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How Brunswick County’s ‘migration story’ has fueled record economic growth

Brunswick County’s continued population growth is fueling its economy, according to one of the region’s top economic experts.

Mouhcine Guettabi, regional economist in Wilmington, presented an economic snapshot to the Leland Town Council at its November meeting. Guettabi, who is also an associate professor of economics at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, said migration to Brunswick County and the region is contributing to the area’s economy.

“One of the fascinating things that everybody here knows is that the region has experienced incredible migration over the last couple of years,” Guettabi said.

Between 2020 and 2022, Brunswick County grew at a rate of 12% — faster than any other county in the state. Both Pender and New Hanover counties are behind that rate at 9% and 4%, respectively, but Guettabi said the region as a whole has been growing “incredibly fast.”

Study: Future development in one Brunswick city could effectively triple its population

The growth – and with it, the income injection – is largely contributed to migration of residents from other counties in the state as well as from the northeastern United States.

According to Guettabi, taking the gross income of those that have moved into the tri-county region (Brunswick, New Hanover and Pender counties) and removing the income of those who have left figures that an estimated $1 billion of income was injected into the local economy between 2020 and 2021.

“It’s a migration story,” Guettabi said. “…If you were to remove migration from the equation, Brunswick County, New Hanover and Pender would have actually shrunk.”

Deaths, he said, have outnumbered births in the region in recent years, so “absent migration, the whole region would have actually shrunk.”

‘Mind-blowing’ figures

Data from the Internal Revenue Service estimates that – as a direct result of this migration – millions of dollars was injected into the local economy between 2020 and 2021.

The largest figure, again, goes to Brunswick County, which saw $548 million in net income change – the highest figure in the state. Nearby New Hanover County saw an additional $280 million in net income change from migration and Pender County saw an additional $110 million.

Labor market

Guettabi said employment in Brunswick County has also been growing rapidly, with private, federal, local and state sectors seeing “significant growth” since 2019. In the county, he said, there are about 16% more wage and salary jobs in 2023 than there were in 2019.  

The accommodation and food services industry saw the greatest increase in jobs, he said, largely responding to the growth in population. Average weekly wages have also grown since 2019, he said, in all four sectors.

While the labor market “held up remarkably well” through the pandemic years, Guettabi said it’s likely the region will see a decrease in job growth for the first time since 2020 in the approaching new year.

What’s next?

While a recession has been forecast over recent years, it hasn’t happened.

Guettabi said data – foggy as it may be – indicates, however, that consumer spending may be “running out of runway.” Consumers, he said, largely saved money during the pandemic, but are nearing the bottom of their barrels.

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Inflation and wages, both of which have gone up regionally in recent years, are both moderating recently, he added.

Housing markets in Brunswick and New Hanover counties, Guettabi said, are still seeing all-time highs in home prices. Locally and nationally, he said, experts are wondering who will blink first – buyers or sellers.

Jamey Cross covers Brunswick County for the StarNews. Reach her at jbcross@gannett.com or message her on Twitter/X @jameybcross.

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