The Cape Fear region’s perks are hard to ignore: miles of beaches, a picturesque riverfront, growing university, percolating film and tech scene and more.
But what is the area missing? What pieces from the proverbial regional puzzle are out of reach, keeping the area from achieving greater economic prosperity?
Area leaders cite a suite of regional deficits. Some obvious themes emerge, such as affordable housing or funding for major transportation projects. Leaders and experts also point to less-discussed pitfalls, including the region’s dwindling middle class and a dearth of capital available to early-stage startups.
This spring, New Hanover County received an updated economic development report – a refresh of Garner Economics’ much-cited 2014 study that the county commissioned then to take an outside view of the area’s economic development landscape.
The newest analysis, drafted by Robin Spinks and Mary Lilley of Greenfield Development, the report’s title, “Economic Mobility,” is a nod to the weakening ladder to the middle or upper class.
“The middle-income population and jobs are shrinking, and as a result, the lower income employees have no pathway up the ladder and can’t afford to live here,” Spinks said recently.
“And if the lower-wage workers can’t afford to live here, the road congestion issue only gets worse over time.”
One pathway to rebuild the middle class and enhance economic mobility is to strengthen the weakened manufacturing sector, the report suggests.
“We need manufacturing to make that happen,” Spinks said.
The number of manufacturing jobs available in the tri-county area has dipped over time, from nearly 12,000 in 1991 to about 7,100 last year, according to N.C. Department of Commerce data. These jobs tend to provide middle-class opportunities, Spinks said.
An immediate action to tackle missing middle-income jobs is to preserve existing industrial zoning and future potential job sites, according to Spinks.
Lilley, who co-authored the report, said her “missing piece” for the area is a working waterfront – New Hanover County’s, like others along the East Coast, is vulnerable to residential and retail encroachment.
“New Hanover County is unique as a location because of the port and the potential for additional working waterfront locations to support offshore wind projects and other water-based industry,” she said.
But the stretch of land ripe for that kind of development – the west bank of the Cape Fear River south of the Isabel Holmes bridge – has lately piqued multiple interests. Residential and retail developments (mixed-use apartments, hotels) have already been proposed, as have conservation uses. At a crossroads for how to handle the competing ideas for this high-interest land, the county has held two public information sessions this year to garner feedback on how the area gets developed, considering even widescale rezonings of the space.
Spinks and Lilley suggest this area’s zoning designation (heavy industrial) remains in place to promote job-creating, water-based commercial activities.
“Once (land) gets used for something else other than industrial, you’ll never get it back,” Spinks said.
With the May provisional lease of the Wilmington East Wind Energy Area off the coast of Bald Head Island, two companies – TotalEnergies Renewables USA and Duke Energy Renewables Wind – are in the early stages of offshore planning wind farms. Though any construction is at least eight years out, the Wilmington riverfront area is ripe for a slew of manufacturing and research opportunities that require water access, economic analyses show.
“Many projects looking along the East Coast want waterfront or water-access sites to provide the operational flexibility this growing energy sector will require over the next 20 to 40 years,” Lilley said. “No working waterfront is an extremely limiting factor for certain (offshore wind) companies.”
Rapid growth has brought in new money and investments but has also necessitated major upgrades. Between 2010 and 2021, the tri-county region grew 20%, reaching an estimated 436,000 people, per the latest U.S. Census.
Growth isn’t the only story those numbers tell: The retirement-age population is climbing as a youth exodus is afoot. In New Hanover County, the under-18 population dropped from over 47,000 to about 41,000 from 2010 to 2019, according to Spinks.
“Future workforce could be an issue, and already companies are having difficulty recruiting and maintaining younger employees,” she said.
Mouhcine Guettabi, regional economist and University of North Carolina Wilmington associate professor, said it would be wise for the region to try to retain more of the university’s graduates. “Right now, Wilmington is an exporter of talent,” he said.
Wilmington Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Natalie English said she’d like to see funding for creative partnerships that connect the needs of area employers to local education institutions’ curriculums. Wilmington would “benefit from new funding to match enrollment growth and capital needs for our educational institutions from pre-K through university,” English said.
Robin Spinks (left) and Mary Lilley, authors of the Greenfield Development’s “Economic Mobility” report produced for New Hanover County, shown at Maritime West Development (photo by Allison Joyce)
Asked for their take on the area’s missing pieces, leaders’ most common response, according to several interviews, was transportation funding.
Perhaps the most obvious symbol of this shortfall (other than sitting in traffic) is the aging Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. Built in 1969, the bridge is safe but antiquated, according to N.C. Department of Transportation (NCDOT) officials, who say the bridge has too many expensive parts to continue maintaining at the current rate. A replacement is needed – a reality leaders have long understood – but no real solution has emerged, amid less-than-ideal funding options. Latest estimates put a replacement cost between $241 million and $900 million.
An average of 68,000 vehicles crosses the bridge daily, according to NCDOT’s latest count. More than 100,000 are estimated to use it by 2035. Spinks described the bridge’s replacement as “the most critical long-term infrastructure issue” the region faces, especially considering the more than 42,000 out-of-county travelers that use it daily for work.
The crux of the replacement standstill is a lack of money. As cars become more fuel efficient and electric vehicle use is projected to rise, NCDOT has seen its primary revenue source – gas taxes – dwindle while construction costs have soared. Local transportation projects compete against others statewide for the same pool of funds. This traditional financing process’s chances for funding the bridge replacement are dismal, prompting officials to consider the possibility of introducing a toll to help pay for it.
