Wilmington Micro-Region

BY JUSTIN SMITH justinsmith@nrcolumbus.com

Revised on: 03.9.2019 at 02:12 p.m. / Posted on: 03.9.2019 at 11:00 a.m. |  

Columbus County has joined forces with its neighbors to the east to attract industry to the Wilmington region. 

The county recently joined New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties in the Wilmington Micro-Region Marketing Initiative headed by North Carolina’s Southeast (NCSE), a public-private partnership focused on economic development. 

The Elizabethtown-based non-profit has expanded its reach from 11 counties to 18 in recent years, stretching from Anson County in the west to Craven County in the east. That growth led the organization to develop “micro regions” within its broader regional footprint, like the one in the Wilmington area. 

“That’s when we came up with the micro region concept because it is built around specialization of the counties’ opportunities,” said Jeff Etheridge, chairman of the NCSE Board of Directors.

Etheridge said that aligning Columbus County with Wilmington in economic development is a natural fit and an effort to help rural communities benefit from the prosperity in growing parts of the region.

“Wilmington is a driver (of economic development) and Fayetteville is a driver,” Etheridge said. “Those are the two big-city drivers we have in the region, so we wanted to build around those.”

Although Columbus County only recently joined the Wilmington Micro-Region, the other three counties have been involved since the project was launched in 2015, NCSE President Steve Yost said. The goal is to take advantage of assets like the Port of Wilmington and U.S. 74 that benefit the entire area. 

“Successful economic development is based in large part on strong collaboration these days and leveraging resources,” Yost said. 

In the last year, the marketing effort has helped recruit two distribution companies from the northeastern part of the country into Pender County, largely due to available land in the county and its proximity to the port, Yost said. 

Logistics and distribution is an industry ripe for growth in the Wilmington region, Yost said, pointing to the numerous distribution facilities that have sprung up within a 20-mile radius of the ports in Savannah, Ga. and Charleston, S.C. 

The International Logistics Park near Delco, which has yet to attract a tenant, was designed with distribution centers in mind. Located on more than 1,100 acres along U.S. 74-76, the park straddles the Columbus-Brunswick county line. 

In addition to available industrial sites, Columbus County’s “Tier-1” economically distressed status could actually help attract industry by qualifying businesses for increased state incentives and by giving the county preference when applying for infrastructure funding, Yost said. The other counties in the Wilmington Micro-Region are classified as “Tier-3,” meaning they are among the most economically prosperous in the state. 

Yost said that the two distribution companies that recently moved to Pender County were initially lured during a “recruiting mission” in which local economic developers travel to other parts of the country to sell businesses on the merits of moving to southeastern North Carolina. Representatives from the Wilmington Micro-Region will launch another recruiting mission in the coming year, Yost said. They’ll also attend a trade show focused on one of the business sectors the region is targeting: food and beverage production, aviation and aerospace, precision manufacturing and metal fabrication, logistics and distribution, life sciences and biotechnology and financial back-office facilities. In addition, NCSE is planning to host a regional tour for site-selection consultants who help businesses choose locations for their operations.  

“The initiative scales up the marketing to a higher level that most individual counties cannot afford to do on their own,” Yost said. “It doesn’t replace the marketing that the local counties are doing. It enhances it.”

Yost said the Wilmington Micro-Region supports the industrial recruitment work being done by the Columbus Jobs Foundation and the Columbus County Economic Development Commission (EDC). 

EDC Director Gary Lanier said the marketing initiative builds on Columbus County’s existing partnerships, such as the collaboration with Brunswick County on the International Logistics Park. 

“I look at this as a natural next step to be in a partnership with Pender County, New Hanover County and Brunswick County because we all look to the state port as a major economic engine that drives the economy not only for the whole state of North Carolina, but seriously drives economic conditions within our four counties,” Lanier said. 

Lanier said Columbus County offers businesses a workforce experienced in manufacturing, as well as raw materials such as wood products and farmland needed for large-scale food production.   

“If food processors want to locate in our area, where are you going to grow the food?” he asked. “You’re not going to grow it in New Hanover County because, quite frankly, they’re getting strapped for land.”

The four counties that make up the Wilmington Micro-Region boast a labor force of more than 215,000 and 12 percent employment growth over the last five years. Other assets featured in the initiative’s marketing materials include Wilmington International Airport, UNC Wilmington and the region’s three community colleges. 

The marketing effort will be evaluated on several fronts, including the number of companies contacted, number of leads generated and the number of site selection consultants engaged. NCSE will provide periodic performance reports to the county governments in the Micro-Region.