Centennial Celebration Economic Forum

East Carolina University’s centennial celebration continued on Tuesday, July 29, as area business and education leaders convened in Mendenhall Student Center for a round-table discussion on economic development in eastern North Carolina.

Moderated by Arthur O. Murray of Business North Carolina, the economic forum brought together respected business leaders from across the region to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing eastern North Carolina.

Topics varied from national concerns like escalating fuel prices and the weakening dollar, to local issues such as improving public education, and the continued development of the Global TransPark in Kinston, North Carolina. The panel included representatives from the leading industries found in the east, including tourism, shipping and transportation, health care, agriculture, education, and mass media.

Community members look on as the region's business leaders discuss the challenges and opportunities facing eastern North Carolina at ECU's round table discussion on economic development.

As one of the region’s major employers, as well as the education and training center of eastern North Carolina, ECU was both host and participant in the forum.

“We know that [East Carolina University] has a huge responsibility to help, not just in our region, but our state and our nation,” said Chancellor Steve Ballard. “We are very mindful of the responsibilities we have and I assure you that we take them very seriously. Our Office of Economic Development is doing great things. It is carrying on a legacy of outreach and service that began 100 years ago.”

Without question, the strongest economic sectors in the region are the health services industry and higher education, with University Health Systems and East Carolina University leading the way. According to panelist D. Jordan “Jordy” Whichard III, publisher of The Daily Reflector and chairperson of the North Carolina Economic Development Board, of the 214,000 manufacturing jobs the state lost between 2001 and 2008, 136,000 were immediately replaced by new jobs in education and health care, many of them here in the east.

Dave McRae, CEO of University Health Systems of Eastern Carolina, spoke to the importance of the health care industry to the region calling it a “strong, viable force in eastern Carolina.” But he also stressed the need for a strong economic base in the communities his hospitals serve, and warned that the health care industry is not self-supportive. “We need manufacturing. We need agriculture. We need the other services. Only then does it make sense to have the hospitals we have in the region to support the people who work and live in those environments,” he said.

ECU's Assistant Vice Chancellor for Economic Development, Ted Morris, speaks to the role education plays in economic development.

It is the broad-based economic growth in the communities across the region that provides the greatest challenges to leadership.

“Eastern North Carolina is being seen as a place where there are haves and have-nots,” said Whichard. “Greenville, Wilmington, Morehead City, and the Outer Banks are doing well, but there are pockets where there’s not a lot left of the viable kinds of economic activity that was there 10 or 15 years ago. We’ve got to find ways to create opportunities for those folks or they’ll leave.”

The historically strong economic sectors of manufacturing and agriculture have seen a steady downturn over recent decades, and now tourism and transportation/shipping, have fallen victim to recent negative economic trends.

High gas prices have been a challenge for tourism along the region’s coastline. According to Carol Lohr, executive director of the Crystal Coast Tourism Authority, the trend is for families to take shorter vacations, closer to their homes.

The depressed housing market has taken a bite out of imports to the port at Morehead City. CEO of the North Carolina State Ports Authority, Tom Eagar, reported that imports of raw forest products and other materials used by the construction industry are down 20 percent.

But the news is not all bad. The panel discussed at length the impact Spirit AeroSystems will have on the regional economy. In May of this year, the aerospace manufacturer announced a plan to build a new facility in the Global TransPark near Kinston. The facility will employ 500 people with plans to contribute 1,000 new high-paying jobs to the region.

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