Sunny skies, clouds on the horizon: Economists recommend cautious optimism as business experts promote global thinking at UNCW forum

Updated: Oct. 10, 2019 at 1:18 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Hurricane Florence not only caused visible damage in the Cape Fear region, physically changing the landscape in many places — it also had a profound effect on the economy of the area.

From room occupancy tax revenues to overall consumer spending, data from the latter half of 2018 and beginning of 2019 clearly shows how the storm’s influence was felt beyond the roughly four days it sat over Southeastern North Carolina.

On Thursday, local economic academics, business experts and leaders from around the region gathered at UNCW for a morning conference hosted by the Swain Center for Executive Education and Economic Development.

The goal: Get an idea of where the region — and nation — stands economically, and discuss the advantages of pursuing a global approach to business.

In general, economists such as UNCW professor Adam Jones think Wilmington and the surrounding area are doing well economically.

“We think the local economy looks good," he said. "It’s a sunny outlook, but it’s just like a day where you go to the beach and it’s sort of perfect weather but there’s this one cloud you’re looking at, and I think that’s a lot like the local economy, where things are going pretty well, we’re growing, we’re creating jobs, but there’s a lot of uncertainty.”

That uncertainty, Jones said during his remarks, includes things such as the discussion of a potential sale or new partnership for New Hanover Regional Medical Center. On a national scale, uncertainty around trade policy and interest rates can also weigh heavily locally.

“Historically the problem with uncertainty is that it just makes us nervous, and when we’re nervous we don’t make decisions, and with we put them off as long as possible," Jones said. "So that could easily slow investment, start of the new businesses, changing careers, buying new homes. That certainly affects all of our decisions and is an incentive for us to push them off and to wait.”

While growth continues, Jones said it won’t keep the same pace it has for the last several years.

After the recession that came as a result of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, Wilmington grew by leaps and bounds — but keeping up that pace would be difficult, especially given other economic factors.

“We generally think of growth as good, but it’s nice to have a manageable level of growth, and a sustainable level," he said. "So after economic downturns we grow really quickly as we are catching up, but after we’ve caught up we settle into a more stable pattern.”

He likened it to a crash on the interstate — people slow down as they approach the incident, then immediately speed up after passing it, only to eventually return to a regular speed.

As far as those dark clouds on the horizon, Jones referenced one peculiar indicator: recreational vehicle sales.

Whenever RV sales slump or contract — as they have in the last few quarters — Jones says the Cape Fear region may see a similar downturn.

The reason, Jones explained, is that when consumers stop spending money on RVs, that indicates they may reduce spending on other leisure activities as well, including beach trips.

With everything happening on the national political and economic stage, Jones said consumers are more wary.

“If that uncertainty persists, it could trickle over and the people visiting the region as they cut back on those discretionary luxury expenditures,” he said.

To address the changing economic landscape, other speakers at Wednesday’s event encouraged business owners and community leaders to embrace change, whether that means accepting new technology or taking a more open-minded approach.

Whether a business aims to be a worldwide player or only operate within Wilmington city limits, Abigail Dunne-Moses of the Center for Creative Leadership said thinking globally is critical to success.

“Leaders that don’t have a global mindset just cannot cope in this day and age,” Dunne-Moses said.

Dunne-Moses said businesses need to “elevate equity” and “leverage inclusion" — both things that can come easier when approached with a global mindset.

“We are constantly faced with people who speak different languages, people who live in different geographies, and that challenge translates into business decisions and business behavior,” she said.

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