Six of the 21 economic development recommendations outlined in the New Hanover County-funded Garner Report made the short list of items needing immediate attention during the joint meeting between Wilmington City Council and New Hanover County Board of Commissioners.
The meeting, held Tuesday, Aug. 26, at the New Hanover County Executive Development Center, was facilitated by Dr. Thomas Porter, University of North Carolina Wilmington marketing department chair, and Jim Roberts, UNCW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship director.
The first two hours of Tuesday’s four-hour meeting were reserved for narrowing the list of 21 economic development recommendations. When asked to vote which recommendations had the highest barriers, elected officials from the two boards chose creating a three-county micromarketing alliance, creating and refining an incentive policy and process, identifying sustainable funding for education, rebuilding the unincorporated areas of New Hanover County, providing free high-speed internet access across the county and advocating for the continuation of film incentives.
When asked which of the recommendations were the easiest to attain, the elected officials chose creating a three-county micromarketing alliance, creating and refining an incentive policy and process, advocating for the continuation of film incentives, providing better support for small and local businesses and cultivating a talent pipeline to the region.
From those two lists it was determined six recommendations required immediate attention: Creating the three-county marketing alliance, advocating for and developing a realistic and sustainable incentive policy, supporting small businesses, making the case for sustainable sources to improve the county’s economic development infrastructure, rebuilding New Hanover County and advocating for continuation of state incentives for film.
Advocating for the continuation of state film incentives was one of the few items not assigned directly to either county or city staff as the Wilmington Regional Film Commission was named as the organization that should lead that charge.
“If you haven’t talked to [commission director]Johnnie Griffin in the past 30 days you should give him a call and let him fill you in on the dire situation,” said Woody White, New Hanover County Commission Chairman. “Families employed in the industry are packing their bags … and for whatever reason that message has not been effectively communicated.”
In addition to charging the regional film commission with enlisting the help of stakeholders in the film industry to make the case for film incentives, White and the elected officials gathered will sign a letter to Gov. Pat McCrory asking him to call for the N.C. General Assembly to reconvene to revisit the state incentive program.
Another recommendation that received a large portion of the discussion time was making the case for funding sources to improve the region’s economic development infrastructure and identifying programs to use those monies effectively.
County commissioner Jonathan Barfield said it would require investing the money in infrastructure improvements upfront to attract new industry and businesses versus proposing improvements after businesses show interest in the region.
“I know taxpayers may gawk at it for a while but they won’t when they see the developments come and their tax bills go down,” Barfield said.
Wilmington Mayor Pro Tem Margaret Haynes said the county should take the lead on the initiative but also doubted county commission’s commitment to funding the improvements.
“Philosophically there is a problem because the county has historically not raised taxes and would not have the heart to do so,” Haynes said.
Ultimately that issue was delegated to county staff.
At the conclusion of the meeting, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo suggested another joint meeting after county manager Chris Coudriet and city manager Sterling Cheatham had time to develop plans for the two recommendations each entity was charged with.
The rest of the elected officials agreed and White called the first joint meeting a success.
“I think we accomplished a lot; not that we always agree but I think we virtually agreed on everything here,” he said. “The more times they can meet and discuss things like this together, the better.”