As Tropical Storm Idalia passes through our area, we hope everyone is staying safe and tuned in to the National Weather Service for updates. 

New Hanover Community Endowment Chair Bill Cameron (center) attends an event last year. (Photo courtesy of NHCE)

Early on a sunny Wednesday morning a few weeks back, a room full of nonprofit leaders from around New Hanover County gathered at The Harrelson Center in downtown Wilmington.

The draw: William Buster, CEO of the nonprofit New Hanover Community Endowment, who was delivering a sneak peek of the endowment’s upcoming second grant cycle.

The billion-plus-dollar endowment, born from the county’s 2021 sale of the then-public New Hanover Regional Medical Center to Novant, will eventually award over $40 million in grants each year.

I’ve spoken with several nonprofit leaders who felt the $9 million inaugural cycle felt rushed; Buster himself acknowledged that it was done without a strategic plan and lacked the kind of big-picture intentionality he wants to see. The local nonprofit world has been on tenterhooks waiting to see what the second round of funding looks like. 

I saw pretty much wall-to-wall smiles in the room as Buster outlined the future, which included more generous grants, multi-year funding, and a vision for bigger and bolder projects. “Transformational change” and the money to make it happen–that’s what the endowment has in mind. 

It’s a nonprofit’s dream come true. That is, unless you’re operating outside of New Hanover County, as was the case for one Pender County director in attendance. (Grants can only go to programs based primarily in New Hanover County.)

“Should we stand at the border and say, ‘No one from New Hanover,’ because we can’t get funding out of New Hanover?” the director asked Buster bluntly during a Q&A.

“Is that a question or a comment?” Buster responded.

The crowd laughed nervously. Buster kept cool and offered to have a conversation–a promise he routinely makes good on, I’ve heard–but held the line. “We’re focused here in New Hanover County,” he said.

The director didn’t want their name reported – and, in fact, none of the two dozen or so nonprofits from outlying counties, like Pender, Brunswick, and Columbus that I’ve spoken to have been eager to go on the record. While they’re frustrated about the hard boundary at the county line, they fear upsetting the endowment and foreclosing the chance of a future workaround.

They aren’t simply envious of New Hanover’s astoundingly good fortune. They’re frustrated because they feel like the endowment is hoarding money that should rightly be spread over the broader Cape Fear area.

Novant paid over $2 billion for the hospital because it was a regional healthcare powerhouse, and patients who live in less affluent, more rural counties around New Hanover fueled its growth. According to state data, over half of the patients who received profitable services like surgical care at the hospital came from Bladen, Brunswick, Columbus, Duplin, Onslow, and Pender counties.

Nor are those nonprofit leaders alone in the belief that benefits should be shared. “We believe that the endowment should not be limited to the county lines of New Hanover County, to serve the broader region,” Attorney General Josh Stein, who reviewed the hospital sale and the endowment’s bylaws, told me in early 2021. (Stein, however, stopped short of imposing a geographic footprint expansion when he approved the transaction.) Frank Williams, then chair of the Brunswick County Board of Commissioners, said keeping the funds inside New Hanover County would “simply be wrong.”

But New Hanover County commissioners inscribed a narrow focus in the endowment’s founding documents. 

The endowment’s board inherited the situation, and they haven’t been blind to the inequity. “We don’t want this to be the perfect place to live surrounded by nothing but poverty and need — that doesn’t help anybody,” Hannah Gage, then vice-chair of the endowment, told me in 2021. 

Buster put it plainly earlier this year: “If I lived in Pender County, I would be mad as hell. If my family … if my grandmother, and my mom, and all my sisters, and everybody gave birth in that hospital – and I saw the numbers and the number was 68 percent of the revenue came from outside of the county … It’s a sincere question that any rational person would have.” But Buster says he hopes their work in New Hanover will have “ripple effects,” and might attract other funders to those counties. 

