For me, the return of spring in New Hanover County means brightly colored Azalea blooms, tourists on our beaches, and public hearings from local officials at the county and municipal levels to review and approve budgets for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins on July 1.
Wilmington's favorite flower and the crowds of visitors on our Riverwalk are instantly recognizable to locals. But it's a good bet that a large share of us are unfamiliar with the budget that our county adopts each year and the process by which it is created – despite many efforts to be transparent and involve our residents in the annual county budget process. It is easy to be distracted by the chaos and excitement of Raleigh or DC. Still, our local government's work is to support public education, law enforcement, road maintenance, parks, public health, and economic development, which are the things that truly make our community a desirable place to live, work, and play.
Vibrant and growing communities like ours often have multiple players working on a diverse mix of projects related to job growth, business growth and attraction, and sustainable infrastructure. Our community has a long history of investing in economic development organizations targeting different businesses in different sectors or locations. Since its inception in the 1950s, Wilmington Business Development has invested significant time and effort to attract and retain the businesses in our community, including GE, Corning, and PPD. With a transition in leadership at Wilmington Downtown, Inc., we can look forward to more activity growing businesses specifically located in downtown Wilmington. Genesis Block and the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship help support businesses at the earliest stages of development. The Small Business Center at CFCC and the Small Business Technology Development Center at UNC Wilmington are also critical resources for the smallest businesses when business owners are aware of those services.
Historically, the Wilmington Chamber's role in economic development has been focused on ensuring capital investments and policies are conducive to business growth. We have also worked to ensure our economic developers have the "product" they need to sell to businesses. Following so many back-to-back hurricanes and a global pandemic, chamber staff has come to work closely with the county's strategy office to help assess the needs of businesses as they continue to recover from disasters. More recently, it has become abundantly clear that our community needs a more formal Business Retention and Expansion (BRE) program focused on small businesses.
Communities like ours with an active and sustained economic development strategy plant seeds of success locally and regionally – and BRE should be part of that equation. Business Retention & Expansion (BRE) is an economic development strategy of proactively connecting with existing businesses to understand and respond to their needs. At the Wilmington Chamber, special attention would be given to small businesses that employ less than 20 employees. Over time, a quality and targeted BRE program would improve the business operating climate, ensure competition remains healthy, provide quality jobs and employment opportunities, and stabilize the economy.
Starting a business is one of the most exciting and fulfilling decisions one can make – but it can also bring a tremendous amount of uncertainty. Growing a business is complicated and is often dependent upon the owner's ability to resolve a number of common business challenges. Without proper support, it's possible our community would lose these businesses either due to closure or the business relocating to a more supportive environment.
The Wilmington Chamber of Commerce is the best-known brand to work in an economic development capacity focusing on small businesses. When combined with our Choose Cape Fear brand, our organization will be able to present a seamless front door to business growth in our community. Hiring an experienced economic developer to manage the attraction, retention, and expansion of small businesses in our community, in partnership with Wilmington Business Development, Wilmington Downtown Inc., Genesis Block, the CIE, SBC, and SBTDC, will help us to create a community where there is ample opportunity for everyone to prosper.
When they have an issue, business people are looking for quick answers so they can get back to focusing on growing their business. And that's what we want for our community – a focus on business growth that leads to more jobs, opportunities, and prosperity for our citizens. Thanks to our county commissioners' support in this year's annual budget, the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce will be able to offer BRE as a targeted program for small companies so that businesses who do Choose Cape Fear can grow, stay, and become more committed to our community.
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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The 2023 WilmingtonBiz: Book on Business is an annual publication showcasing the Wilmington region as a center of business.