Newcomers are bringing home the bacon: $742 million, to be exact.

Net migration–or the tally of newcomers minus those who moved away–was responsible for the additional cash in the Cape Fear region between 2020 and 2021. It’s largely attributed to pandemic-induced relocation trends, and has already affected the local economy. 

“Economic growth, especially when it happens fast, is never evenly distributed and almost always results in winners and losers,” Mouhcine Guettabi, regional economist at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, told The Assembly.

Taxable income – or adjusted gross income (AGI), the figure reported in tax returns – from net migration was behind the tri-county area’s nine-figure boost, according to data released by the Internal Revenue Service this spring. The Economic Innovation Group parsed that data this month to reveal nationwide and regional trends, and The Dive further analyzed it to detail its local impact. 

Nationally, the Economic Innovation Group found that big cities lost billions. High-earners favored smaller, growing counties in the urban exodus, causing places like Manhattan to lose $16 billion, while San Francisco shed $8 billion. 

Meanwhile, the Wilmington region witnessed a windfall. 

“I don’t think many local governments were prepared for just how fast money moved during the pandemic,” said Connor O’Brien, who conducted the EIG analysis.

Retirees collecting earnings from their investments could represent a large share of the area’s net new earnings, Guettabi said. And the reported data may be a “lower-bound estimate,” as it likely doesn’t include remote workers whose employment is based out-of-state. 

A tri-county shuffle: Our analysis excluded intra-regional migration, which also added a hearty chunk to each county’s taxable income boons. People who moved within the region–so those who moved between Brunswick, Pender or New Hanover counties–accounted for 3,450 tax returns, which was about half of all net new returns seen in the Cape Fear region between 2020 and 2021. 

However, total earnings from out-of-region newcomers were about four times as high–suggesting that out-of-region movers arrived with a lot more cash than locals. (This won’t come as a surprise, as there’s long been a sentiment that new wealthy residents are changing the local landscape). 

Notably, movers still remaining in the Cape Fear region significantly added to each neighboring county’s totals. For example, folks who left New Hanover County brought $67 million to Brunswick County – the largest influx compared to movers from other counties also flocking there.

Other stats:

  • Brunswick County gained the most net new taxable income statewide, at about $549 million.
  • New Hanover County, which raked in $280 million in net new earnings, was third statewide.
  • Brunswick also topped the state’s 100 counties in total net new income, compared to existing earnings. At 26 percent, Brunswick’s boost was about double the second-highest ranking county in the state, Avery. Pender County, which added $111 million, was third. 

Guettabi said he thinks the trends were similar but weaker in 2022, and that 2023 will slow down as interest rates deter new home buyers and more workers return to the office.

Capital infusions like these typically have a broader benefit to the region, Guettabi said, as people spend money at restaurants and retailers. But it can also drive up housing prices. 

Current residents that didn’t already own assets in the region “tend to bear the negative consequences of growth in terms of congestion, higher prices, and strain on infrastructure,” Guettabi said. “People who own assets or get jobs as a result of the growth are certainly lifted as a result of these developments.”

– Johanna F. Still

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Born Again on the Trent River

After getting whomped by Hurricane Florence, tiny Pollocksville used grit, grants, and gumption to recover—and created a model for responding to rising water. 

The Trent River winds its way through Pollocksville on June 29, 2023.

When Hurricane Florence arrived in Pollocksville, a town of 275 about 30 minutes north of Jacksonville, 2 feet of water sloshed into Nancy Barbee’s home – even though the house was elevated 4 feet.

“The New York City police came in a pontoon boat and picked me up,” said Barbee, a town commissioner.

The storm forced residents to decide whether to give up or come back. They decided to come back, but rebuilding required cobbling together a lot of goodwill, funding, and smarts. It also took the help of N.C. State University’s Coastal Dynamics Design Lab, a group of landscape architects who develop resiliency strategies for towns like Pollocksville that aren’t flush with resources or staff.

For The Assembly, J. Michael Welton brings us the story of a small-town recovery effort that also capitalized on what they do have.

“Why a place matters—its history, culture, riverfront or historic structures—can be used as a springboard to recovery, as opposed to giving it all up,” said lab director Andrew Fox.

The Toll of Time

Back in June 2021, the North Carolina Department of Transportation (NCDOT) proposed a privatized toll bridge to replace the aging Cape Fear Memorial Bridge. The reaction was resoundingly negative.

At the time, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo summed up the region’s response: “Hell no.”

The Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization initially shot the idea down 7-5 in 2021, but the following year, the board reversed its stance and considered the option once again.

That’s in part because the current 54-year-old bridge is running out of time. This winter, the transportation department will block traffic in one direction at a time for lift section repairs, which will cause significant traffic headaches. 

Despite that, a replacement hasn’t scored well with state transit planners in biennial rubrics that determine which projects get bankrolled. There are about $20 billion worth of projects in the line for state funding ahead of a new Cape Fear bridge. NCDOT has seemingly recovered from its financial woes in recent years (a sizable portion were self-inflicted) – but there still isn’t enough money.

The bridge likely needs a 135-foot clearance to accommodate the Coast Guard, and the cheapest option on the table right now is around $390 million. (And if the plan were to include a rail line, that could double the cost – but that’s a topic for another edition of The Dive).

Federal grants could close the gap and boost the NCDOT prioritization score, but would still require up to $200 million in matching funds – hardly an easy lift.

So, NCDOT is currently studying both privatized and public toll options, as well as what they would do to local traffic patterns once drivers avoiding a toll opt to take I-140 or the no-toll Isabel Holmes bridge. NCDOT hopes to present the results of that traffic and revenue study to the planning board by the end of the year.

“I know nobody wants to hear the word, but … if you toll it traffic is going to go elsewhere,” NCDOT regional engineer Chad Kimes told Wilmington City Council this week.

While NCDOT crunches numbers and ranks projects, only local authorities can authorize a toll bridge. Which means, eventually, someone much closer to home may have an unpopular decision to make.

– Benjamin Schachtman

Around the Region

Good Bones: A unique and historic downtown estate in need of complete restoration is on the market at an eye-popping price. The StarNews’ John Staton remembers “a time in Wilmington when $1.3 million would’ve got you one of the nicest houses in town, move-in ready. But not in this real estate market.”

Bike-Sized Loophole: Pender County nixed a judge’s side business renting out a motocross track after noise complaints from neighbors. It was a commercial operation, the county ruled, and violated local zoning code. The business then found a loophole: operate as a short-term rental, WHQR reports. 

Trawl Away: A Wilmington-based nonprofit just lost its lawsuit against a group of commercial shrimpers. The suit claimed bycatch and seafloor trawling activities violated the Clean Water Act, but the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld a 2021 district court decision, Coastal Review reports. 

Around the State

The College That Refused to Die 

What happens when survival becomes a college’s No. 1 priority? St. Andrews University offers a cautionary tale.

A Duke Scientist Sued Over Unequal Pay

Biomedical engineer Rachel Lance was labeled a ‘troublemaker’ after she complained that Duke pays her significantly less than male colleagues.

A Newspaper Publisher’s Biggest Regret

The Charlotte Observer’s Rolfe Neill was among the last of the regional newspaper titans.

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