Wilmington area competitive attracting businesses
Jul 14, 2012 (Menafn - Star-News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --In the span of five months, from October 2011 to February 2012, the Wilmington area lost the chance to land two big companies and the thousands of jobs they would have brought.
By most accounts, the area competed well in the list of requirements by Continental Tire and Caterpillar Inc. -- things such as the capacity to train workers, adequate building sites and infrastructure.
But their loss to South Carolina and Georgia, respectively, raises the question of whether the Wilmington area can be more competitive when the next big chance comes around.
The StarNews set out to find some answers.
By one measure it's been four years since the area scored a major triumph in attracting new jobs.
In 2008, North Carolina's Job Development Investment Grants helped entice GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy to promise to invest about 700 million in its Castle Hayne operations and add about 900 jobs.
But even that deal was fleeting.
Though it has added jobs in the past four years, GE Hitachi canceled the agreement this year because it said it could not create the jobs within the five years promised.
In the meantime, other North Carolina communities -- many of them outside the most populous major employment hubs -- have lured new companies and expansions through the state's investment grant program.
It's not to say that the Wilmington area is not competitive. Development agencies and business and community leaders say it is.
Companies already here, for instance, have expanded operations and employment without the benefit of incentives.
AAIPharma, for instance, recently opened a new lab and plans to add 40 to 50 employees in the next year. Employment screening firm Castle Branch plans to add 50 in the next year, and online insurance broker HomeInsurance.com predicts it will add 200 in the next two years.
And anecdotally the area is growing through a robust entrepreneurial community.
"Certainly one of the great strengths (in attracting companies and jobs) is a highly diverse economy that has a unique and diverse business climate," said Scott Satterfield, CEO of Wilmington Business Development (WBD).
He cited Corning, with the largest fiber optic manufacturing facility in the world; GE with its nuclear and aircraft manufacturing components; and a key clinical research company, PPD.
"It's clear that it gets the attention of people involved in site selection. If they see them here, that it's a good place to do business, that catches on quickly."
Ian Oeschger, co-founder of the Cape Fear Economic Development Council, agrees but wonders whether the message is getting out in a cohesive manner.
"I think an unclaimed part of this region's competitive identity is that the natural resources of this area make this a world-class place to settle," Oeschger said.
"I think that as a region we haven't claimed this identity."
But there may be other, more concrete weaknesses.
The StarNews also took a look at how recruitment efforts are structured and found that some people want a more regional approach.
This three-day series examines the area's infrastructure and whether it is up to snuff in drawing new companies to Southeastern North Carolina. The need for a beefed-up port or a bigger one came up; so did the adequacy of sewer and water service.
On the government front, the city's development process also came in for criticism.
Among the critics are the building and development lobbying group BASE, or Business Alliance for a Sound Economy, which says it's "critically important" that the city streamline its development process and make it more efficient.
"Commercial brokers constantly receive feedback from developers and entrepreneurs that Wilmington is one of the toughest places in the state in which to develop property," said Hansen Matthews, a partner in the Maus, Warwick, Matthews commercial real estate firm in Wilmington.
"Some of the problems rest in the rules and some rest in the difficulty of understanding how to navigate the regulations."
Despite its problems, the area remains economically attractive -- the "jewel of the coast," Oeschger said.
But how many people across the country know that?
"One of things that we should focus on is visibility, raising our profile," said Christopher White, a spokesman at GE Hitachi Nuclear Energy. "It's great that 'Iron Man 3' is being filmed here, but most business people (across the nation) have no idea where it's being filmed. We have to do a better job of getting the word out."
Wayne Faulkner: 343-2329
On Twitter: @bizniznews
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