Deciding the types of businesses we want in our region has been one of the principal community debates over the last few years. There are many choices: high tech, heavy industrial, service, film, pharma, construction, manufacturing, bio tech and more. But are they really choices?
I’ve heard many people say that we should take the list, choose which businesses we want in our community, and ask them to join us, while excluding the rest. That utopian view of community building sounds simple enough. Anyone have the phone number for Google CEO Larry Page?
Unfortunately, believing you can just pick the businesses you want is a naïve view of how the process works in reality. There has to be a reason for a company to relocate, and just wanting them to be here is not a reason. They need to need what we have to offer. And we have to offer what they need.
Businesses don’t typically broadcast to the world that they are planning to open a new facility or relocate. There are a number of reasons why, from not wanting to be inundated by phone calls from hundreds of economic development recruiters across the country, to not upsetting their employees, shareholders, or those in the community they may be leaving, to maintaining an edge over their competition.
This means that our region may initially make it onto a list of potential locations for relocations or expansions, but then be crossed off the list without us ever knowing we were under consideration. As Pathways to Prosperity report author Garner Economics has told us, the “site selection” process is really more one of “site de-selection;” that is, it isn’t as much about choosing a site as it is about eliminating sites that don’t match well to a company’s needs or that require more investment in time and capital than is practical.
So does that mean a community’s economic development efforts are as much happenstance as they are a product of true effort? Generally, no. Tilting the playing field by making a community a more desirable location, and then selling it as such, is possible. This is particularly true if one wishes to target business sectors, especially those that are already a natural fit or that have been targeted for development by establishing necessary educational programs, infrastructure, et cetera. For instance, life/marine sciences research and development has potential for growth in our region because of the presence of PPD, AAIPharma, the Marine Bio-Technologies Center of Innovation (MARBIONC) at UNC Wilmington, and more. Spreading the word to businesses in those sectors about who we are and the business advantages we offer holds potential for success.
Garner Economics noted several other sectors that could be possibilities: precision manufacturing (for example, optical instruments, medical equipment and supplies, and analytical laboratory instruments); high-value office operations (for example, financial transactions processing, computer systems design services, payroll services and call centers) and aircraft assembly, modification and maintenance.
To move in the direction of serious targeting and marketing takes serious investment. To increase our competitiveness, there is work to be done. From extending water and sewer up Highway 421 to the establishment of an Airframe and/or Power plant (A&P) certificate program at CFCC, investing in improvements and additions will make our community more marketable to new businesses and more attractive to existing ones.
The core of the Chamber’s mission is to build the kind of community where companies want to locate and people want to live and work. Our focus areas of education, crime, transportation, business advocacy and infrastructure support that mission. Recent examples of this role include our work with and support of the Blue Ribbon Commission on the Prevention of Youth Violence; our fight to have Brunswick County put back in the Wilmington MSA; our work with the Garner Report Steering Committee to develop an economic development strategy for the region; and our efforts before the Planning Commission and county commissioners to make revisions to New Hanover County’s Industrial Special Use Permit. This work has been carried out by volunteers investing much human capital to improve our business climate. But human capital can only get you so far; at some point, it must be paired with tangible investments in our business infrastructure if we expect to improve our ability to attract and retain businesses, increase jobs and grow community prosperity.
While we may not be able to hand pick the specific businesses we want, and we can’t force site selectors to bring their clients to Wilmington, we can control the business friendliness of our community … we can manage and enhance our infrastructure, amenities and other assets to their fullest … and we can invest in and market the community in a way that maximizes our chances of success in growing our local economy.
About the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce
The Wilmington Chamber of Commerce is the largest membership-based business association in Southeastern North Carolina. The Chamber’s mission is to ensure economic prosperity throughout our region. This is accomplished by: creating a diverse, inclusive organization that serves as a strong voice for businesses in the Greater Wilmington area; offering unique membership benefits, services and education; and challenging government officials to address long term community and business interests.
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