The prospect has torn local leaders. One faction believes adding tolls would be wrong, considering how few other tolls exist statewide and would place an undue burden on daily commuters. Another is willing to explore tolls in lieu of making no progress as the bridge ages.
Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo, who falls in the former group, said, “I just don’t think it’s fair to the city of Wilmington.
“We knew 20 years ago that this was going to be an issue,” he said. “In preparation of this bridge replacement, I think the state could have done a much better job in anticipating and planning for it.”
English, who has spent over a year publicly campaigning for a replacement in speaking engagements, named it among the chamber’s top priorities.
“Investments in roadways would improve traffic flow at our major intersections making it easier for both goods and people to move freely,” English said.
Last year’s federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and Gov. Roy Cooper’s latest state budget were “welcome news and big steps toward modernizing transportation funding,” according to NCDOT spokesperson Lauren Haviland. The federal bill increased highway funding by 21% and transit by 30%, allotting the state $410 million each year for the next five years, she said.
Plus, for the first time, the state budget carved out some sales tax revenue to be attributed to NCDOT – a move toward establishing a more reliable funding source.
“Like most industries across the country, the transportation industry is being impacted (by) unprecedented labor and material challenges and associated cost increases,” Haviland said. “While these funding sources will help us delay fewer projects due to the cost increases, to continue providing a safe, efficient, connected and reliable transportation system, our state will need a long-term, sustainable investment strategy.”
The lack of transportation funds affects more than just the bridge – NCDOT’s financial crises have also prompted delays in high-priority projects across the region.
A recent WMPO congestion management analysis found in general, travel times have improved since 2019, attributable to fewer vehicles on the road and more flexible commuting times due to remote work. But still, bottlenecks remain.
Guettabi said infrastructure investments should be high on the regional want list. “Quality of life is a major reason why people move to the Wilmington area and improving traffic flow, reducing congestion and making streets more walkable could go a long way towards attracting and retaining more people,” he said.
Guettabi also said a serious assessment of the housing landscape is needed, as is a push to increase the housing supply.
Asked what he’d spend hypothetical snap-your-finger money on, Saffo said transportation. “The No. 1 thing that we hear from our citizens on surveys is transportation,” he said.
Citing tourism – whereby out-of-towners must pass through the city to reach the three beach towns in New Hanover County – and daily commuter traffic, Saffo said visitors’ heavy use of the road system adds to the maintenance burden. “Don’t get me wrong, I like it. But it also takes a toll on our infrastructure,” he said.
By most accounts, Wilmington International Airport (ILM) has had a big year: teeming business activity with ground lease revenue projected to double, a new airline and several expansion projects underway.
But its status as a small regional airport – and the reality of locals booking flights out of Raleigh or Myrtle Beach to save cash – can also be seen as an impediment to larger business growth.
Saffo said connecting flights – often to Charlotte Douglas International Airport – can function as a disincentive for business investment.
“When you’ve got to go to Charlotte and get on a puddle jumper to get to Wilmington, that extra little leg creates a little bit more cost, time and it just makes it easier for companies that are in larger cities with a lot more direct flights and options to get more business,” he said. “It’s always been an issue for us.”
This summer, ILM’s first low-cost carrier, Avelo, launched nonstop flights to Orlando, Baltimore and New Haven and announced Ft. Lauderdale as an upcoming seasonal destination.
Airport director Jeff Bourk said that based on transportation and mobile data collected by ILM consultants, Ft. Lauderdale is the area’s “No. 1 underserved market.” Trying to lure new airlines and destinations is an ongoing task, according to Bourk, who started the role in January. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve met with every airline.”
ILM staff crunch numbers to prove to airlines why they should add new destinations with the airport.
“It’s basically all about trying to give the airlines data they don’t already have about why their forecasts for this market could be better than what they think it is, so that we can try to convince them that they need to fly here versus somewhere else,” Bourk said.
An extra pot of $375,000 in marketing funds from the New Hanover County Tourism Development Authority, used to advertise the new flights in each of the initial three new markets, helped sweeten the deal for Avelo. “That was a big incentive that we never had before,” Bourk said.
Direct flights to Miami, Nashville, Philadelphia, Detroit and Denver land on Bourk’s wish list of destinations that make sense for the market. “L.A. is one of our higher unserved markets. But it’s a long haul. The longer the haul, the more expensive it is to operate, and the higher the risk it is for the airlines,” he said. “So I don’t know that we’ll get a carrier to fly across the country. I don’t know if we’re big enough for that yet.”
Pierre Naudé, the CEO of nCino, which employs about 830 in the Wilmington area, cited the fintech company’s community investments in youth sports and food relief efforts as examples of engaged corporate citizenry.
“It’s incumbent on Wilmington’s corporate citizens to help the region grow and enable the community to thrive,” Naudé said.
Connectivity infrastructure investments are at the top of Naudé’s missing list. “Looking ahead, it will be essential to focus on 5G and fiber optic to support knowledge workers’ need for high-speed internet and to attract more high-tech companies like nCino to the area,” he said. “By prioritizing and promoting these investments, I believe that Wilmington will continue to attract and retain top talent and be a great place to live and work.”
Another fintech leader, Live Oak Bank President Huntley Garriott, didn’t name a specific missing piece for the region but instead said the community should amp up its existing assets.
“Strong economies are fueled by diverse companies, well-paying jobs, robust educational and training systems and attractive environments where residents thrive,” he said. “That should be our collective goal when we think about what Wilmington can be. It takes all of these aspects to turn the dial on what we already have in place. It’s simply time to turn up the volume.”