We were surprised. We were expecting it to be worse—but it looks OK, you know?” A man at the front desk in the bookstore was commenting about the recovery from hurricanes Florence and Michael.
“Well, on the outside, yes.” I nodded. “But there’s a lot that you aren’t seeing.”
Images danced around my head, especially of the roof and window repair that haunt my dreams, along with the sight of dumpsters lining our block of Front Street from the mess at the Waffle House building, which had only been cleared two days prior.
“Of course, in the outlying areas, it is still much worse,” I added.
A weeks ago, I spent a day driving through Pender, Brunswick and Columbus counties. The houses that were obviously abandoned and/or completely gutted were heart-wrenching to see.
The gentleman and his wife I was speaking to were looking to retire here—preferably to a planned community in Brunswick County where they could be within a 5-minute drive from all Wilmington has to offer but not have to pay taxes that support the infrastructure of the city—but, more importantly, not have to talk to someone actually from here. It baffles me endlessly why anyone would want to move to Wilmington and not have to talk to the locals? Apparently, it is a selling point.
We chatted a bit about the migration out of the northeast and what they were looking for in a retirement home. Part of wanting to be near Wilmington was they heard it was a great place with a lot going on. “But all the shops are closed down here and there’s nothing going on,” he gestured to Front Street.
“Yeah, but it is 6:30 on a Tuesday night during the first week of November,” I pointed out. “If this was mid July the streets would be packed and we would be open till 9 p.m. on Fridays.”
I took a breath and added, “And we just had a hurricane six weeks ago. There’s still a lot of recovery.”
You don’t get to have it both ways, I seethed silently. You don’t get to be disappointed by your lust for destruction and in the same conversation complain we aren’t living up to entertaining you at the level you desire. It is one or the other. We can’t manage both.
“It is not like this is a big week for tourism anyway,” I noted, “and for some reason the tourism numbers are really down this year.”
“Why do you think that is?” he asked.
“Because we just had a hurricane six weeks ago,” I repeated. “And people aren’t really thinking of us for a vacation right now.”
I tried really hard to control the sarcasm.
“Businesses downtown depend upon tourism dollars. If the tourism dollars aren’t here, we can’t afford to be open.”
I am incredibly cognizant I have been very lucky as far as storm damage. I have a roof to repair. I have windows to repair. It just looks like I’ve got to spend at least one day a week climbing up on the roof for probably the next year. Joe Basquill has joined me in my project, and in spite of addressing a crack in the roof he could put his hand through, he seems to be prepared to come back.
But there is another side of this: figuring out how to afford repairs. It has been a rare day we have broken $100 in sales since the storms. We are not alone. Tourism is a big concern. Like many downtown merchants, we are dependent upon tourism.
The Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau launched a social media campaign titled “Come Back” on November 15. They asked local tourism-related businesses to film turning over their open signs, unlocking their doors and turning their lights on. If your small business was (is) as technologically challenged as we are at the bookstore, they provided a link to a video and asked tourism-related businesses to share. As they said in their email request, they wanted to show people the tourism industry here is back and ready to serve.
The Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau is our “Tourism Development Authority”—the people who market our area to visitors across the globe. Just to put it into perspective, according to The Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina:
“Nearly 45,000 North Carolina businesses produce goods and services to support visitor demand, with travelers contributing more than 25 percent to their total products and services. The industry directly employs nearly 211,000 North Carolina residents. Travel and tourism also generates more than $1.8 billion in state and local tax revenues, and research has shown every dollar Visit North Carolina invests in statewide advertising produces a return of $15 in state and local tax revenues.”
They report in New Hanover County in 2017 $578.22 million came into our economy through tourism spending. An estimated $141.30 million in local payroll was derived from tourism in 2017, and $23.47 million in local taxes were collected.
Let’s look for a second at the payroll number. I’ll use our bookstore as an example. We have a nightly rental above the store (and now a B&B in my childhood home). We have immediate staff on payroll, but we also have utilized the money brought in through the nightly rental to pay tradesmen and suppliers (i.e. Stevens Hardware), while we worked on the B&B and tried to maintain the bookstore building. So that tourism money has flowed farther than the above statistics accounted for initially. So, yes, tourism is important.
While we are all trying to get our lives put back together, please, during the holiday season refrain from shopping online. Get out and meet the people behind the counter at all the cute boutiques that help make Wilmington such an attractive place to live. We are not just wallpaper; we are essential to the local economy. More so, we are part of the community. If nothing else, hopefully, the storms have made it clear how much we need each other and are in this together.
Yes, we have done a good job cleaning up and putting Band-Aids on wounds. We are open for business again, but we are all looking at a rough holiday season during recovery. So, when locals make an investment by doing holiday shopping at brick and mortars all across ILM rather than online, it can in fact make a difference come Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving—the day retailers get out of the red and into the black for the year.
Shopping local contributes to the ongoing recovery of our community and local economy. The money helps pay locals and makes the holidays possible for neighbors. It also will help pay for the repairs of houses and roofs. It might be the most unselfish investment one can make this year.