I Have Seen the One that Got Away, and She’s Wearing Camo

Military families are good business and missed connections for the region

In economic development circles, you never hear professionals talk about “the one that got away”. Except when the carefully crafted veil of secrecy around economic development efforts is broken by the occasional news reporter, missed economic development opportunities rarely see the light of day. I suppose that to reveal a missed economic development opportunity suggests failure at some level, and no one wants to admit failure in this business. On the other hand, as any entrepreneur will tell you, if you are not failing frequently and spectacularly, then you are probably not getting better at whatever you are doing – just existing. So let’s set aside our morbid fascination with who may be at fault, and focus on how we can fix it.

On a recent Thursday afternoon flight to Wilmington, I sat next to a young woman who told me her husband was a Navy officer undergoing specialized training at Camp Lejeune. Through polite conversation, I learned that she now lives in Dallas near her extended family. I didn’t even have to ask why – she volunteered that she used to live in the area, and they were considering buying a house, but they did not feel that the Jacksonville area had enough to offer them. She expressed relief that her husband may be entering a new training program in San Diego soon, so whether or not they would have stayed much longer anyway is an open question. But here’s the kicker – they never considered buying a house in Wilmington or New Hanover County, because as a military family they felt unwelcome. Now that took me by surprise, and if that didn’t grab you the rest of her story will.

Without prying too much about their inhospitable impression of the people in our region, I asked her how they typically spend their free time in the area, since she was headed to Jacksonville for an extended weekend. She explained that they had long since exhausted all of the family activities available in Jacksonville, so they have gotten in the habit of taking weekend trips to Savannah and Norfolk in their free time together. Puzzled why they would go that far when Wilmington is practically next door, I opened my big mouth and pried a little. Without much prompting, I got an interesting inside scoop about the impression our fair city has made on military families.

Apparently, Wilmington has a reputation of being “unfriendly” to military families. She explained that she realizes there are young Marines who come here and let off steam at the bars and clubs, but she didn’t see a connection between that behavior and the unfriendliness of Wilmingtonians to military families. Apparently, this reputation is widely shared in facebook groups frequented by military spouses in the area. My informant said that on several occasions, she and her husband had been totally ignored by servers in restaurants. Mind you, this is a husband and wife out for a nice meal or a family on a weekend outing, not out partying at the bars.

For a long time, I have thought that Wilmington’s tourist attractions could benefit from a more active marketing effort aimed at nearby military installations. I first had this impression upon hearing about the fact that the Battleship USS North Carolina expects future financial challenges due to the aging demographic that typically visits the battleship. Another challenge could be that as the demographic skews younger, the impression that military families have of the “unfriendliness” of Wilmington will make attracting them to the battleship even harder, since no one comes to town to enjoy just the battleship without also having a meal or enjoying other local attractions.

If there is any truth to this reputation Wilmington apparently has of being “military unfriendly”, then each of us have an individual responsibility to do something about it. After all, these people are putting everything on the line. Is it too much to ask for us to welcome them to our city? Beyond the individual responsibility, it is the responsibility of each establishment with employees serving customers to make it not just preferable, but mandatory – a matter of company policy – to extend the warmest possible welcome to our military brethren and their loved ones. At the city and county level, a well-considered effort at understanding how we are perceived and working to address the sources of negative impressions would be well worth the time and money.

On any given weekend, presumably thousands of families from Jacksonville to Fayetteville could be considering where to spend their time off. Whatever it takes to keep those folks coming back to Wilmington and New Hanover County should be among our highest priorities, especially if we hope to stand any chance of fulfilling Governor McCory’s expectation that our region’s tourism industry will power ahead of coastal regions to our north and south. Let’s make it happen!

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