Blue Economy Convergence Conversation: Rob Zapple, New Hanover County Commissioner

In 1997, Rob Zapple and his wife could have lived almost anywhere in the United States. Seeking opportunities for quality of life and a good education for their children, they decided on Wilmington, North Carolina, Neither Rob nor his wife had lived in North Carolina. They had no connections, jobs, real friends, or bank accounts in the area but they packed their three kids, two dogs and one cat, and made their way to what has been their home ever since. Today, Rob is a county commissioner for New Hanover County and owner of two businesses — a construction company and a gymnastics gym. This experience and professional orientation give him a unique perspective of the economic dynamics in the Wilmington area.

In this Blue Economy Convergence Conversation, Rob and I explore the importance of vision, leadership and action for creating a sustainable economy that will protect the future of Wilmington, North Carolina. 


Deb: Let’s start with your definition of Blue Economy and what it means to you?

Rob: We are literally surrounded by water. The Blue Economy means the ecology, trade and the benefit to communities, now and into the future. We live in the second smallest county in North Carolina, right on the coast and we only have 199 square miles of dry land. To our east is the Atlantic Ocean, to the west is the Cape Fear River, and to the north is the Northeast Cape Fear River. Wilmington is a peninsula that sticks out into the Atlantic Ocean but we’re eroding and losing landmass every year, which makes the landmass feel much like an island.  Clearly, paying attention to water, especially oceans and rivers, is important here. Coupled with this erosion issue, we have to attend to the reality that we only get 20% of our drinking water from ground wells; the other 80% of drinking water in New Hanover County comes from the Cape Fear River surface water. We have two aquifers beneath us for fresh water — the Castle Hayne aquifer and the Peedee aquifer. 

We are home to the Port of Wilmington, which is one of only two ports in the state of North Carolina and is an international, mid-sized port that continues to grow and prosper. North Carolina has a long history of agriculture, farming, pork, chicken, lumber, and timber products. From the mid-18th century until the 1950s, those products flowed up and down the Cape Fear River. The river is a major transportation corridor for products coming to and leaving the port of Wilmington. People have used the river as a transportation device for several hundred years. 

As we’ve grown and gotten more modern, recreation has added traffic to our waterways. We also have the intracoastal waterway, which runs through our entire county and that waterway is very popular for commercial boats and“snowbirds” – people moving their yachts and boats from the north to the south for winter and the reverse in the spring, passing through New Hanover County and our beach communities. For a very long time, the beaches have been our major economic driver. In New Hanover County, we have Carolina Beach, Kure Beach, and Wrightsville Beach, each of them have their own town and city governments, and the county government that sits over all three of them. We have had the great luck and foresight of local elected officials who started working with the Army Corps of Engineers over 50 years ago to protect our beaches. New Hanover County signed the first contract with the Army Corps of Engineers in the United States for beach nourishment (or renourishment), which puts new sand on our local beaches every 3 to 4 years.  Over the decades, there have been different strategies on what to do to protect coastal communities. In partnership with the federal government, through the Army Corps of Engineers, New Hanover County invested a lot of time, energy, and taxpayer money, into making our beaches thick, broad, and with a strong dune line. In other words, we decided to invest in natural, living beaches. Meanwhile, other coastal communities invested in rock jetties, terminal groins and seawall-hardened structures. Over time, that approach proved not to be the best way to go because it has the potential to create a dangerous situation when man-made structures start coming apart during storms. We’re proud of the fact that the Army Corps of Engineers is using our beaches as a template for other communities up and down the east coast and in the Gulf. Working with mother nature is better than putting up a wall to try to stop the ocean from taking over. 

New Hanover County is geographically located in what the Weather Channel has nick-named, ‘hurricane alley’. We jut out into the Atlantic Ocean and when hurricanes come roaring up, which they do on a regular basis, you don’t see Wrightsville Beach or Carolina Beach or New Hanover County being torn apart like other coastal communities. We don’t get a lot of press after a hurricane hits our area because the damage, in most cases, is not catastrophic. Through regularly scheduled beach re-nourishment projects and policies that support Coastal Storm Damage Reduction, New Hanover County has created these huge storm energy decelerators, our built-up beaches, that protect our coastal communities. No doubt, the energy of a hurricane may tear up the shoreline, and we may lose up to 30 feet of our beaches in a single storm but those well maintained beaches and dunes protect our businesses, our properties, and our citizen’s lives, all along the New Hanover County coast.

Deb: The second word in Blue Economy is rooted in economics. Some people might talk about this as technology jobs or businesses. What might the future be for Wilmington if it embraces the Blue Economy concept?

