The Cape Fear Economic Development Council convened a meeting of economic development leaders in Wilmington to continue a discussion they’d had on stage at the “Special Sauce” Power Breakfast put on by the Wilmington Business Journal in March, but with a particular focus on execution.
The purpose of the event was to translate the Garner Economics “Pathways to Prosperity” report into action items that regional economic development (ED) groups can work on together. The report, which was prepared at the request of the New Hanover County Commissioners, represents a three part plan for retooling our regional approach to economic development
Improve execution (i.e. create a county staff role with responsibility for economic development)
Improve product (i.e. set aside sustainable funding for county economic development efforts)
Communicate / market (i.e. appoint local business people as brand ambassadors).
Panelists were asked to identify up to three priorities from the report that their organization views as consistent with its vision/mission, achievable, and an opportunity for collaboration with other regional ED organizations.
The Pathways report development process began with comprehensive information gathering, including focus groups. This process revealed:
A public perception that there are too many economic development organizations (unclear who is responsible for certain functions),
A lack of regional cooperation and coordination
An atypical level of ignorance among stakeholders and the public in our region about the ED process.
CFEDC believes these problems need to be addressed before the public and stakeholders will be able to digest the report recommendations. Out of the 21 report recommendations, panelists identified the following as opportunities for collaboration:
Three county alliance
Support small and new businesses
Fund economic development infrastructure
Be involved in trade shows, site consultants for the three county area
Create more infrastructure for potential sites (421, e.g.)
Modify the Special Use Permit (SUP)
Build infrastructure for potential sites
Education about the economic development process
Broadening to a regional focus
Survey of target industries
Leadership from the private sector / business leadership (e.g., junior city council)
Coordination among different organizations
Broad coalition of venture funding for the region
Capitalizing on “place”
Mitigating vitriol and promoting cooperation
Moderator Rachel Lewis Hilburn helped the panelists and audience arrive at a consensus on the three most actionable priorities:
Three county marketing alliance
Leadership, especially in the private sector
Infrastructure for potential sites
Item 1, the three county marketing alliance, is complicated by the facts that 1) New Hanover and Pender counties have no accountable office of economic development, and outsource this function to a private company, Wilmington Business Development, and 2) Brunswick and Pender counties have very different assets and are already heavily invested in their own ED / marketing strategy by funding a full time ED group that is fully accountable to county government.
Item 2, private sector leadership, is expressed as a response to an identified public sector leadership vacuum. Pathways recommends that the business sector step up and lead the charge. CFEDC agrees.
Item 3, infrastructure for sites, clearly needs more discussion, and may very well be where New Hanover has to make a very tough decision. Some panelists implied that they interpret the Pathways recommendation to expand infrastructure to potential sites as an endorsement of continuing New Hanover County’s old industrial recruitment approach. CFEDC believes it is important for the public to be aware that the Pathways report recommends many actions and several very specific industrial targets, but it but does not recommend doubling down on intensive industry. Specific industry targets are named in the report, and none are intensive. In this context, the word industry should bring to mind biotech, pharma, aircraft, medical devices and so on rather than limestone mines and smokestacks.
In this time of scarce resources, we need to make difficult decisions about resource allocation. The public and stakeholders should educate themselves (read at least the summary slides Jay Garner presented about the report at http://www.nhcgov.com/Pages/FeaturedContent.aspx?key=A.) so that they are able to hold our elected officials and public servants accountable. Otherwise, we could see absolutely no resources allocated to the report recommendations, while the report is misrepresented as a call to expand intensive (polluting / natural resource hungry) industries instead of the ones that careful study reveals as the best fit and the most likely to pay off.
Audience questions during the Q&A period of this event revealed that the public is concerned about preserving quality of place, since it has been an important part of attracting and retaining many residents and business. This public focus on quality of place and quality of life may have been perceived by Garner and by some stakeholders as ignorance about the process, when in reality this is a perfectly rational focus for the public. We cannot expect the public to be experts in the process, but it is reasonable for the public to demand that the process be consistent with their vision of the region now and in the future.