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Tuesday, January 31, 2023

NHC leaders draw lessons from visit to Charleston

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Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo saw a glimpse of where the city could be in two decades when he traveled to Charleston, South Carolina, this week with more than 30 local elected officials and business leaders to see how the neighboring port city has become one of the leading attractors of tourism and business development in the South.

“Where Charleston is today, we’ll be there in 20 years,” Saffo said, noting Wilmington is expected to grow by 60,000 to a  population of 170,000 by 2035, roughly  equivalent to Charleston’s population now. “What they’re doing with traffic congestion, incorporating more mixed use, is similar to what we’re trying to do here.”

The two-day educational trip to Charleston Sept. 21-22 gave Saffo and other local officials the opportunity to learn about the successful growth of the South Carolina port city, particularly in the areas of development, industry, quality of place and tourism. The trip was organized by the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce.

New Hanover County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jonathan Barfield also attended and said he was impressed with the regionalism Charleston uses to bring industry to the area.

“It’s three counties working in concert with one another on job creation and economic development,” Barfield said, stating the region has recently added facilities for Boeing, BMW and Volvo to its local economy.

Barfield said he is looking to find ways to replicate that model for the greater Wilmington area.

“How do we all speak with one voice?” Barfield said. “In Charleston, all of these different groups are coming together; they’re all signing the same song. Some are altos, some are tenors, some are sopranos, but they’re all singing the same song.”

While Saffo and Barfield said they were impressed with the success of Charleston, they noted that differences in local government structure and state policies give the neighbor to the south an advantage when it comes to attracting business and tourism.

The strong local mayoral system in South Carolina gives the city the ability to raise its own funds for projects, where Saffo said North Carolina cities are required to get state approval, which can often derail projects after lobbying and other obstacles emerge.

Saffo said while Charleston’s system is impressive, most of their success relies on funding, some of which has come from the state, particularly for draws like the aquarium, the downtown baseball stadium and the cruise ship dock.

“There’s been a lot of discussion over the years about the things Charleston is doing to attract tourism and people, but it all takes money,” Saffo said. “Bringing business to Charleston took considerable state investment, but everyone there has said the investment has been worth it.”

To help North Carolina compete, Saffo said the state’s Job Development Investment Grant, or JDIG, is a critical tool to draw in new businesses. Funding for the JDIG grant program was boosted from $15 million to $20 million in the North Carolina Competes economic development legislation that passed the General Assembly on Tuesday, Sept. 22.

Saffo noted there were a lot of similarities between Wilmington and Charleston, especially with the draw of the historic downtown, the beaches and the vibe of the urban environment that is attractive to the workforce of modern, high-tech industries.

For Barfield, the comprehensive Pathways to Prosperity report from March 2014 can serve as a guide on how to improve regionalism and more closely follow the lead of Charleston.

“Now that we have the skeleton, we just need to put more meat on the bones,” Barfield said. “We’ll need to partner more with Pender and Brunswick counties and break down the silos. We all benefit if we bring jobs and people to the region.”

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