There is no doubt that the Wilmington region’s growth has received considerable attention as a result of the pandemic-driven migration.
An assessment of the region shows that New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender all experienced fast growth not only in the previous two years but also in the preceding decade.
Between 2010 and 2020, New Hanover County’s population grew 11.3%, and employment grew 24%. Brunswick County’s population grew by 27%, and its employment grew by 29%. Pender County’s population grew by 13%, and employment grew by 40%.
By comparison, the state of North Carolina added 9.74% people and 16% jobs. This growth, however, was not evenly distributed as 51 counties in the state lost population in the past decade.
The past two years have accelerated the previous decade’s trends both regionally and at the state level as an influx of retirees, the rise of remote work and population shifts towards the Sunbelt have all resulted in a significant increase in population. Importantly, the increase in population – more than 250,000 people – is almost 96%, all due to migration.
From a regional perspective, New Hanover, Pender and Brunswick counties accounted for only 4% of the state’s population in 2020 but more than 11.5% of the growth between 2020 and 2022. This indicates that not only did the state receive a considerable number of people but that the region has drawn a significant share of them.
Using growth rates between 2020 and 2020, the new definition of the Wilmington metro area – New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender – is now made up of counties that had the fastest growth (Brunswick), third-fastest growth (Pender) and 14th-fastest growth (New Hanover) during that time span.
The significant migration has sustained spending on goods and services and will undoubtedly continue to impact consumption, amenities and public services. Population growth, especially from more affluent areas, also has implications for housing prices, type of housing built and size of homes.
From a policy standpoint, the growth presents opportunities as the labor market expands and the area becomes more attractive for investors, but it also raises questions about the quality of infrastructure, the investments that need to be made to maintain a high quality of life and the challenges stemming from an aging population.
The median age in the state of North Carolina is 39.2 years old and has steadily increased over the past decade.
An even more pronounced pattern is present in the region as the median age in Brunswick increased by 8.3 years to 57 years old in the span of 10 years between 2010 and 2020; 3 years in New Hanover County to 41 years old; and 1.5 years in Pender County to 42 years old.
These developments will make it all the more important to focus on attracting and retaining young and talented individuals as part of the talent wars between states.
Ensuring continued economic success and strong economic development will require a concerted effort to train, retain and attract talented individuals, which will require cooperation between universities, businesses and the government.
Mouhcine Guettabi is a regional economist with UNCW’s Swain Center and an associate professor of economics at UNCW’s Cameron School of Business.