Ultimately, the decision on where the endowment’s money goes isn’t Buster’s to make – it’s up to the board. Gage and others have told me they think there will be an “evolution of thought,” as the years go on. But as the sophomore grant cycle opens this Friday, the board appears unmoved.

“This board was given some organizing documents, and we’re going to honor the organizing documents,” board chair Bill Cameron told me recently. I asked if that meant forever. “Someone else can change them,” Cameron said. 

Someone, but not him. Sometime, but not now.

-Ben Schachtman

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The Last Fish

As competing interests vie for the state’s fisheries and coastal tourism, how can policymakers ensure a future for both?

Glenn Skinner poses for a photo at the commercial fishing harbor August 3, 2023 on Harkers Island, North Carolina. Photo by Allison Joyce

It’s easy to assume they’d be simpatico, but recreational and commercial fishers have been locked in a feud over catch limits and the future of their industries. 

Recreational fishers say the state has been far too lenient with commercial fishing rules and is complicit in the deteriorating health of the coastal marine ecosystem. Meanwhile, commercial fishing interests see more regulation as a threat to their livelihood and heritage. 

“It’s a complex, deeply political debate, not easily parsed along class, political, or ideological lines. And under it are existential questions about the future of North Carolina’s coast,” Emily Cataneo writes for The Assembly.

Cashing Out

Live Oak Bank’s second-in-command is out. The Wilmington-headquartered company, an online bank, announced Friday that president Huntley Garriott would be replaced by chief financial officer, William C. “BJ” Losch, III, effective immediately. 

On Tuesday, Garriott filed to sell about $6.7 million worth of shares, according to a federal financial disclosure– under half of all of his remaining securities with the company. The firm didn’t offer a reason for his departure. 

Live Oak Bank founder, chairman and CEO James S. “Chip” Mahan III did offer some warm parting words. Garriott, he said, “worked tirelessly through many challenges to place Live Oak on incredible footing.”

At a market value of nearly $1.5 billion, Live Oak Bank is one of the region’s largest employers, with nearly 700 full-time staff based in Wilmington and 940 overall, according to a spokesperson. The bank has incubated well-known local spinoffs, including nCino, Apiture, the nonprofit Cape Fear Collective.

Live Oak calls itself “America’s small business bank,” and indeed, its core has long been fueled by government-backed loans through the Small Business Administration. Under Garriott’s watch, Live Oak has been the SBA’s top lender for six years. Competitors may beat the bank in volume, but Live Oak’s average loan of $1.5 million is well above others. 

The bank has also diversified in recent years and been recognized for its 4 percent savings yields on personal and business accounts, which is way above industry standard.

In the bank’s latest earnings call last month, Garriott and the other top brass shared optimism about greater economic conditions, and their understanding of consumer behavior. With no overhead of bank branches or ATMs, Mahan said they are distancing themselves from a dinosauric banking industry that remains “woefully stuck in the mud.”

“We shall nip at their edges as their customers feel less appreciated.”

– Johanna F. Still

Around the Region

(Mostly) PFAS-Free: Cape Fear Public Utility Authority has IDed the first breakthrough PFAS chemical present in treated drinking water since installing its costly new treatment system, Port City Daily reports. 

Homegrown Champ: The StarNews has a quick synopsis of a new book on the life of Althea Gibson, who grew up in Wilmington in the 1940s and later became the first Black Wimbledon winner.

Illegal, But No Charges: The state’s top attorney finally finished a four-year investigation into whether local school officials covered up an employee’s sexual abuse of students–but as WHQR reports, won’t press charges because the statute of limitations had passed.

Around the State

The Aftermath of UNC’s Shooting

What we’ve learned so far about the shooting at UNC’s campus on Monday has raised a lot more questions.

The Price of a Moral Panic

In 1987, Andrew “Junior” Chandler was convicted of sexually abusing several young children. He’s the only person in N.C. still in prison from that era.

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