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With the aroma of tobacco thick in the air Tuesday morning, Wilson business and community leaders gathered to discuss steps toward a brighter future.
A United Tobacco Co. warehouse on Lamm Road served as the stage for the Economic Strategic Summit as more than 150 community and business leaders gathered to weigh Wilson’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats as well as contemplate how to move forward together. Economic Leadership Managing Partner Ted Abernathy helped facilitate the event and discussion, highlighting several trends that could affect Wilson’s future. He noted North Carolina has less than half the national average for manufacturing growth, but double the national average for business and professional service jobs.
“One of the things that is happening and you can bet on is the urban advantage,” he said. “Ninety percent of all American jobs and output takes place in large metropolitan areas. Smaller areas are growing less while bigger cities are growing faster. That is a baked-in trend that you are not going to change.”
Another given is that the advancement of technology will cause job displacement. Whereas employees from previous generations stuck with one company for an entire career, today’s employees transition more, working for multiple companies, evolving and often retraining multiple times during a career.
Abernathy tasked the attendees with analyzing Wilson before brainstorming ways to address concerns. The upside of Wilson included collaborative leaders, a good location and the Wilson Academy of Applied Technology that focuses on training students with practical job skills. Some of the concerns related to a negative attitude or perception of Wilson, a lack of diverse, affordable housing as well as talented, young employees choosing to move elsewhere.
“Herein lies the problem: we have lots of things we know we’re good at and a lot of things we’re worried about, but not a lot of ideas to fix it,” Abernathy said before tasking attendees with looking ahead at political, economic, social and technology trends for the next decade and identifying steps for Wilson to take to anticipate those trends.
“We talked about the shift of disposable income from the younger generation to the older generation,” said Kellianne Davis, Wilson downtown business specialist. “What they spend their disposable income on has changed with experiences versus items, and millennials will spend more on convenience than older generations.”
Abernathy said experts anticipate not only will 40 percent of purchases be made online in the next five years, but they’ll be made from a cellphone. Kimberly Van Dyk, Wilson planning and community revitalization director, said as technology integrates more and more into daily life, there is an increase in social isolation, and Wilson should address that with more opportunities for socialization and face-to-face connectivity.
“Eleven years ago, no one had a smartphone. It doesn’t seem that long ago, but we had a GPS, a flashlight, a Walkman and all this stuff that today is encompassed in that phone in your pocket,” Abernathy said. “If 10 years ago, someone asked you to re-imagine taxi services, hotel reservation services or what would happen to watching movies, what would you have said? Now we’re asking you to think forward, and we know that is hard.”
Suggestions by the attendees included: focusing on individualized, technology-based education; incentives to recruit talent, especially through joint efforts in growth industries; collaborative and comprehensive marketing of Wilson; utilizing mobile apps that foster input from the public; creating a local venture fund and supporting re-education for unemployed residents.
“We had wonderful participation from some really smart people and the proof will be in the plans we develop over the next few months and those will require a little more additional input,” said Wilson Economic Development Executive Director Jennifer Lantz. “I’m very excited about where we’re going with this.”
The event was coordinated by economic development, the Wilson Chamber of Commerce, Wilson Downtown Development and the Wilson Visitors Center. Staff between the four groups will use the information from the event to develop strategic plans and coordinate efforts.
“I’d say that most of the ideas we heard today are currently in some stage of development by one of the four organizations. It is affirming to me that the projects we’re all working on are needs that are being communicated by our community,” chamber President Ryan Simons said. “It is refreshing to be able to work with peer organizations that share the same strategic vision we do. There is a lot of collaboration across Wilson and that is one thing that distinguishes Wilson from other communities our size.”