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With Brunswick Back On Map, Wilmington MSA Could Find Road To New Jobs, Officials Say

By Johanna F. Still, posted Jul 28, 2023
Last week, the Office of Management and Budget moved Brunswick County out of the Myrtle Beach-Conway-North Myrtle Beach Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) and into the Wilmington MSA. (File)
Welcome back, Brunswick. Though bridges, beaches and a ferry bind Brunswick County to New Hanover County, the economic allegiance is finally official (again). 

Last Friday, the Office of Management and Budget released its updated Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) delineations, grouping Brunswick County back into the Wilmington MSA along with New Hanover and Pender counties after a 10-year hiatus.

While the designation may seem esoteric, local leaders and area politicians from both sides spent years rallying for last week’s decision. 

Federal officials sort counties into MSAs for purely statistical purposes. In its bulletin of the new delineations, the OMB makes it clear it doesn’t consider non-statistical uses when publishing the urban groupings. But that doesn’t stop private or public entities from relying on MSAs for myriad reasons – from grant funding to whether a major employer would even consider locating in an area. 

When OMB first shifted Brunswick County south to the MSA including Myrtle Beach, South Carolina in 2013, local- and state-level politicians decried the move. Former Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) called it a “classic Washington maneuver.” The late former Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) and former Rep. Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) jointly described the removal as making “no sense culturally or economically.”

Investors, site selectors, analysts and more scour data when making business decisions, which often include MSA-based metrics. While interested parties may utilize multiple data sources for analysis, officials have argued that Brunswick's removal placed the region at a disadvantage by creating another layer of research necessary to show the intrinsic economic ties between the areas.

As of 2022, the Wilmington MSA’s population landed in 168th in the nation, according to census data. If it had included Brunswick County's population, it would have been 122nd. 

“In some respects, we won’t know how many times we lost out on a business or investment "because of where the Wilmington MSA fell in the rankings, said Tyler Newman, president and CEO of Business Alliance for a Sound Economy (BASE). 

The 153,000-person boost to the Wilmington MSA profile marks a 50% population increase, University of North Carolina Wilmington regional economist Mouhcine Guettabi noted in a blog post about the realignment. “This has significant implications for how the area’s labor market, purchasing power, and attractiveness from an economic development and investment standpoint is perceived,” he wrote.

A 643-person difference in the 2010 census count sealed Brunswick’s MSA fate in 2013, according to previous Business Journal reporting. Estimates at the time had more Brunswick residents belonging to the Myrtle Beach urban cluster. 

Residents of some communities in western Brunswick County do shop and work in Myrtle Beach as opposed to Wilmington. At the same time, Wilmington has helped propel the Leland area's explosion in northern Brunswick County. (Notably, strides in commercial real estate options like a farm supply store and breweries have lately given Leland residents fewer reasons to cross the bridge, but still, the interconnectedness remains.)

The question bureaucrats were faced with in the MSA tug-of-war: Which urban hub’s commuting ties are stronger? 

OMB links outlying counties to urban core counties based on commuting connectivity data, the agency detailed in its 2020 Federal Register Notice. 

An outlying county lands in the central county’s MSA if at least 25% of its employed residents worked in the central county; or if at least 25% of its employment is accounted for by workers who reside in the central county, according to the notice. OMB took note of the possibility of remote work shifts affecting commuting behavior, but in its notice said it would revisit whether this trend would sustain during its next delineation update next decade.

In 2021, Cape Fear Collective, UNCW, Wilmington Chamber of Commerce and BASE coordinated to present commuting findings to OMB. The analysis found that of Brunswick County’s 68,600 employed residents, 42% work in the county and 27% traveled to New Hanover County for their jobs. Meanwhile, just 3% of Brunswick’s workforce commuted to Horry County, South Carolina (home to Myrtle Beach).

