Migration and an uptick in older residents have fueled Brunswick County’s economy in recent years.
That’s according to an economic snapshot Mouhcine Guettabi, Wilmington’s regional economist and an associate professor of economics at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, presented to the Leland Town Council on Thursday. The most recent data shows Brunswick County has the fastest-growing population and the highest median age in North Carolina.
Between 2020 and 2022, the population increased in 75 North Carolina counties. Brunswick County came out on top with a growth rate of 12%. In comparison, Pender County saw a 9% jump in population over that two-year period while New Hanover County’s population climbed 4%. Much of the increase stems from people moving into the Wilmington area.
“The region has experienced incredible migration over the last couple of years,” Guettabi told the Leland Town Council on Thursday.
In fact, if it weren’t for new residents moving into the area, the total tri-county region’s population would have shrunk. Migration has pumped money into the Brunswick County economy, adding an additional $548 million in income to the area between 2020 and 2021 – an increase of 13.25%, Guettabi said.
Brunswick County’s labor market has experienced rapid growth. Today, the county has about 16.5% more jobs than it had in 2019 with approximately 84% of those jobs existing in the private sector. Between the first quarter of 2019 and the first quarter of 2023, the number of jobs in Brunswick’s private sector rose from 27,797 to 32,359.
While Brunswick County is seeing job growth across the board, sectors seeing the highest levels of growth are food services and retail trade – areas that cater to a growing population, Guettabi said.
Wages are also rising across all Brunswick County job sectors, allowing workers to keep up with inflation, at least to some extent. The county also has an unusually high number of proprietors – those who own their own businesses or work for themselves. Just over 19% of Brunswick County's income is earned as a proprietor. That’s compared to roughly the 11% of income earned as a proprietor across North Carolina overall.
But focusing on jobs and wages doesn’t tell the full story when it comes to Brunswick County’s economy, Guettabi said.
The personal income of county residents is increasingly made up of personal transfers along with dividends, interest and rent. Those categories includes federal money that comes from social security benefits, pensions and other funds.
“The contribution of those federal dollars are becoming an increasingly important part of the economy,” Guettabi said.
Overall, more of the county’s personal income is made up of personal transfers, dividends, interest and rent than more traditional wage earnings. The shift in personal income is linked to the number of retirees who have flocked to Brunswick County in recent years from other parts of the state and the Northeast, Guettabi said. The county has a median age of 57, a figure that’s based on data from 2022.
“Brunswick County is now the oldest county in the state,” Guettabi said. “It’s gotten old very, very fast over the last few years.”
However, the county’s relatively high personal income from federal dollars could help provide a buffer for its economy in the case of an economic recession or other downturn.
“In a way, you can think about these federal dollars as providing you with an income floor that is insensitive to the fluctuations of the local economy,” Guettabi said.
Home prices across the county have also started to moderate, but are still climbing, according to Guettabi. Brunswick County home prices rose approximately 55% between October 2023 and January 2020, according to data from Zillow. In contrast, home prices rose 2% between August 2022 and August 2023.