Rob: I don’t think we can escape the Blue Economy. We are already so invested in it. The Port of Wilmington is expanding and growing, bringing with it the issues of having to accommodate huge new ships that can handle tens of thousands of containers. These new, Neo-Panamax ships need a deeper channel for the 26-mile trip up the Cape Fear River, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Port of Wilmington. That means dredging the channel from its current depth of 42’, to a 45’ depth. Unfortunately, every time the river channel is deepened, more saltwater from the ocean comes up into that channel, which has a negative impact on fresh river water. The natural flow of the Cape Fear River has been altered multiple times over the centuries, as the port expands, with increasing benefits to the local and regional economy. We’re currently in the middle of a period where the Port is seeking permission to deepen the channel to 45’ in depth, so that the larger cargo vessels can navigate the river safely. The vast majority of our citizens support the economic benefits of the port and are trying to balance this growth with the environmental impacts caused by further expansion. An example of the negative impacts of saltwater intrusion can be seen in the creation of ghost forests along portions of the banks along the river. Another issue associated with saltwater intrusion is the potential of contamination of our aquifers, which are an important part of our economy. We need fresh water, and we currently get more than 20% of our drinking water from our aquifers. That source provides literally millions of gallons of fresh water a day to our communities. The last time we dredged the channel, we came very close to the upper edge of the Castle Hayne aquifer.  Penetrating that barrier wall would have serious long-term impacts on our community.  

Deb: So what do you do? What is the trade space to consider when making decisions for the economy and the environment?

Rob: That is a large part of our local discussion. For example, a company called Chemours (a spinoff of DuPont) located on the Cape Fear River, approximately 90 miles to the north of New Hanover County, is contaminating the Cape Fear River with PFAS, a suite of man made chemicals used primarily in the manufacturing of water repellent goods and clothing, and are currently unregulated by the EPA. This contamination of the river affects our main source of drinking water. The Cape Fear Public Utility Authority pumps water 20 miles from its intake on the Cape Fear River, to their water treatment plant in Wilmington. However, the treatment process does not remove the PFAS chemicals. In 2017, we learned that our entire region, including New Hanover County, has had a 40-year history of Chemours producing and dumping PFAS into the Cape Fear River. Chemours, and Dupont before them, used the river as a sewer, even though they knew there were serious health issues associated with the chemical pollutants they were putting in the water.  

Several lawsuits have been filed against Chemours and are currently working their way through the court system. Approximately 300,000 people in Southeast North Carolina have been drinking contaminated water. Chemour’s lawyers would be quick to say there are currently no accepted health standards for the amount of PFAS allowed in drinking water and, thus, they are, technically, not violating the law.  But there is strong evidence of at least four different cancers caused by the chemicals they are releasing in the water and through the air, in vapor form that contaminates the soil through rain.  Contaminated drinking water has an economic impact on the area because businesses and employees are reluctant to move to an area that has a ‘cloud’ over the community’s source of drinking water. The good news is that the rate payers of the CFPUA have made a significant investment in building a new Granulated Activated Carbon filtration plant that will remove all PFAS chemicals and any medicinal waste from the water. This new filtration plant will be in service in the spring of 2022. 

Deb: When you look out 15 to 20 years, what do you envision for Wilmington?

Rob: Success, through my lens, comes through government policies that support economic development. It is clear to me that small businesses are the backbone of the success that Wilmington has experienced over the last 30 years. The number of small, mid-sized, and entrepreneurial businesses has grown, in part, because our region is a desirable place to live.  Many people visit here to vacation by the ocean, for our mild climate, experiencing our educational and business opportunities, our thriving arts and cultural community, and ask how they can live here permanently and still make a living. The entrepreneurial sector has continued to grow and blossom through COVID as people have become more and more comfortable working virtually. 

We have clusters of different types of industries and businesses here and I would like to see us grow even stronger in the number and diversity of these clusters, so there’s more independence for people to work here without being tied to an office building. We now have 18,000 students at UNCW and another 4,000-5,000 full time students at Cape Fear Community College. The majority of them look to Raleigh, Charlotte, Richmond, Atlanta or other areas, for their careers. The University of North Carolina Wilmington is our county’s second-largest employer. Despite this large knowledge-worker base, the wages in the area are not high enough to be a livable wage for many. It’s hard to discuss wages without talking about affordable housing, which also factors into keeping people here in New Hanover County.

Deb: Does Wilmington leadership benchmark other cities that have gone through similar challenges of economic growth and taking care of the environment?

Rob: Yes, the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce has been good partners with our county and city. They have sponsored a series of trips for community leaders to go for two or three-days to other cities. The Chamber organized a series of meetings with key leaders in the other cities, to answer questions like, “how did you manage your economic growth?”, and “What’s going right and what’s not going right?” These trips were very educational and informative. We’ve visited Charleston, Greenville in South Carolina and Richmond, Virginia. The meetings were productive and gave us a lot to consider. I was stunned to see what Richmond had done, especially around the James River.  For well over a hundred years the river ran through their backyard, it wasn’t the focus of anything. It was just considered a conveyance, a transportation conduit — and used as a place to dump waste. Richmond stopped doing that and now businesses are actually building and restoring their buildings to have a river-facing presence. There’s a pedestrian walkway that goes across the James River and they’ve added activities like kayaking for the community. Mini breweries popped up all over. The city took their river asset and put their focus on it and now, Richmond is a cool place to be.

