Silicon Cities
Tracing the Origins of Wilmington, North Carolina’s Revamped Economy
Jim R. Bounds/Bloomberg | October 27, 2015

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Over the past decade, North Carolina has worked to modernize its economy, developing a comprehensive strategy that overhauled the state’s regulatory environment, created a system of seven discrete economic zones, and poured resources into public-private organizations created to facilitate this transition. The transformation of the Wilmington metropolitan area is, in many ways, indicative of the success of these and other reforms.

Though Wilmington might only be now hitting its economic stride, the city had quite a bit going for it even before this transformation was underway. With its miles of coastline, the city features the kind of natural beauty that almost forces you to pay attention. You try worrying about your afternoon meeting as you watch the sea foam green waves of the Atlantic Ocean gently break onto beaches framed by sand dunes that stretch for as far as the eye can see.

Business and government officials have taken a coordinated approach to prepare the state’s economy for the demands of an increasingly competitive globalized economy, drive growth across all sectors, and attract and retain companies and talented professionals. To accomplish these and other ambitious goals, the state has worked to implement various economic incentive programs and reform both its tax code and regulatory environment.

These and other strategic efforts are already showing results, with business and economic confidence continuing to rise along with increases in economic output and efficiency. Apart from helping stoke the state’s economy, its work to reform its legal climate, in particular, has won it widespread recognition: This year, for instance, the state ranked seventh overall on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Institute for Legal Reform’s 2015 Lawsuit Climate Survey. Since 2012, North Carolina has shot up 13 spots in the annual rankings.

For its part, Wilmington is part of what’s known within the state as the Southeast Prosperity Zone, which has a population of roughly 1 million. Though its demographics mirror those of the state as a whole, the Southeast zone is distinguished by its faster-growing and slightly younger workforce, according to the North Carolina Department of Commerce (NCDC).

The region also plays a critical role in the state’s economy: The ports of Wilmington and Morehead City generate some $14 billion annually. All together, the state’s ports contribute nearly three-quarters-of-a-billion dollars in annual tax revenue. As the surrounding economy has boomed over the past few years, the Wilmington Port has seen a burst of activity. Public officials have worked with private companies in Wilmington to ensure that the city takes advantage of rising interest.

“Ports on the U.S. West Coast, as well as many right here on the U.S. East Coast, are dealing with major congestion,” Paul Cozza, the chief executive officer of the North Carolina State Ports Authority, said in a statement. “Shippers are beginning to look for alternatives. Our lack of congestion and unrivaled customer service make us a viable option for carriers and beneficial cargo owners alike.”

Though its port happens to transport much of the goods that are produced in the state, Wilmington isn’t overly reliant on manufacturing as a source of jobs growth. Its manufacturing sector, while strong, is instead concentrated in specific areas, particularly food manufacturing, which is responsible for some 10,000 local positions. Between 2008 and 2013, the region’s food manufacturing industry expanded by 25%.

The same coastline that supports Wilmington’s burgeoning port is also responsible for driving another important regional industry: Tourism. According to NCDC data, tourism spending in the Southeast Prosperity Zone hit more than $2 billion and employed some 19,000 people in 2013. Illustrating just how important tourism is to Wilmington, the retail trade, accommodation, and food service industries are responsible for one out of every three private sector jobs in the region.

Tourism has only become more important over the past five years, as Wilmington has successfully targeted and drawn visitors from across the U.S. and elsewhere around the world. Apart from the very real impact it has had on the regional jobs market and economy, tourism has also helped the city bolster its coffers: Between 2008 and 2013, taxable retail sales shot up 11% in the Southeast zone—double the statewide rate.

As in many of the other cities we’ve visited this year on our #SiliconCitiesUSA tour, Wilmington has also benefited from having a world-class academic institution, the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW), in its backyard. The public research university has partnered with state and business leaders over the years to develop programs aimed at giving local residents the skills they need to remain economically competitive.

Yet UNCW isn’t the only school in town. It has strategically partnered with Cape Fear Community College (CFCC) to advance the region’s economic goals. Together, the two institutions wield quite the impact: According to a recent study, UNCW and CFCC generated a combined $1.2 billion in added regional economic activity between 2012 and 2013.

UNCW and CFCC do more than just employ a lot of people. (Although they have nearly 4,000 people on their payrolls.) They draw talented people to Wilmington, and they help give them the sorts of skills that employers want job candidates to have. “This study helps to affirm the role that our higher educational institutions play in creating a better quality of life for our region in terms of higher-paying jobs for local residents and a stronger economic climate for business and industry,” said CFCC interim president Amanda Lee in a statement.

But what does all this mean for Wilmington’s entrepreneurs and its business owners? Stay tuned later in the week, when we’ll take a deep dive into the region’s small business economy to show how these and other state and regional initiatives are directly affecting the men and women behind the city’s burgeoning economy.

What is #SiliconCitiesUSA?

Over the course of this year, we’re exploring how entrepreneurs and businesses are faring in non-major U.S. cities, beginning with Des Moines, Iowa. We’ll be reporting on the ground from each city, talking with elected officials and business leaders about how they’re harnessing their unique resources and local talent to fuel economic growth and better compete against more established urban centers like San Francisco and New York City.