Wilmington's diverse economy is composed of several mainstays: tourism, filmmaking, contract research organizations (CROs), finance, retail, service, construction, education, government, arts and manufacturing. The area's largest employers include GE-Hitachi Nuclear Energy, Corning, PPD, Verizon Wireless, and Progress Energy.
But perhaps above all are Wilmington's creative minds our entrepreneurs. There is an overriding feeling in Wilmington that if one can't find a job that suits them, they simply create their own. Entrepreneurial spirit has become a calling that has attracted many from across the country, prompting Fortune Small Business to rank Wilmington #14 in its rating of the Best Places to Launch a Business (2009). Entrepreneurial efforts are supported by the University of North Carolina Wilmington Entrepreneurship Center, the Cape Fear Community College Small Business Center, the Small Business Technology Development Center, the Chamber's Cape Fear Future initiative, Wilmington Downtown, Inc. and more.
Pharmaceutical contract research organization PPD is Wilmington's most visible entrepreneurial success story. But numerous others could be poised for national recognition and statewide prominence: Dry Case, Castle Branch, Tera Disc, Inclinix, ScheduleFly and many more. Without a doubt, Wilmington's feel-good entrepreneurial story is the Full Belly Project, which is responsible for designing equipment a universal nut sheller, mobile solar water pumps, low-water hand washing stations that have greatly improved the lives of those in third world countries.
Successful entrepreneurial ventures aside, Wilmington's economy as a whole has suffered some setbacks in the past few years, as has the rest of the country and much of the world. But overall, the economic growth rate has nearly always remained above the national average, reaching 8% in the mid-90s and is predicted to remain above the NC state average. Earlier this decade, Demographics Daily put the Wilmington metro area at No. 1 in small business vitality out of 276 major metropolitan areas.
Economic growth has been helped by Wilmington's diverse economy, a health care industry that has continued to thrive through expanding service industries, and other services such as restaurants and hotels. Tourism continues to be a consistent economic driver, spurred even more by the opening of the Wilmington Convention Center in 2010. A number of people who visited have appreciated the overall quality of life and, in turn, brought their business here.
One can't discuss business in Wilmington without mentioning the film industry that has broadcast images of our beautiful scenery and amenities around the world. The legacy that is "Wilmywood" started with Orton Plantation in Brunswick County in 1983, when Firestarter producers Dino De Laurentiis and Frank Capra Jr. saw the plantation on the cover of a magazine and loved it for the project. Enticed by the area's diverse locations and temperate climate, De Laurentiis opened the N.C. Film Studio (now Screen Gems) on 32 acres just outside downtown.
In the years since, the movie studio has been the stage for successful movies ranging from The Crow and Domestic Disturbance to I Know What You Did Last Summer and Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Andy Griffith's Matlock crew regularly set up on the historic downtown streets, and the international sensation WB series Dawson's Creek filmed locally for six seasons before ending production in 2003. The Dawson's series alone pumped $125 million into the local economy. The WB series, One Tree Hill, filmed in Wilmington from 2003-2012. But the biggest movie to date, which has caused a stir across the community, has been the filming of Iron Man III in 2012.
The Greater Wilmington lifestyle is the envy of many because area residents get to live year-round in a place where others look forward to vacationing once or twice a year. Boasting ocean, river, lakes and creeks, water-related activities like fishing and boating are a major draw. Area beaches Wrightsville, Carolina, Kure and Topsail attract tens of thousands of surfers, beach volleyball aficionados, and those who just enjoy watching their children build sand castles.
Area residents treasure the scenic diversity in the region and voted overwhelmingly for a $35.5 million Parks and Recreation Referendum in 2006 to improve existing parks and expand the system. Wilmington and New Hanover County have 38 public parks that range from small neighborhood parks with a bench and view of the river to sprawling ones such as Greenfield Lake that includes 200 acres, a lake, tennis courts, jogging and bicycle paths, and canoe and paddleboat rentals. Perhaps the most beautiful park in the region is Airlie Gardens. Designed in the early 1900s, it encompasses 67 acres of post-Victorian European style gardens with 10 acres of freshwater lakes.
Arts & Entertainment
The proof of Wilmington's vibrant arts community can be viewed virtually everywhere: on the walls of local coffee houses, in avant-garde exhibits, art galleries, at arts and crafts fairs, and in numerous community theatre companies that put on shows year round. Downtown Wilmington's restaurants, galleries, and nightspots are a surprise package filled with cultural treats. There is the occasional street musician on the Riverwalk, and dozens of restaurants and bars that offer quality jazz, rock, alternative, country, and beach bands.
Stroll through downtown Wilmington any night of the week and you'll see and hear theatre coming from traditional venues, such as historic Thalian Hall which celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2008 and some less likely places: underground bars, comedy clubs and outdoor courtyards. A refurbished USO building serves as the Community Arts Center on 2nd Street, plays and the Wilmington Symphony perform at Kenan Auditorium on the campus of UNCW, and Cape Fear Community College is currently constructing a 1,500 seat performance hall. These are only a few of the reasons the city is routinely ranked as one of the Top 100 Art Towns in America.
The region is also home to a rich community of professional painters, potters, folk artists, paper makers, collagists, printmakers, metalsmiths, sculptors, woodcarvers, weavers, basketmakers, and craftspeople. The pinnacle of visual arts is the Cameron Art Museum, a 40,000 square-foot state-of-the-art facility designed by noted Guggenheim-addition architectural firm Gwathmey Siegel and Associates (NYC).
One of Wilmington's premier arts and cultural events is the Cucalorus Film Festival that is held every fall. After 15 years, it has grown to be a nationally recognized festival, rated one of the 40 best out of approximately 1,000 held annually, and voted One of the 25 Coolest Film Festivals by MovieMaker Magazine.
