New Hanover County is now at the three-year mark of the 2018-2023 Strategic Plan. We're making progress on our goals, seeing areas where improvement is needed – especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and continuing our work every day to advance the Board of Commissioners and county's priorities of intelligent growth and economic development, superior education and workforce, and superior public health and safety.
We wanted to provide an update of where we are today at this three-year mark, the progress we've made, and the work we still have to do in the coming years. To do that, I have included an overview below from the county's Chief Strategy Officer Jennifer Rigby, and you can see a visual depiction of year three in our five-year plan here:
As we reﬂect on the county's strategic plan, goals and where we stand with reaching our goals, one of the major impacts to our community this past year has been the global pandemic from the Coronavirus, COVID-19. In March, the Governor of North Carolina issued "stay-at-home orders" that dramatically impacted every business and resident of North Carolina. These orders closed businesses and schools to in-person services and converted the business and education sectors to a virtual platform overnight. Our organization responded with resilience and quickly used data to guide decision making through these turbulent times. As with all challenging times come opportunities for creativity and innovation, and New Hanover County was able to double down on strategic priorities with a diﬀerent perspective of focus on how to accomplish our clearly deﬁned outcomes and targets utilizing new CARES Act funding resources. The employees in our organization continue to inspire me with their commitment to public service, coupled with the agility and ﬂexibility that create innovative solutions to the most demanding pressures.
Intelligent Growth and Economic Development
The economic impact of COVID-19 was felt across the world. Like many communities, New Hanover County experienced losses in employment as businesses were grappling with how to radically change business operations. Speciﬁcally, we saw a loss in advanced manufacturing, knowledge sector and skilled trades jobs. However, we still remain up 1,277 net new jobs since 2018.
To retain jobs and support our businesses, the New Hanover County Board of County Commissioners authorized an unprecedented $1.3 million small business grant program utilizing CARES Act funding to assist 130 small businesses with $10,000 grants. These grants were speciﬁcally designed for retaining employees and incorporating hygiene and safety measures into business practices.
Despite job losses, New Hanover County experienced two positive economic indicators: the number of jobs that are paying 6.5% above the living wage has grown and our tax base grew almost $100 million this past year, meaning that individuals' income is increasing and property values are increasing. As individuals across the country prioritize their quality of life, they are choosing New Hanover County to call home. This past year alone, we saw a population increase of more than 3,700 new residents and we anticipate that will continue.
As our county grows, we are seeing growth in our goal of creating complete communities. Complete Communities provide a range of housing sizes, employment opportunities, convenience needs, community facilities, and support services to provide access and opportunity to all New Hanover County citizens. This past year, we experienced a 2% growth in completeness within 1-mile of homes and a 1% increase in our housing-type diversity rate. We are making steady progress towards increasing elements of complete communities and we are ensuring that our residents have the facilities and services they need in close proximity to their homes. We are also working towards housing aﬀordability with a new Housing Study that will be ﬁnalized soon. Additionally, the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners also authorized more than $400,000 of CARES Act funding to create a Housing Assistance Program to support individuals and households that experienced an economic hardship due to the COVID -19 pandemic.
Superior Education and Workforce
Due to the global pandemic, in 2020, the Governor ordered schools to close – moving students to a remote environment and leaving end-of-grade testing and kindergarten readiness testing obsolete. To provide families with alternative resource-rich environments for children, the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners authorized more than $800,000 of CARES Act funding to child care assistance from licensed facilities in New Hanover County.
In spite of the challenges our community experienced with remote environments, we were able to accelerate digital access and literacy that enhance our workforce skills. Our learning express library usage was up 1,149 views this past year. Additionally, through CARES Act funding, New Hanover County was able to boost the Wi-Fi signal at our public facilities to create free community Wi-Fi zones at our public facilities – increasing free Wi-Fi access to 13,498 more residents within a quarter mile of a county public Wi-Fi access point. Moving forward, the county is working through a strategic partnership with the school system and local businesses to add additional free Wi-Fi sites.
Superior Public Health and Safety
Preventing and reducing opioid abuse is a strategic priority for New Hanover County and while we have made gains with decreasing overdoses, we are beginning to see the trend move in the wrong direction. Certainly, this can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic and we will want to make sure our eﬀorts are supporting strong mental health during these challenging times. The county is in the process of building the Healing Place facility, a peer-led substance abuse facility, which will aid in these eﬀorts and a $50 million Mental and Behavioral Health Fund will be set up in 2021 utilizing a portion of proceeds from the sale of NHRMC, the county-owned hospital. These eﬀorts, along with other initiatives, will help support this strategic priority.
Another priority is reducing obesity, which has been identiﬁed as one of the risk factors associated with the COVID-19 virus, further magnifying the importance of ensuring that residents have access to programs that prevent and reduce obesity, speciﬁcally in our marginalized communities. In an eﬀort to increase awareness and access to programs and opportunities that promote healthy eating and exercise, the county was able to utilize CARES Act funds to better serve our citizens with nearly 154,000 customer interactions – which includes diabetes and community outreach, home delivered meals, a student ﬁtness challenge, and Women Infants and Children (WIC) participants – reaching our citizens from our youngest to our oldest.
In terms of preparing for and responding to public safety demands, we experienced a signiﬁcant decrease in 911 calls per capita; which is attributed primarily to stay-at-home orders. Finally, we continue to see progress towards responding to emergency calls within the 2019 90th percentile which translates to a response time quicker than 10 minutes and 35 seconds.
As we move into 2021, we can feel proud of the work the organization has done to pivot and use new resources during an extraordinary time to accomplish our vision of being a vibrant, prosperous, diverse coastal community committed to building a sustainable future for generations to come. We know that education and job creation will be important areas for us to focus our eﬀorts, and we intend to use this data to ensure that New Hanover County will be the community our vision sets out to accomplish.
Audrey Elsberry - Sep 22, 2023
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