What's driving the growth in Wilmington?

Wilmington StarNews

With 20,000-plus businesses opening in Wilmington since 2019, what's driving the growth?

Tria Brown started baking with her mom when she was a little girl.

“She started me baking during the holidays,” Brown said. “Growing up, my mom was like, ‘Well, if you’re going to be in the kitchen, grab a recipe and you can make the cake.’”

The Wilmington native now owns and operates a bakery from her Leland home.

Be Sweet Bakery is one of a record-breaking 20,000-plus new businesses that have been created in the area since 2019. According to data from the N.C. Secretary of State, new business filings in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties have flowed steadily since 2019, even after the COVID-19 pandemic led to a number of business closures.

In North Carolina, over 171,000 new business creations were filed with the N.C. Secretary of State's Business Registration Division in 2022.

Since 2019, new business creations have seen more than 70% growth statewide. According to 2021 data from the U.S. Small Business Administration, small businesses make up 99.6% of businesses in the state. In the tri-county area, more than 50% of working residents are employed by small businesses -- higher than the statewide average of 45%.

According to that 2021 data, from March 2019 to March 2020 -- during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of small businesses closed statewide.

During that year, 27,657 businesses opened in the state and 24,921 closed -- a net increase of 2,736. Small businesses in the state accounted for 26,727 openings and 23,994 closings. These counts include temporary closures.

In New Hanover County, some 4,300 new business filings were recorded in 2022, slightly lower than the record-setting 2021 number of around 4,600, which was on par with state trends.

Data from the N.C. Secretary of State shows record-breaking new business creation filings in New Hanover, Brunswick and Pender counties over the past four years.

However, filings in Pender and Brunswick counties have steadily increased since 2019, with 2022 filings beating out 2021. In Brunswick County, nearly 1,900 new businesses were created in 2022, nearly double 2019’s count. Nearly 1,000 new businesses were created in Pender County in 2022, more than double those launched in pre-pandemic 2019.

“Entrepreneurship is at the forefront,” said Heather McWhorter, director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

Why startups?

Prior to the pandemic, McWhorter said experts in the field were looking at dwindling new business numbers, fearing what it would mean for the nation’s economy long-term.

Then, the pandemic hit and, McWhorter said, people nationwide were reevaluating their lives and careers, and a shift began.

“People kind of aren’t all about the 8-to-5 grind right now,” McWhorter said. “They want to kind of choose their own destiny and pick their own problem to work on versus working for someone else. So that’s why I think we’re seeing these entrepreneurship numbers going up.”

While small businesses statewide were hit hardest by the pandemic and could still face challenges as the economy recovers from those impacts, McWhorter said she and other experts in the field remain optimistic.

Ohanafy, a small business offering software services for breweries, cideries and distilleries, opened in May 2022.

Why here?

From its blossoming beverage industry to small business resources like shared workspaces, Wilmington was a no-brainer location for a handful of software engineers looking to offer support to craft breweries.

According to Chief Marketing Officer Davis Bryson, Ohanafy opened in May of 2022 after its co-founder noticed a frustration among craft breweries regarding the software commonly used to manage the supply and demand of their business.

Ohanafy provided the solution by streamlining and simplifying the process.

While the Wilmington area's beverage industry offered no shortage of clients for Ohanafy, it was its small business resources that allowed it to get off the ground in the first place. Downtown Wilmington’s co-working spaces, local entrepreneurs and UNCW’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship provided invaluable connections at Ohanafy’s start, Bryson said.

“The support has been incredible,” he said. “It’s just such a great region and there’s no better place to start a business than by the beach.”

Now, the company is expanding to also serve cideries and distilleries.

Written By:

Jamey Cross

Wilmington StarNews