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  • Allen Turner

Walden tells Jobs Foundation economic outlook is good here

North Carolina State University economist Dr. Michael Walden told about 150 members of the Columbus Jobs Foundation Thursday that, while economic challenges still confront Columbus and other rural counties, opportunities abound. He predicts a continually improving outlook in the future.

“There are many challenges,” Walden said, “such as globalization, automation, a movement away from manufacturing jobs to service sector jobs, but with those come many opportunities.”

Walden said that 100 years ago, seven in 10 North Carolina jobs were farm-related, while today that number is only one in ten. “But North Carolina’s farming output is more than ever before,” he said. “We have half as many people involved in agriculture as we had 25 years ago, but we are producing more food.”

Despite the fact economic trends have had a more negative impact on rural areas than on metropolitan ones, he predicted enhanced economic opportunities, in four categories. A national aging population is bringing more retirees to the South, he said. Trade connection opportunities are increasing, manufacturing will see a resurgence and, as wealth grows in other countries, the demand for meat produced and processed here will increase.

“We lost a lot of jobs in the U.S. and in North Carolina in recent de- cades due to foreign competition,” Walden said, “but the scales have begun to turn. Look at China. Ten to 15 years ago, a manufacturer could cut labor costs 50-60 percent by relocating to China, but now the difference is only about five percent and, if you factor in that if the manufacturer has a factory in the United States, he is close to the biggest economic market in the world it means that many manufacturers are taking a second look and saying they don’t need to be in China or India to compete. So don’t write off manufacturing.”

Walden said that energy costs in the U.S. have come way down in recent years, making it possible for economic developers to show industries that they can offer competitive wages and better energy costs to seal the deal for manufacturing to move back to these shores. “And if you bring a factory in, don’t just look at their payroll ... the multiplier and supply chain effect means that money will be re-spent several times in a community.”

With recent expanding of the Panama Canal, many su- per cargo ships that had been docking in Los Angeles and Long Beach on the West Coast now have ports-of-call on the East Coast. “Wilmington won’t get the super cargo ships that will go to Charleston and Nor- folk,” he said, “but we will see an increase in shipments up and down the East Coast, and as those ships unload their cargo for transportation to its ultimate destination, that means economic activity for this area. You’re located right here on the East Coast, and I commend your local leaders for trying to get you rail access to Wilmington.”

As the U.S. population ages, that will bode well for places like Columbus County as retirees move from colder northern climes. “You might say that’s not as good as manufacturing,” Walden said, “but I say that it is. Retirees bring with them their pensions and their Social Security checks and they usually don’t bring children to educate, which is enormously expensive for local governments. Most of their money gets spent here. They’re going to do their day- to-day spending here, and they’re going to buy property, and that’s economic development.”

Walden added, “And think about this as you think about the three trends of manufacturing, trade connections and retirees: As the standard of living gets better elsewhere in the world, the world’s meat consumption goes way up. In China, their meat consumption has increased 800 percent in the last 30 years. The whole world is eating more meat, and North Carolina specifically is very, very good at producing and processing meat, which presents an enormous economic opportunity, particularly in rural counties.”

He concluded, “Put me in the camp of the optimists. I believe greater opportunities are coming down the road and the economy here will continue to turn around. Just like your namesake, Christopher Columbus, who discovered a new world, we are in the process of discovering a new economy and a better economy right here in Columbus County.”

A PhD graduate of Cornell University and the author of eight books, Walden is one of North Carolina’s foremost economic experts. He is a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished

Professor at NCSU, and serves and has served on numerous local and state commissions dealing with the economy. He’s frequently seen on local and national television broadcasts and has a syndicated newspaper column.

He directs the semiannual economic forecast, “The North Carolina Economic Outlook” and he has won a Premier Forecaster award from the American Agricultural Economics Association. He has won three Applied Consumer Economics awards from the American Council on Consumer Interests.

Prior to Walden’s speech, foundation President Rick Edwards commended foundation members for a renewed sense of excitement about economic development matters in Columbus County. County economic developer Gary Lanier gave an overview of ongoing economic development efforts. Treasurer Henry Edmund reported that the foundation’s finances remain strong and membership chair- man Les High announced that foundation membership has more than doubled in the last year from 60 to 122.

The Columbus Jobs Foundation board of directors voted to expand the board by six members in order to bring younger leaders from around the county onto the board. These were: Jordan Carter, a banker with BB&T, Matt McLean, CPA and manager of S. Preston Douglas, Dr. Janice Timothee, orthodontist with Timothee Orthodonics, Boyd Worley, attorney, George Woo- ten, Jr., of W.E. Bailey, and Rashaad Roberts, postmaster and member of Chadbourn City Council.

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