The Azalea Festival, held every April, brings tens of thousands to Wilmington to celebrate the blooms of spring and provides a comfortable dose of Southern charm with hoop skirts, garden parties, a parade, concerts and much more. In October, Riverfest street fair fills downtown with arts and craft vendors, bouncy castles, and bands.
Museums & Educational Outings
Wilmington's rich cultural heritage is preserved at the Cape Fear Museum, guiding visitors from pre-colonization days to the present, pausing to showcase important historical events along the way and featuring quality, traveling exhibitions. The Battleship NC Museum provides a look at life aboard a WWII battleship and a famous skyline silhouette visible for miles. The NC Aquarium at Fort Fisher recently underwent a $15 million expansion and features self-guided tours, hands-on exhibits and classes. Some of the many other museums include the Wilmington Children's Museum, Cape Fear Serpentarium, Bellamy Mansion, and Historic Fort Fisher.
The Wilmington community draws its heartbeat from the passionate individuals that inhabit the region. Filmmakers create the next classics… surfers seek the perfect barrel… entrepreneurs explore the limits of technology… all in a supportive structure where creativity is held in high regard. From tattoo artists that run for mayor to CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, we are a community of individuals that live their passion.
The eclectic nature of the populace is reflected in Wilmington's diverse neighborhoods. Downtown is sprinkled with apartments situated above shops and nightclubs, as well as historic homes upwards of 200 years old that recall a time when horses pulled carriages down cobblestone streets. Picturesque Forest Hills, Wilmington's first suburb, is shaded by a canopy of majestic oaks and is home to generations of the same family. Turn-of the century bungalows share the oceanfront with multi-million dollar new construction at Carolina, Kure and Wrightsville Beach. Multi-use complexes like Mayfaire offer town homes in modern, walkable communities; modest homes perfect for young families can be found in all parts of the region; retirement and gated golf course communities like Landfall offer upscale living and almost any other housing style and price range you can imagine is available.
In the greater Wilmington area, we are as passionate about our education as we are our pursuits. Whether it's the vibe from being a university community, from businesses demanding a superbly trained workforce, or a simple desire to want our kids to excel, our educational systems take priority.
New Hanover County Public Schools serve 25,000 students in 41 public schools, with a per pupil expenditure of nearly $9,000 annually. Recent bond referendums passed by the voters supplied $123 million for new school construction, as well as upgrading existing schools and providing technological enhancements for all.
Public schools are organized K-5 (elementary), 6-8 (middle), and 9-12 (high school). There are also three pre-kindergarten centers, two elementary and middle school oriented toward math, science and technology, another oriented toward arts, and three year-round magnet schools. The four high schools offer 253 courses, including 57 vocational and college courses.
New Hanover County is also served by several private schools, chief among them Cape Fear Academy, that has the distinction of launching 100% of its graduates into four -year college programs.
Higher education in the area is available through the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW), Cape Fear Community College, Mount Olive College and Miller Motte College. In 2011, U.S. News ranked UNCW number 11 out of 127 public and private universities in the South that provide a full range of undergraduate and master's level programs. 13,000 students attend UNCW in undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degree areas. UNCW is made up of the College of Arts and Sciences, the Cameron School of Business, the School of Nursing, the Watson School of Education and the Graduate School. It offers bachelor's degrees in 52 majors, 35 master's degrees, a Ph.D. in marine biology and an Ed.D. in educational leadership. When completed, the Marine Biotechnology in North Carolina (MARBIONIC) Millennial Campus Building will offer an ideal environment for start-up or established companies involved in all aspects of marine sciences, biotechnology, mariculture, biology and early stage pharmaceutical R&D.
Every year, over 26,000 people take classes at Cape Fear Community College. Students can train for a new career in one of CFCC's technical programs or earn a two-year college transfer degree to continue their education at a four-year institution. CFCC also offers a wide variety of adult education and continuing education classes for lifelong learning. Day and evening classes are offered at all campuses. For students looking to start a new career, CFCC has 60 technical programs in a wide range of areas to give students hands-on training.
As the region's leading provider of health care, offering a comprehensive and sophisticated array of services, New Hanover Regional Medical Center includes the main 17th Street campus, Cape Fear Hospital on Wrightsville Avenue and the management of Pender Memorial Hospital in Burgaw. New Hanover Regional Medical Center is the ninth-largest healthcare system in the state and the largest employer in the region, with a dedicated team of more than 4,700 employees, 547 physicians and 800 volunteers.
In 2008, NHRMC opened two new facilities as part of its $220 million dollar Master Facilities Plan. The Betty H. Cameron Women's and Children's Hospital is the first of its kind in the region. The 150-bed facility features private rooms for all, along with neonatal and pediatric intensive care units. The new 186,500-square-foot Surgical Pavilion contains larger operating suites and is wired to accommodate the newest technology.
As a public, not-for-profit hospital, NHRMC offers care to everyone who needs it, regardless of ability to pay. On an annual basis, NHRMC provides more than $110 million in uncompensated care to the community.
Wilmington has a treasure trove of shopping opportunities, from eclectic shops housed in refurbished cotton warehouses to mixed-use developments that combine retail, office and residential. Superstores and discount chains mix with upscale offerings. For those who like to browse in a classic mall setting, Independence Mall offers more than 150 specialty stores.
Mixed-use developments can be seen locally at Lumina Station, Landfall Shopping Center, Mayfaire Town Center and The Forum. Another large mixed-use shopping center to be known as Autumn Hall is currently being developed on Eastwood Road.