Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, used to say that the only kind of economic research he needed to do was to walk around his stores and look at what people were buying.
If there was steak in the cart, they felt good. Ground beef, on the other hand, might mean saving money was important.
By extension, this insight by one of America’s most famous entrepreneurs suggests that while it’s important to understand things at a high level – consumer confidence, for example, or core inflation – it’s perhaps more important to simply look at the choices we’re making at an individual level.
We’ve seen a great deal of conversation lately at the national level around things like core inflation and consumer confidence. These measures, in many ways, support important decisions at places like the Federal Reserve when it comes to interest rates.
More locally, though, we’re all to some degree just like Sam Walton – we get to see with our own eyes the kinds of things people are buying and using around the Greater Outer Banks.
Driving around the Albemarle-area, it’s hard to see signs of a big recession going on.
Jobs are plentiful, restaurants are usually busy, the UPS vans are going door-to-door with Amazon packages, and there is a lot of new construction going on.
The national numbers tell one story and the local economy suggests a conflicting one – it’s that exact dynamic, for example, that might explain why one of the most predicted recessions in recent memory has of yet failed to materialize in America by any measure this year.
The American consumer, and more locally the Greater Outer Banks consumer, has proven remarkably resilient.
Sound Strategy has for some time highlighted what we call the “iron triangle” of regional economic growth with the three sides of that triangle being healthcare, education, and housing.
Our healthcare systems continue to flourish in many ways – the Outer Banks Health Group’s new Cowell Cancer Center is approaching completion and the new Sentara complex in Elizabeth City looks stunning.
ECU Health, strong in Eastern North Carolina, serves almost 1.4 million patients and employs more than 14,000 great people–while rural healthcare has a myriad of challenges, we’ve got strong partners leaning forward in a complex time.
Happily, the North Carolina General Assembly has earmarked almost $400 million dollars of taxpayer funds to support rural healthcare in Eastern North Carolina.
Our education systems seem to be flourishing as well, although the capital costs of new public school construction (in Moyock, Camden and Edenton, for example) seem to be coming in at three-to-four times the initial estimated costs, according to Currituck County Manager Ike McRee.
Those are some big increases that will have to be managed, in short, by either debt or taxes.
Interestingly, it’s regional population growth that drives increases in demands for services that ultimately lead to increases in either taxes or debt (keeping in mind, though, that neither Currituck or Camden have a municipal tax structure).
Our College of the Albemarle campus systems have seen some great new growth and construction all intended to compete for great students by offering great education value. Regionally, our universities seem to be thriving as well from ECU to ECSU to ODU and beyond.
That leaves, as the last side of the triangle, housing and its close cousin the labor force. It’s here that we’re seeing our biggest challenges although that’s certainly no headline.
The “iron triangle” is an ecosystem to be sure, and our challenges in this regard are straightforward but hardly simple.
Some of those challenges, beyond even housing, lie within shifting demographics at large – our region, in short, is getting older relative to the prime working ages of the average American.
All of that is to say that while we fight our problems and wrestle with a continual drumbeat of depressing headlines, we’re still, as a region, a great place to live, work, learn, and play.
If nothing else, we know what our challenges are and that’s good news – we differ, unsurprisingly, in a consensus on specific actions to counter them (witness the ferocious housing debates in Dare County).
In the fullness of time, though, strategy has never been a game of perfect. That’s not the point, though, as politics remains the art of the compromise.
Strategy, like golf, is a game of imperfect as compared to a shared intent, and it’s there that our hardest work remains.
WOBX Publisher Clark Twiddy is the author of Outer Banks Visionaries: Building North Carolina’s Oceanfront which is now available at local bookstores and online. This is his second book about the Outer Banks. “Sound Strategy”, a weekly commentary from Twiddy, features issues, ideas and information focused on our mission statement of “Covering the Business News of the Greater Outer Banks”.