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Why Finding Common Ground Will Determine the Future of Manufacturing

Wilmington is a city of contrasts. Ocean meets river, historic district converges with high rises, and traditional industry operates alongside bio-technology start-ups. In many ways this diversity is where Wilmington draws its strength.

But what about the citizens of our region? Their diversity is even greater. Where do we meet?

Instead of meeting in the middle, too often we are divided, taking diametrically opposed positions on a range of issues, from film incentives to building a baseball stadium. This divide was seen again during the recent debate over revising New Hanover County’s Special Use Permit (SUP). In the eyes of much of the business community, the current SUP creates uncertainty and has been noted by site selectors as a hindrance to attracting new business. Site selectors can’t tell a prospect what studies and reports a business will have to submit to obtain the permit or how long the process will take. The Chamber sought to make the process objective and include a timeline.

In the eyes of environmentalists, the SUP is our security blanket, allowing elected officials and the general public to have a say in what types of businesses may locate here. Their concern is protecting our cherished quality of life. They want the SUP left as originally written, concerned that any change would weaken its intention.

Is this profit-driven corporate America versus tree huggers? No, on either count. It is two groups of concerned citizens wanting to preserve and improve their community who simply have a different mindset on how best to do so. The vote by the county commissioners reinforced this notion: two for the SUP revisions and two against.

Despite the misperception that arose during the debate, the business community’s efforts were never intended to eliminate the SUP. We cherish our plentiful natural amenities, quality of life and healthy environment just as much as anyone. So why is the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce making such a concerted effort to revise the SUP?

Although manufacturing is seeing a resurgence nationwide, having added 647,000 jobs since 2010, Wilmington has not been a part of that trend. On the 2014 Best Cities for Manufacturing Jobs List published by Forbes magazine, Wilmington ranks 292nd out of 357 cities. In the Small Cities category, Wilmington’s ranking is a paltry 157 out of 199. Several small North Carolina cities had higher rankings, including Greenville at 84, Rocky Mount at 128, and Hickory-Lenoir-Morganton at 135. Fayetteville came in just below Wilmington at 158.

Wilmington has slipped 12 spots on the Small Cities list since 2013, and 29 spots on the list of all cities. Over the past year, our city has lost 2.7% of its manufacturing jobs. Manufacturing now accounts for only 7.3 percent of employment locally.

In one decade, from 2002 to 2012, New Hanover County lost nearly 2,000 manufacturing jobs, which accounted for 26% of our manufacturing base. This is a staggering loss and a troublesome trend because it’s important that we have a diverse economy and jobs for everyone, whether you have a GED or a PhD. Without adequate jobs for all, unemployment and crime rates rise, more tax money must be spent on providing social services, and those that would like to work and stand on their own are unable. Would those that opposed revising the SUP disagree with this sentiment? Probably not…which means there is middle ground to be found.

The current SUP process was put in place in 2011, so it did not cause these manufacturing job losses. But without revisions, the current SUP process will make it more difficult to replace the jobs that were lost. There are other issues related to attracting manufacturing jobs to our region that must be addressed as well, such as the lack of infrastructure on US421 where available industrial land is most plentiful.

But finding common ground remains our biggest hindrance. The Chamber and others in the business community proposed or supported multiple versions of the SUP revisions, each of which was intended to make the changes more palatable to those on the other side of the debate. Moving forward, everyone must dispense with the “us-versus-them” mentality and seek acceptable solutions for both sides in this debate and others to come. Meeting in the middle isn’t a loss for one side or the other. It’s a win for both.