Improving Business in the Wilmington Region

Wilmington region sees high job growth

Southeastern North Carolina counties net high percentages of job creation.

By Ashley Morris StarNews Staff

SOUTHEASTERN, N.C. — Terry Greenlaw relocated from Atlanta to Wilmington last year to serve as the chief technology officer at CastleBranch.

He brought his family with him. And he brought four other colleagues with him to Wilmington.

The gig at CastleBranch was a totally unexpected opportunity for Greenlaw, who initially came to Wilmington for a two-day consulting job. But then he fell in love with the company, the community, he said, and made the move. “It was a very easy decision.”

Greenlaw’s experience in finding a job in a place like Wilmington is not rare in 2016. The UNC Center for Urban and Regional Studies culled through data to determine how many private sector jobs were created in each county in the state from 1990 to 2015. What the center found was a, “tale of two states.” Counties with a rural population classification lost thousands of jobs, while urban and suburban counties continue to thrive.

Higher paying jobs

Interestingly Brunswick County had the second highest urban job growth rate in the state behind Currituck County, beating out Wake County by percent change. Since 1990, Brunswick County has created 12,963 private-sector jobs, a 115 percent increase. Pender County saw a 77 percent increase with more than 3,500 new jobs (fifth highest statewide). New Hanover landed in seventh place with a 69 percent growth rate and more than 34,000 new jobs.

Several indicators point to this growth in the Cape Fear region as being sustainable. Dr. Michael Webb, a research associate at UNC who authored the urban growth study, said the growth is broad-based in the region and not too focused on one industry, which could lead to an eventual bust.

“You can really see in your area a growth in more white collar industries like education, health care, research and technology and other high-end services,” Webb said.

In Brunswick County alone the education and healthcare industries grew 509.2 percent since 1990, he said.

The growth in these industries is reflected in tech companies just like CastleBranch. Chief Financial Officer Lauren Henderson remembers 10 years ago when the company had 50 employees. Now they have 400, many recruited from UNC System schools. Henderson said she has watched as the Wilmington community has been able to support their company growth and vice versa.

But Webb was surprised to learn that in an area marketing its beach towns the growth of the tourism industry was not overwhelming, which could be a good thing, he said.

“One concern to have with cities where tourism is big, is that tourism doesn’t pay very well, it provides more low paying jobs, and so sometimes a strong tourism growth can mean a low wage growth,” Webb said.

In contrast, he said, New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties are seeing more high paying jobs in industries like health care and finance.

One expert said using private-sector jobs as an indicator for urban growth is an accurate measuring stick. Counting public jobs can muddy the numbers in studies looking at this type of growth, said Dr. Adam Jones, associate professor of economics at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Urbanization about clustering

Across the state, Jones said the harsh dip in growth in rural areas in contrast with the high growth in places like Wilmington reflects a global trend of urbanization — masses of people moving from rural to urban areas because there is more opportunity. This is true in developing countries and now the western world is experiencing the same phenomenon, he said.

“I joke with my students about how on the drive from Wilmington to Raleigh there are exits and exits that have nothing,” Jones said. “Then…you hit Warsaw and everything is located at the same exit.”

He explained it benefits businesses to cluster together and network rather than spread apart and places like Wilmington see that same mentality on a much larger scale.

“With the clustering movement happening you are either gaining or losing,” Jones said. “Counties are either growing or dying.”

Pros and cons to growth

Of course some residents and business owners may not like all of the urbanization and growth in the area. Jones points out that the people who moved away from cities in New Jersey or New York to retire in Wilmington and surrounding areas for the quality of life may not want to see their new home become an urban center. And small law and medical practices with longtime clients may not want to compete with new places becoming established around them.

Traffic congestion can also be a point of friction with growth.

“The downside of growth is that is puts pressure on infrastructure and shines a spotlight on how well the area prepared itself for it,” Jones said.

Reporter Ashley Morris can be reached at 910-343-2096 or [email protected]