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Commerce & Industry

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The amenities of coastal living and a moderate year-round climate continually attract new residents to southeastern North Carolina. According to the Bureau of Census for 2000, the coastal counties of New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender grew nearly 35 percent overall, surpassing the state's 21.4 percent growth rate. Brunswick County alone earned distinction as the fifth fastest growing county in North Carolina. Growth for the Wilmington metropolitan statistical area (MSA), which includes parts of these counties, was 36.9 % -- 14th highest in the nation.

In the last decade of the 20th century, the Lower Cape Fear region's economy remained, like the weather, moderate and relatively stable. This stability, according to local business and economic leaders, helped the area to be somewhat less affected by state and national economic trends. Despite both good and bad economic periods in its history, the Greater Wilmington area hasn't experienced the excessive highs during more prosperous eras nor the drastic lows during recessions as other demographically similar regions.

During the early years of the 21st century, the trend in economic growth has continued. Overall economic growth for the three-county region rose 9.7 percent over 2004 to $8.5 billion, and was projected to rise 7 percent in 2005 and another 7 percent in 2006 to $9.7 billion according to William W. Hall Jr., Director of the Center for Business & Economics Services at UNCW.

For the twelve months ending May 2005, retail sales were strong in the three Cape Fear coastal counties; Brunswick County was up 11.5 percent with sales reaching $1.2 billion, Pender County was up a whopping 22.9 percent to $360.2 million and New Hanover County was up 11.2 percent to $3.9 billion.

Despite a growing trend toward year-round tourism in southeastern North Carolina, the rise and fall of economic activity throughout the year, especially during the summer months, is a fact of life for coastal counties. Employment trends have been difficult to predict during recent years because of rapid population growth, new companies entering the marketplace and other factors. However, on a historical basis, both the labor force and the number of people employed peak during June through August and bottom out during the December to January period.

Geography is an inevitable factor that sets Wilmington apart from the overall North Carolina economy, and it is driving trends that are positioning Wilmington to take advantage of a new and prosperous era at the beginning of the 21st century. Its maritime environment creates opportunities for business based on what is naturally available -- the sea, the river, the many beautiful views -- in addition to manufacturing and commerce. Examples include tourism, the influx of retirees drawn to the coastal amenities and the rise in championship golf courses in the area, especially in Brunswick County.

There have been, of course, significant times in history when Wilmington relied heavily on its natural resources for both manufacturing and agriculture. Early 18th-century settlers used the area's lush pine forests to foster a lumber industry that continues today. The manufacture of lumber-related by-products, such as tar, turpentine and pitch, was the dominant business in the 19th century, but this type of manufacturing has since declined.

Rice and cotton were an early source of income for the area; the downtown wharves were once the site of the largest cotton exporting operation in the world. After the War Between the States, the economy shifted away from cotton and rice plantations because the free labor supply was no longer available to work the labor-intensive plantations. Railroads provided jobs for 4,000 families in the first part of the 20th century, as Wilmington became a major rail center. The Atlantic Coast Line, the evolution of the Wilmington and Weldon Railroad, was a technological marvel and the pride of the Wilmington economy at the time. Many an opulent downtown home was built thanks to railroad dollars.

Trains moved the area's products efficiently into the inland market, and there was popular speculation that the rails would move the economy into prosperity. Then in 1955, the railroad announced the closing of its corporate office and subsequently sent a significant segment of Wilmington's workforce south to Jacksonville, Florida. This was a severe economic loss that forced Wilmingtonians to ponder their destiny. Not only were good-paying jobs lost with the railroad, but service businesses all over the area lost customers.

Although manufacturing continues to be an economic force in the region, statistics compiled by the University of North Carolina at Wilmington's Cameron School of Business indicate that the bulk of today's employment opportunities are in the services sector. This is a broad category that includes such diverse occupations as physicians, government workers, real estate brokers, educators, service-oriented business, hotel staff and restaurant employees.