Another takeaway for New Hanover County and Wilmington was the concept of, ‘political alignment.’ For instance, Charleston had Mayor Joe Riley in charge for 10 terms between 1975 and 2016. He was one of the strongest mayors in the US and fortunately was the right guy in the right place at the right time. He led Charleston into what they are today. With his guidance, Charleston had this point of an arrow that was focused on creating policies and communication strategies that supported creative and strong economic growth. The chamber, business leaders, and political leaders spoke with a single voice. They would sit down and sort out the initiatives they wanted and thought they needed. They wanted heavy manufacturing and the steady good paying jobs that come with this industry, so they went after it. They got Boeing. They told us on our visit that it only worked because key leaders were out in front and had a state delegation from the state legislature behind the efforts. 

When companies saw one person speaking with an army behind them, they observed real support at all levels. That was a big, ‘aha’, moment for everybody from Wilmington on that trip. We all think we are brilliant, have great ideas and all want to be out in front with speeches or taking credit. That day told us to essentially forget all that. If you want to be successful, figure out your strategy, put a point person out in front, and have everybody else line up behind them. That’s the way to pull in large economic drivers into the community and make successful strategies a reality.

Deb: If you define the Blue Economy for Wilmington, build a strategy, bring the key leadership and the stakeholders together and create alignment behind one voice, that could be a defining moment. 

Rob: There’s no doubt. We’ve had flirtations with something like that. The reality is North Carolina politics are divided.

Deb: But isn’t there urgency to do something? Wilmington is flourishing now but it may not survive in the future.

Rob: Certainly.  A good example, Wilmington is at ground zero for sea level rise. There are areas in our downtown that are already seeing the consequences of rising sea levels. The retired battleship, USS North Carolina is docked permanently on the Cape Fear River, across from downtown Wilmington. There is a large parking lot next to it. If you go back 20 years, there would be maybe 6-10 days during the year that there would be several inches of water in that parking lot, because of its proximity to the river. Now we see over a hundred days in the year of what we call, ‘Sunny Day flooding.’ It’s real, and yet we have a state legislature that wants to see more data before recognizing sea level rise as a problem for our coastal communities. The scientists who study this every day say that by the end of the century we could experience a sea level rise of up to 36 inches in certain areas of coastal North Carolina. The potential consequences include the loss of millions of acres and millions of dollars of value in property loss and damage. The fear of our legislators in Raleigh is that if they acknowledge the full potential impacts of sea level rise, insurance companies, and property owners will back away from coastal areas, hurting our state’s reputation and economy. So, our legislature has capped environmental impact analyses at 30 years into the future. It’s a classic, ‘sticking your head in the sand’, approach. It should be our responsibility to get started with making policies and decisions for the long-term so that this issue doesn’t become the next generation’s problem.

Deb: What is your greatest hope for the future?

Rob: That we have more conversations at a strategic level. I believe the government can be a major tool for solving big problems. We’ve gotten so mired in not listening. Let’s sit down and observe the environment around us, acknowledge the changes that are occurring and have a real conversation – knowing that we all are trying to do our best to leave our bit of the world a little better off than where we came into it – for the next generation. Something as simple as that is my wish. Right now, it is so difficult to even have these conversations without people literally walking out of the room. This seems crazy to me. So, in the perfect world, we could sit down and have a cup of coffee, talk over major issues that are impacting our lives, disagree on some of the ways we can go about making it better, then go out to dinner and start making real plans on how we can work together to improve our future. 


Rob reminds us the idea of a system of systems was developed to address situations in which multiple discrete systems could be made to operate synergistically to achieve a larger goal than any one of the component systems could do independently. The Wilmington community is composed of independent systems, political, economic, environment and human systems with related elements that can work together to achieve an ambitious goal. Crafting a vision for the Blue Economy can help leaders operate together via an overarching structure and specific components designed to move between the member systems but together as one. If they neglect to look at the individual system and the component systems as capable of working together, Wilmington leaders won’t see the opportunity for creating the modularized systems that can move Wilmington to a better future for all its citizens.

Deborah Westphal is a leader in future-focused strategy. In her book Convergence, she leverages more than 30 years of experience helping the world’s most innovative business and government leaders to challenge biases, ignite ideas, and build connections. She delivers this rich insight with an empathetic and thought-provoking writing style to chart a path for readers. Throughout the book, personal stories and historical examples highlight convergences that span the globe, impacting everything from global supply chains to climate change, and reshaping the future of business, technology, and humanity everywhere.

Get your copy of Convergence here.

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