Economic growth forecast higher for county than state, nation

by Michelle Saxton
Thursday, October 13, 2011

Staff photo by Allison Potter

Lieutenant Governor Walter Dalton was the keynote speaker at the Economic Outlook Conference hosted by the University of North Carolina Wilmington on Tuesday, Oct. 11.

Predicted economic growth for New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties is higher than for North Carolina and the nation, but experts predict it is not quite enough to bring unemployment rates down yet.

"The best we can hope for is that the unemployment rate won’t rise," University of North Carolina Wilmington senior economist Dr. Woody Hall said Tuesday, Oct. 11, during the university’s eighth annual Economic Outlook Conference.

Gross domestic product growth for the Wilmington metropolitan statistical area was predicted to rise about 2.2 percent for 2011, Hall predicted, which also forecast growth rates of 1.7 percent for North Carolina and 1.6 percent for the nation.

A growth rate closer to 3 percent or higher is needed to reduce unemployment, Hall said.

"We don’t see that, at least in the short term," Hall said during a break.

North Carolina’s unemployment rate for August was 10.4 percent, while New Hanover County’s rate was 10 percent, state Employment Security Commission figures showed.

Overall, economic conditions were better than the last two years, with stabilized activity, Hall said.

"The first step before an uptick is to reach the bottom," said Hall, who has been a professional economist for six recessions. "I think we’re very close to—if not at—the bottom."

Leading economic indicators include real estate, particularly the sales of single-family homes, Hall said, adding that sales peaked in 2005, fell through late 2008 and early 2009, but have since stabilized.

"Conditions in the real estate market are not getting any worse," Hall said. "The problem is we haven’t been long enough at that low point in order for the inventory to be cleaned out in order for there to be a resurgence."

New residential unit listings in New Hanover County were down 23 percent year-to-date this year from the same period last year, Intracoastal Realty broker Debbie Mitchell said. Inventory of available properties was down too, she added, which can mean a better chance for prices to stabilize and improve.

Residential unit sales in Wrightsville Beach were up 40 percent year-to-date from the same period last year, said Mitchell, who was part of a real estate panel discussion during the conference.

Meanwhile, retail sales took some hits in 2008 and 2009 but saw some growth in 2010 and through August 2011, Hall said, adding that growth was a first step, helping the area gain back what it lost but not anything above that.

"You’ve got to recover what you lost before you can grow," Hall said.

New Hanover County’s retail sales growth was about 13 percent for the year ending in June, according to North Carolina Department of Revenue figures in Hall’s report.

Room occupancy tax collection growth rates for New Hanover County rose more than 7 percent for the year ending in August, the report showed.

Other conference speakers included UNCW economics professor Tom Simpson, whose national outlook showed the United States was in a disappointing recovery, with the level of output not yet reaching its previous peak.

Some speakers noted the global connections—and international competition—with countries that include China and India.

"We are losing jobs," said Lt. Gov. Walter Dalton, the conference’s keynote speaker and chairman of North Carolina’s Logistics Task Force.

Dalton emphasized the importance of investments in education, allied health and biotechnology and noted the future possibilities through photonics research, biofuels, regenerative medicine and cancer research.

"We’ve got to stay ahead of the game," Dalton said.

Economies are globally connected, with the United States shipping logs to China to be made into furniture there and shipped back here, Rep. Danny McComas, R-New Hanover, said.

McComas, president of MCO Transport, was part of a panel discussion about global trade.

"Technology has taken a forefront in the trucking industry," McComas said, including satellite tracking and electronic logs as examples.

McComas spoke about buying an iPad earlier this year and how he was able to track shipping progress online down to the hour.

"It’s not just moving a piece of freight from point A to point B," McComas said. "It’s how you do it and what’s behind it."

For more information about the economic forecasts from the conference visit the website for UNCW’s Cameron School of Business at

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