In Guettabi’s post this week, the UNCW economist further detailed the financial ties: Of New Hanover County’s workforce of 85,400, about 53% live in the county, 11% live in Brunswick County and 8% live in Pender County. “This shows that almost half of all the earnings by workers employed in New Hanover county flow to other counties,” Guettabi wrote. “While one can consider these earnings to be leakage, it also points to the fact that the labor market consists of more than just the people who reside within the boundaries of the county.”

Congressman David Rouzer (R-N.C) called OMB’s realignment “welcome news.” 

“Brunswick County leads our state and nation in growth, and this will help ensure our region is in the best possible position for economic development opportunities,” Rouzer told the Business Journal. 

Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo said the modification both opens opportunities and brings new challenges to infrastructure, “which often require a regional approach to address.”

Wilmington chamber president and CEO Natalie English said the move will have “an immediate and far-reaching effect on local businesses and the overall economic landscape in southeastern North Carolina” that will “usher in a new era of growth and prosperity.” It will enhance the region’s attractiveness to businesses and investors, English said, by generating “new interest from industries seeking to establish or expand their operations, offering a clearer economic potential and facilitating informed investment and development decisions.”

“The Brunswick MSA realignment represents a pivotal moment for southeastern North Carolina and the collaborative efforts within our community have played a vital role in making this vision a reality,” English said. 

Steve Yost, president of North Carolina’s Southeast, a regional economic development agency, said the tri-county area is enmeshed by a transportation network, labor shed and other financial characteristics.

“Brunswick’s omission from the Wilmington MSA never made sense,” he said. Yost added that while it’s positive to see the change, it’s still a strength for Brunswick County to be adjacent to another MSA. “We never observed any negative impacts while it was officially part of the Myrtle Beach MSA, and the county’s economic growth during that time span is evidence of that,” he said. “In fact, we adjusted our marketing to essentially promote that Brunswick County was part of two of the fastest-growing MSAs in the country, which is an extra plus when marketing to companies that are evaluating site locations, labor availability and other criteria.”

Longtime Brunswick County Commissioner Frank Williams described the change as a “common-sense move” that will benefit the county’s economic development efforts. 

However, the leader of Brunswick County’s own economic development agency, Bill Early, said based on benefits relating to economic development, OMB’s decision doesn’t impact his team’s efforts.

“From my perspective, the realignment does not affect our economic development recruitment efforts,” said Early, the executive director of Brunswick Business & Industry Development. “Companies considering Brunswick County are focused on their ability to recruit employees. Workers are available to them regardless of MSA boundaries, so we utilize data from both areas to showcase our labor pool.”

Meanwhile, the head of New Hanover and Pender counties’ economic development arm, Scott Satterfield, said Wilmington Business Development was excited to see Brunswick County reenter the Wilmington MSA. “There has always been an intrinsic tie between us and this change could lead to further economic development opportunities for the region,” he said. 

Wilmington International Airport hasn’t seemingly suffered from the exclusion; ILM beat its busiest outbound passenger month of all time by 25% in June. Still, airport spokesperson Erin McNally said ILM officials communicate its “catchment area,” which extends beyond MSA borders, to carriers. This area conveys the potential number of travelers that live closest to ILM, she said. “With the inclusion of Brunswick County as part of the Wilmington MSA, it provides one data point to understand the size and growth of the nearby population and reinforces the overall figures in ILM’s total catchment area,” she said. 

Brunswick County continues to reign as the fastest-growing county in the state, according to the latest census count. The county added 8,250 residents between 2021 and 2022, a growth rate of nearly 6%. 

“As the fastest-growing county in the state, it's imperative that we align our strategic initiatives to deliver on our promise to provide the highest quality care to our patients and communities,” said Heather King, president and chief operating officer of Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center. “Brunswick County's inclusion in the Wilmington, North Carolina MSA better reflects how we engage as a community. The trends predicted by MSA data will continue to inform our growth strategies for physician recruitment, capital investments and more.”
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