The economy looks a little better than it did a year ago, and most metro areas in North Carolina are on the road to recovery. Jacksonville, home of the Camp Lejeune Marine base, is even in expansion mode, according to Moody’s Economy.com, part of New York-based Moody’s Corp. But the outlook isn’t so sunny in the Wilmington metro, which includes New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties.
Moody’s says it’s one of just 22 U.S. metros at risk of double-dipping back into recession — and the only one in North Carolina. What makes it vulnerable is overreliance on construction, tourism and service-based jobs, according to Moody’s economist Jimmy Jean. “So much of the area’s job market is dependent on construction and the second-home market. The [national] first-home market is not doing well, so the second-home market is definitely not doing well.”
Part of his point is conceded by Connie Majure-Rhett, executive director of the Greater Wilmington Chamber of Commerce. “We know we have been very dependent on our real estate in our economy, and when it’s good, it’s very, very good.” Indeed, the annual number of single-family homes sold almost doubled between 2002 and 2005, when it peaked at 9,347, according to the Wilmington Regional Association of Realtors. The average price of $252,646 then was more than $70,000 higher than in 2002. Sales started slipping, then the recession hit with full force in 2008, when the number fell below the 2002 level. Last year was even worse: 4,308, at an average price of $234,000.
Others have a more cheerful outlook than Moody’s. Woody Hall, an economics professor at UNC Wilmington, says the local economy, which leveled off in 2008 and much of 2009, actually grew in the third and fourth quarters of last year. He’s predicting 4% growth this year. “What the data is saying is that we’re having some stability down here.”
Local leaders aren’t standing pat. They’re trying to shift to an economy that has more so-called knowledge workers such as those in the biotechnology sector. The Wilmington chamber recently launched the Cape Fear Future initiative to lure companies and workers, partly by using the metro’s desirable coastal location — its real estate — as bait.