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Wilmington Chamber Event Highlights Local Growth, Priorities And Demographic Trends

By Jenny Callison, posted Feb 17, 2023
Allan Parnell, a senior fellow at the Kenan Institute at UNC-Chapel Hill, discusses changing demographics during the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce meeting Thursday. (Photo by Vicky Janowski)
Attendees at Thursday evening’s 156th annual meeting of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce heard an upbeat summary of the community’s recent achievements, an outline of chamber priorities for the future, and a summary of demographic trends that will influence commerce and social services in the region and the state.
 
Announced keynoter James Johnson, Jr. had a last-minute family matter needing his attention, so his research partner stepped in. Providing the talk was Allan Parnell, vice president of the Cedar Grove Institute for Sustainable Communities and a senior fellow at the Kenan Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 
 
Parnell, speaking before a crowd of several hundred at the Wilson Center, treated his audience to a wealth of data that business communities, local governments and social service providers can use in planning and forecasting. The issues he noted included migration within the country and the state, trends in the workplace, birth rates versus death rates and effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
The pandemic, Parnell said, accelerated the movement of Americans to several Southern states, including North Carolina. This trend aggravated existing housing issues.
 
“People coming in have higher aggregate incomes than people who are leaving,” Parnell said. “Communities are saying that people from out of state have moved in and bought all the houses, so there is a shortage of affordable housing for the workforce.”

Despite North Carolina's attraction for new residents and new businesses, Parnell said most of the growth in population is taking place in Wake and Mecklenburg counties. He offered data showing that the majority of the state's counties are losing population through a higher death than birth rate and out-migration by young people.
 
Parnell also spoke about the “browning and graying” of America and Southeast North Carolina.
 
“The browning was initially driven by immigration,” he said, noting that immigrants are mostly young adults of childbearing age, with subsequent children born in the U.S. “There’s a large and growing Asian population, which represents the largest population growth. The next-largest group is Hispanic: Nonwhite and Hispanic growth accounts for most population growth in the U.S. There is little white population growth.”
 
An overall declining birth rate, especially among non-Latino white women, contributes to the “graying” trend, Parnell noted. He cited data from New Hanover County, where the median age of white women is 42, and Brunswick County, where it is 59.
 
“The median age of Latino and Black women is younger, so there are more women of childbearing age,” he continued. “School children are increasingly nonwhite.”
 
While some people without children in public schools may not feel inclined to invest in public education, Parnell said, “It is imperative that we support public schools; we all have a stake in this.”
 
As women represent an increasing percentage of the workforce, often their family demands stay the same, according to Parnell. “They are sandwiched [between taking care of their parents and children] and there’s a need for flexibility in the work environment.”
 
With the baby boomer cohort still growing – its youngest members are under the age of 65 – many members of what’s sometimes termed the "silver tsunami" are still in the workforce. And that workforce, Parnell noted, consists of five generations, from boomers to members of Gen Z. He encouraged businesses to plan for the evolution of their workforces as staffers retire or leave.

“Succession planning is not just about leadership,” he said, adding that the pandemic has accelerated retirements and organizations need to retain institutional knowledge as older workers or key workers leave.
 
In her remarks in opening the meeting, chamber President and CEO Natalie English cited several recent positive trends in New Hanover County: more than 1,000 new jobs created and significant investments in the port and the airport, which she said will result in $15 billion in economic impact. Expansion of Wilmington International Airport increases the facility’s capacity by 75%, and traveler numbers are growing.
 
Outgoing board chairman Neal Andrew spoke about the chamber’s achievements in the past 12 months, from championing wind energy development to advocating replacement for the Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. He congratulated his fellow chamber members and chamber staff for being named North Carolina Chamber of the Year in 2022, and English for earning the title of Chamber Executive of the Year.
 
Incoming board chairwoman Stephanie Lanier shared highlights from the chamber’s new five-year strategic plan and mentioned that two of its pillars are regionalism and education aimed at developing a talented workforce.
 
Lanier also announced the chamber’s support for Project Grace and for the city of Wilmington’s purchase of the Thermo Fisher Scientific property on Front Street, saying, “We think both of these projects are transformational for downtown.”

William “Bill” Cameron also was honored by chamber officials with the Lifetime Achievement in Business Award.

Cameron (left), a native Wilmingtonian, has enjoyed a 44-year career in business and community leadership. He form

ed and led Cameron Management, an entity designed to draw together his family’s varied business interests.

He has also been involved with many of the community’s signature organizations, including the Committee of 100, Cape Fear Memorial Hospital, Cape Fear Memorial Foundation, the N.C. Azalea Festival and the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce.

Currently he chairs the New Hanover Community Endowment board.

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