WilmingtonBiz Magazine

The Brunswick Shuffle

By Emma Dill, posted Sep 25, 2023
The Wilmington region welcomed Brunswick County back into its Metropolitan Statistical Area with open arms this summer. 

A decade ago, federal officials grouped Brunswick County into the metropolitan area that’s anchored by Myrtle Beach – a move that faced vocal opposition from Wilmington area leaders. With Brunswick back, local leaders and business advocates say the shift could draw new business and investment into the Wilmington area. 

The Metropolitan Statistical Area, commonly referred to as an area’s MSA, is made up of one or several counties that are home to a city with at least 50,000 residents or an urban area, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Wilmington’s MSA, for instance, now encompasses New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties along with Wilmington – a city with more than 120,000 residents, according to a 2022 population estimate from the Census Bureau. For the past decade only New Hanover and Pender counties’ headcounts were factored into the MSA. 

The reintroduction of Brunswick County – and its estimated 153,000 people – swells the Wilmington MSA’s population county by 50%. On the other end, Myrtle Beach’s MSA, which now includes Horry County in South Carolina, drops by 29% without Brunswick’s numbers.
Business leaders, researchers and other officials use MSA designations to make decisions about patterns and trends around urban hubs. 

“It’s a formal definition of our region,” said Tyler Newman, president and CEO of Business Alliance for a Sound Economy, or BASE. “It gives a snapshot of the region itself, the number of folks that are here, our economic prowess and commuting patterns and a lot of different things from an economic development standpoint.” 

Over the past decade, Newman has been one of several local officials who advocated for Brunswick County to be brought back into Wilmington’s MSA. (Read more about Newman’s role and background here.) 

Wilmington officials have long argued that Brunswick County’s exclusion from the Wilmington MSA has resulted in missed business opportunities for the area. 

As Newman remembers it, the fight to get Brunswick County back started in Washington, D.C., in the office of former Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) when Newman and other Wilmington-area leaders met with officials from the U.S. Office of Management and Budget and U.S. Census Bureau. 

“At that time, what they said pretty clearly is there’s no appeal process,” Newman said. “Our efforts really started then as soon as we walked out of the door and were flying back to Wilmington.” 

The coalition lobbying to get Brunswick back into the MSA ran the gamut from the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce and local business development leaders to researchers at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, Cape Fear Collective and politicians on both sides of the aisle. 

“Everybody (was) really working together to gather data and analyze data and make the case,” Newman said. 

Two years ago, those from BASE and UNCW submitted the findings to Census Bureau officials, adding input to the rulemaking process that helped guide the MSA designations that were released this summer. 

Their findings highlighted housing density and commuting patterns, which showed a flow of Brunswick County residents between New Hanover and Brunswick. 

For instance, a model produced by Cape Fear Collective and sent to the Census Bureau indicated that in 2021 42.1% of Brunswick residents worked in Brunswick County, 26.8% of Brunswick residents worked in New Hanover County and 3% of Brunswick residents worked in Horry County. 

The Office of Management and Budget uses commuting connectivity data as one way to link surrounding counties to a nearby urban core. That meant illustrating a link between Brunswick and New Hanover counties was key in advocating for bringing Brunswick back into the shared MSA. 

Countywide population counts matter too.

In 2013, just a 643-person difference pushed Brunswick County into the Myrtle Beach MSA according to past reporting. Estimates at the time put more Brunswick residents in the Myrtle Beach urban cluster than in Wilmington. 

While some Brunswick residents do shop and work in Myrtle Beach, Wilmington has helped propel both commercial and residential growth in the Leland area and the northern portion of Brunswick County. 

Whether it was the commuting data or the area’s growing population, when the federal government released its updated MSAs in July, Brunswick County was back in the Wilmington MSA. 

Wilmington’s business and government leaders heralded the shift as welcome news that will “boost the region’s economic potential,” according to Natalie English, president and CEO of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce. 

“Businesses use MSA data to assess the suitability of a specific geographical location for their operations, investments, or expansion plans,” English wrote in an email. “This data offers invaluable insights into population demographics, economic trends, market dynamics, and the competitive landscape within a defined metropolitan area.” 

Last year, the population of Wilmington’s MSA landed 168th in the nation, according to census data. If that population count had included Brunswick County, the MSA would have ranked 122nd. 

That more than 45-spot jump could make the difference between being considered or being overlooked for business expansion, Newman said. 

The inclusion of Brunswick County also expands the MSA’s labor pool, adds to industrial sites in the MSA and allows the area to tie into Brunswick County’s moniker as the fastest-growing county in North Carolina. 

“It's awesome to be able to have the fastest-growing area … formally as part of our region,” Newman said. 

Beyond prospective business interests, the expanded statistical area has the potential to translate into more investment in various areas. 

“It gives us a true perspective of our region,” Newman said. “MSAs are not supposed to be used for nonstatistical purposes, but they’ve got functional impacts on economic growth, education, transportation, health care funding.” 

Although a big deal for business and government leaders, Brunswick County residents likely won’t notice any changes. Others in the area have downplayed the impact of Brunswick County’s shift. 

The new MSA grouping won’t affect the day-to-day work of the Myrtle Beach Regional Economic Development Corporation, said Sandy Davis the corporation’s president and CEO. 

The group typically uses data from within a 30- to 45-minute drive time of their development sites. Sometimes, one of the group’s business parks might be close to another county’s border, but there aren’t many near the Brunswick County line, Davis wrote in an email. 

Bill Early, executive director of Brunswick Business & Industry Development, recently told the Greater Wilmington Business Journal the shift wouldn’t impact his team’s economic development and recruitment efforts. 

Still, Newman and English say they see the change as a big step forward for the region’s business potential from its growth as a fintech hub to its ongoing industrial evolution. 

“The revised MSA,” Newman said, “accurately reflects all the exciting things we have going on.”
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