WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Paige Blankenship and thousands of other college students are taking some of their final steps on the UNC Wilmington campus. Every step, and every class, brings Paige closer to finishing her film studies degree, and closer to life in the real world. Like many in the Class of 2016, Paige has not found a full-time job.
"I heard all of these rumors that it was the 'Hollywood of the East', and at the time it was," Paige said about her decision to attend UNC Wilmington. "So I thought the possibility was there for a long-time career. But as time went on I began to wonder if that was a possibility."
Along with the graduates from UNC Wilmington, thousands of seniors will leave local high schools with diplomas and will look to start careers in the next four or five years. With new residents moving to Wilmington every year, and experts predicting the city's population growing by about 60,000 in the next quarter century, all of those factors mean lot of resumes in an already tight job market. Unless new industries and businesses bring new job opportunities to the area, it may also add up to a swelling pool of unemployed people.
Adam Jones, an assistant professor and regional economist at UNCW, believes the area beaches and tourism will continue to be two of Wilmington's biggest draws. They will help grow the number of service jobs in the next quarter century. While they may serve as adequate summer jobs for high school and college students, they are not the careers that will fulfill most graduates.
Corning, GE-Hitachi and Vertex Rail are just some of the leading traded-sector companies currently doing business in Wilmington. Traded-sector companies produce products in one market, and sell them outside of that market to other areas. Those companies often offer long-term, good paying jobs to employees.
Scott Satterfield with Wilmington Business Development is working to bring that next big company into Wilmington.
"Just remember, our competition isn't just within the state, or the region, or the United States, it's an international competition," Satterfield said when talking about the recruiting industry to set up shop in Wilmington. "Every community is talking about jobs, every community is talking about investment, every community is talking about tax base, every community is trying to keep their talent. It's not just Wilmington trying to do this."
Satterfield and Jones agree that having land cleared and ready for development is essential in the recruiting battle.
Both also agree the recent process of running water and sewer lines from the Sweeney Treatment Plant in Wilmington under the Cape Fear River, and extending those key services to sites along the Highway 421 corridor, will make that area of New Hanover County enticing for companies looking to open up shop.
"Otherwise it's just a piece of real estate with no real opportunities to bring their business," said New Hanover County Commissioner Woody White. "It would accelerate us and put us on a fast track, and really put us in the ballpark with places like Charleston and Savannah to be competitive."
"We don't necessarily have the sites ready to go right now, and they (companies) don't want to wait," Jones said. "When they make a decision to invest, if someone else down the road has a place to go, they are going to go there."
The State Port gives Wilmington a competitive advantage over many other cities when it comes to recruiting industry. But the port is also competing with larger facilities in both Charleston and Savannah. Crews are currently working to widen the turning basin in the Cape Fear River, so bigger ships can do business in Wilmington.
"I think we have a much better chance at getting folks that need access to the port, can capitalize off the port, or use the water resources to their advantage," Jones said.
In 2014, Garner Economics LLC prepared an economic development target analysis for New Hanover County, a type of action plan for leaders to use as a guide to "strengthen existing industries and identify emerging ones to increase private investment, job creation and retention".
The report outlined four "optimal target areas" for those engaged in recruiting new business, as they "offer the most promise for New Hanover County." The target areas include:
- Life/Marine Science Research and Development
- High Value Office Operations
- Precision Manufacturing
- Aircraft Assembly, Modification and Maintenance
"Obviously we have some natural advantages toward industries that are marine-centric," Jones said when talking about the types of industries that could emerge in Wilmington. "There has been some talk or desire to recruit aircraft manufacturing or assembly to the area. But that's a tough game. Everybody in the country is playing in that game."
Wilmington City Council recently passed a Comprehensive Plan that "sets the general direction for future growth and development across the city for the next 25 years."
One of the policies listed in the plan details specifics for recruiting future businesses into the city. It says "recruitment efforts should focus on industries and businesses that are environmentally conscious, promote sustainable practices, and reduce negative impacts on the environment.
"Green-collar" business development that is consistent with the city's goals, particularly those with the potential for locating within easy access of unemployed or underemployed workers, should be supported and encouraged.
Jones says that goes hand-in-hand with the importance of the beaches and Cape Fear River for generating tourism dollars.
"It narrows down who we can go after, but it also recognizes the emphasis on trying to maintain the quality of the place we have in Wilmington," Jones explained. "So if we bring in somebody (industry) that is going to pollute the water or the river, we're going to lose a lot of what we have going for us now in terms of tourism and the riverfront and beach property."
The report also suggests that leaders look at Wilmington's leadership position in the film and television industry in North Carolina, and should capitalize on that standing as a "local economic development opportunity."
State lawmakers allowed North Carolina's Film Incentive Tax Credit to expire at the end of 2014, replacing it with a scaled-down Film Grant program.
Increasing the funding to $30 million for the 2015-2016 and 2016-17 fiscal years is being credited for luring two television productions into Wilmington, the History Channel series Six and TNT series Good Behavior. Industry insiders are optimistic that the more productions could follow and bring more opportunities.
That would only be good news for people like Paige Blankenship, and it may allow her to stay in Wilmington instead of having to follow others who left the area to follow their career path.
"Everyone is hoping that Wilmington can stay above water, we're kind of snorkeling right now in the film industry," Paige said. "So I have to decide 'where do I go?' Do I stay here and try to find another opportunity that will keep me fulfilled and keep me alive with a roof over my head? Or do I leave town and go to a place like New York where I know there is going to be a job? That's a big question on my mind, every day."
"Every community wants to keep its' talent, and every community struggles to some degree to keep its talent," Satterfield said. "We're not alone in that. But I'm confident that we're going to have opportunities in the future for the kids that grow up and go to school in our area."