Casino expansion in North Carolina has officially been ruled out of the 2023 state budget and related legislation, but the approach taken to map out future commercial casinos will leave North Carolina with a casino dead zone.
The aim to use casino expansion to create “rural tourism districts” could carry over into the 2024 legislative session, and if it does, Wilmington would remain in the dead zone.
As the last big city before the Outer Banks, Wilmington is the gateway to coastal Carolina’s southern beaches. With a population of around 117,000 and as home to the campus of UNC Wilmington, Wilmington is a lively port city that is on the outside looking in at North Carolina casino expansion plans.
Wilmington, a booming city, four hours from nearest casino
A study that’s been conducted for 46 years annually by the moving company United Van Lines found that in 2022, Wilmington topped the list of American cities with the most inbound movers.
The average age of resident per 2021 US Census data is 37 and the average income, $83,000, comes in roughly 16% above the national average.
Wilmington offers coastal and riverfront access, a vibrant historical district, two large movie studios and a major UNC campus. Census data suggests residents are relatively well-to-do people, nearly half of whom have an Associate’s degree or better, and, even considering the large student population, most own their home.
These are people who’ve chosen to live in a leisurely setting and have disposable income.
Looking at the current in-state casino options, all of which are west of Charlotte, Wilmingtonians need to make at least a four-hour drive to get to the nearest option: The Catawba tribe’s temporary Catawba Two Kings Casino.
NC casino expansion still doesn’t reach Wilmington
NC casino expansion will not make the final budget bill this legislative cycle, but all draft casino legislation put forth established parameters that could carry over into the 2024 legislative session.
And those parameters don’t do much to draw Wilmington into the casino fold.
Key parameters for a casino site focused on location and status as a “tier one,” economically-distressed county.
If the state follows those parameters next year, they will likely maintain a focus on three counties: Anson, Nash and Rockingham. A fourth tribal casino license would be offered to the Lumbee Tribe. None of which are all that close to Wilmington.
The closest potential option, a Lumbee tribal casino, is also the furthest from becoming a reality as the tribe must first secure full federal recognition before opening a casino.
The next-closest option, would be Rocky Mount in Nash County, more than a two-hour drive north–not an enviable day trip in the best of cases.
Coastal Carolina carved out of NC casino legislation
State lawmakers proposed the three commercial casino sites based on a variety of factors, including proximity to an international airport (no further than 90 miles) and to Interstate 95 while being east of Interstate 77, and situated in one of the most economically-distressed counties in the state.
A look at the proposed sites shows that the proximity to an international airport has guaranteed the state’s largest metro areas a short trip to at least one of the three potential commercial casinos.
Wilmington, to be clear, does have an international airport, which could have been cited to draw plans for a casino closer to the southern coast, but Wilmington International Airport is only the state’s fifth-busiest airport and so likely a smaller hub for possible casino visitors.
All things considered, it appears that the state’s eighth-largest city by population fell into a casino dead zone outlined by the parameters set for casino expansion.
As of now, Wilmingtonians have not spoken out on the issue of casino expansion. Emails to the Wilmington City Council were not returned.
An NCSharp survey found that 45% of respondents support casino expansion while only 29% oppose it. If and when the 2024 legislature takes up the casino question again, we will pay close attention to whether the state makes any changes that could pull Wilmington out of the casino dead zone.