NCtrend: On the waterfront

 In 2014-11

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If Wilmington’s head swelled when it was the second-fastest-growing city in the U.S. behind Las Vegas in the 1990s, it got a dose of reality in 2000. That’s when UNC Wilmington made its first appearance in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and chartered a plane to take the team to its opening game. “Unfortunately,” says Woody Hall, an economics professor at UNCW’s Cameron School of Business, “they sent it to Wilmington, Del.” Still, its burgeoning movie industry, busy port and collection of accolades — national magazines named it one of the top spots for startups, arts and careers — raised the city’s profile. Now it’s another face in the crowd.

“We’ve got some really serious challenges ahead,” Chamber of Commerce President Connie Majure-Rhett says. The unemployment rate declined more than a percentage point in a year — to 6.8% in August — but the number of people working has increased just 6% since the 2008-09 recession ended, Hall says. Four years after the 2001 recession, it was 20% higher.

In 2013, New Hanover County hired Garner Economics LLC to scrutinize its sputtering economy, and the Atlanta-based consultancy graded every facet of its economic development as either normal or weak. “There’s just a lot of average in New Hanover County,” Garner President Jay Garner says. “You don’t win the economic-development game with average.” Some blame Scott Satterfield, CEO of Wilmington Business Development, according to a story Greater Wilmington Business Journal published in August. Some business leaders and former members of the nonprofit aren’t happy with its lack of strategy and Satterfield’s nearly $304,000 compensation in 2013. But 17 directors or former chairmen praised its work in letters to the weekly newspaper. Garner says the county has virtually no shovel-ready sites — with infrastructure and zoning to meet the needs of a large-scale manufacturer. “If there’s nothing to sell, it’s not their fault.” Satterfield declined to comment for this story.

The General Assembly threw the city a line in 2010 when it passed a 25% tax credit of up to $20 million for a film, TV show or commercial made in the state. Spending tied to credits increased from $47.6 million in 2010 to $244.8 million in 2013. Having EUE/Screen Gems Studios, the largest movie lot in the U.S. outside California, ensured Wilmington got the bulk of that. However, the General Assembly is allowing the credit to expire at year-end, replacing it with a $10 million annual pot divvied up among all productions.

“The irony is, we’re still on the current system and this year is going to be one of our record years,” Wilmington Regional Film Commission Director Johnny Griffin says. About $180 million has been spent on Wilmington productions in 2014, he estimates. But the future is bleak. “This time of year, typically, we’d start getting phone calls about projects for next year. We’re getting zero calls — silence.” The Hollywood hush will have a tumbledown effect. Wilmington is home to about 2,000 film jobs, according to the local and state film commissions. That’s about half the Tar Heel total. Majure-Rhett and others say thousands more are tied to the industry in some way.

Not everything is gloom and doom. Bethesda, Md.-based Enviva Holdings LP, which makes wood pellets for the renewable-energy industry, is building a terminal at Port of Wilmington. Majure-Rhett cites the $35 million project as one not threatened by the port’s inability to handle the largest deep-water container ships. Live Oak Banking Co., one of the nation’s largest small-business lenders, and spinoff nCino Inc., which makes bank software, are doing well. In 2013, Cincinnati-based GE Aviation Inc. announced it would invest $63 million and add 35 to its workforce of 600 over five years at its plant in nearby Castle Hayne. Pharmaceutical Product Development LLC and AAIPharma Services Corp., both based in Wilmington, are mainstays of the local economy. “But not everybody’s going to be white collar,” Majure-Rhett says. “We need jobs for everybody.”

-Edward Martin

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