally, the way MSA delineation works is that the Census is completed, then those numbers are run through specific criteria which then delineate ‘urban areas’ and then the MSAs," Newman said.

Newman said the chamber and BASE are working to make comments to the urban area rules, which will be used to later lump counties together to create MSAs by the OMB, he said.

"We are just doing urban area comments. We reviewed metro/micro standards previously advertised, but they didn't really focus on our core issue from last time, which was the urban areas," Newman said. "In short, there are multiple rulemakings and the urban area criteria is what tripped us up last time."

One priority for BASE in its comments to the Census Bureau is getting the area's Southport-Fort Fisher ferry route to count as a commuting pattern, he said. The Southport-Fort Fisher Ferry route was not included as a commuting pattern in the previous set of rules or in the newly proposed rules, he added. 

"At this point, the main item is commuting patterns. That’s our strongest, most demonstrable link, especially when you consider the population of southwestern Brunswick County is more retirees. They likely aren’t going to Horry County [Myrtle Beach] every day to work," he said.

To help with its upcoming comments on the rules, BASE is working with researchers at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and Cape Fear Collective, a local nonprofit organization, to model how the rules and preliminary population data might sway Brunswick County one way or the other, Newman said.

“Using some of the state demographic and population data, it seems pretty clear that eastern Brunswick County has continued to grow in a way that solidifies our case, but we are currently focused on the rulemaking to ensure we are in the best position possible,” Newman said.

"As we saw last time, once the MSA delineations are set, it can be almost a decade before it has an opportunity to be fixed to make it right," he added.

BASE plans to use the research and submit comments to the Census Bureau on the proposed urban area criteria standards before the agency's May 20 deadline, Newman said.

"We're going to be continuing to monitor the situation until the final delineations come out. Whether that's additional rulemakings, new updated Census data, any of those factors that build into the final result," Newman said.

Having Brunswick County within the Wilmington MSA is important for the region's economic development and funding opportunities, BASE and officials with the chamber have said.

“We want the MSA designation to reflect our actual area, which includes Brunswick County. From an economic development standpoint, we may miss out on opportunities we don’t even know. For example, a corporation or business looking to expand sets its sights on the top 150 MSAs, we get left out since Brunswick isn’t included currently. And while the MSAs aren’t intended for 'nonstatistical purposes' we know a number of programs including federal funding, hospital reimbursement are based on or tied to MSAs," Newman said. "So we need it to be accurate.”

The Wilmington Chamber of Commerce is also monitoring the process and working with BASE to be informed on the rulemaking process, said chamber President and CEO Natalie English.

“We absolutely plan to advocate and push that Brunswick County be shifted back to the Wilmington MSA,” English said in an email. “We are confident the population growth in Leland makes a very good case that Brunswick County’s overall economy is more strongly tied to Wilmington and NC than it is to SC.

“It’s important that we bring Brunswick County back," she said, "so the funds that go with their MSA placement will better benefit the NC portion of the region."
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