Officials in Pender County are hoping a law will help change the area's economic status as being one the best in North Carolina, especially with bustling Wilmington being so close.
For 2022, Pender County received a Tier 3 ranking by the N.C. Department of Commerce, which means it's among 20 other county's that's "least distressed" through a statewide ranking system. The other designations are 40 counties at Tier 1, "high economic distress" and another 40 at Tier 2, "moderate economic distress." Designations are mandated by state law and determine a variety of state funding opportunities to assist in economic development.
Last year, Pender County leaders disagreed with Pender being a Tier 3 county, especially with New Hanover and Brunswick counties ranked in Tier 2, which meant Pender was in a better financial position. But officials also pointed out Pender loses money because of people going to Wilmington for services and for shopping.
It was also noted 75% of the population works outside of Pender County.
County tiers in the state are calculated on average unemployment (4.55% for Pender), median household income ($60,044), population growth (3.87%), and adjusted property tax base per capita ($132,809).
For 2022 rankings, both Brunswick and New Hanover shifted from a Tier 2 to Tier 3. According to a report from the N.C. Department of Commerce, the change for Brunswick came from the county's unemployment rank, which moved from 11th place to 21st. New Hanover change was also because of unemployment rate, which moved from 49th to 72nd.
On behalf of the Pender County North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Director Mark Seitz made several presentations about other additions that should be factored in. Local officials would like to add County Trade Pull Factors (CTPF) and sales tax among others. Doing this would put Pender in a Tier 2 position, which could mean more funding for the county.
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"We're losing a lot of revenue," he said while pointing out other economic factors to commissioners. "And Again, it's not just Pender County. There are other counties in the state that are affected this way."
Population growth and employment numbers are major factors in the rankings. Seitz also brought up the differences between rural western Pender and eastern Pender, which is closer to Wilmington and growing places Hampstead and Topsail Island.
"They just don't have the population density over there, family incomes, et cetera, versus the east side of the county," he said.
Adding the math
During a previous meeting for the Pender County Board of Commissioners, District 16 Rep. Carson Smith said he was in favor of the pull factors being used for Tier status calculations and is presenting a bill to have these factors included.
"There is a lot of money and funding that is tied up in how this county is designated," Smith said. "Because we're a designated Tier 3, we miss out on a lot of stuff."
Along with other sponsors of the bill, Smith, who represents residents in Pender and Columbus counties, asked the state general assembly to have different considerations for rural areas. House Bill 870 calls for any county with 30% or more of the county located within a rural census tract to be automatically excluded from being ranked as one of the lowest counties. It was filed in 2021 and sent to a committee for more review.
Smith has turned in research and math from Seitz and extension officials to add more criteria to the formula. He said it's going to be filed in 2023.
"That sounds great, hunky-dory, and lovely, but as you can imagine, there are 20 Tier 3 counties and there a 60 Tier 1 and Tier 2 counties - none of them want to be Tier 3," he said. "If you're trying to get half of a chamber to vote for something, where over half of the chamber represents Tier 1 and Tier 2 counties, it's extremely hard because somebody is going to lose out if they go from Tier 2 to Tier 3 especially."
He also asked Pender commissioners to reach out the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners about the matter and to support the bill to make it move.
"But I think, if you try to do that, you're going to see the same pushback that I am," he said about the challenges.
Smith was unavailable for additional comments regarding plans for the bill.
Through a formula that evaluates local and sales tax revenue and population counts, Pender County would have a CTPF of 0.71. A CTPF of less than 1 means the area is losing revenue.
The Trade Area Capture (TAC), a measurement of the county population of 65,146 people multiplied by the CTPF, shows that the county's spending power is more than 45,000 residents, which is around 20,000 less than the actual count.
The Percent Market Share shows the county's economy accounts for 0.43% of the state's total sales tax revenue. Percent Market Share is determined by TAC divided by the total of TAC for all 100 N.C. counties.
According to data, five counties make up close to 40% of the state's market share. New Hanover was fifth with 3.27%. The top four are Mecklenburg (14.87%), Wake (12.91%), Durham (4.91%), and Buncombe (3.52%).
If CTPF, TAC, MS was added to the state's formula for determining Tier status, Pender would be a Tier 2 county. For someone not familiar with the Cape Fear region, Smith said the issue may be hard for people to understand.
"But if you know this area, you know that New Hanover and Brunswick have a much, much vibrant healthy economy than we do, and it's not fault of ours, it's just the way things are happening right now, " Smith said. "We're growing, who knows where we're going to be in 10 or 20 years, but right now, you can't tell me that we're much better off economically in this county than New Hanover and Brunswick."
When addressing plans to commissioners, Smith said he wants a fair process when determining economic development for counties through the tier status.
"But sometimes fair doesn't work if I need you to vote for me and it's going to hurt your county," Smith said.
This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: Pender County challenged by economic rating. Will N.C. lawmakers help?