Blue Economy Convergence Conversation: Spence Broadhurst of First National Bank

Spence Broadhurst is the Eastern North Carolina Region President at the First National Bank. A civic-minded professional banker, he has lived in and contributed to the Wilmington community since 1996. Between 1996 and 2006, he worked for SunTrust Bank and was the Mayor of Wilmington from 2003 to 2006. After a transfer took him out of the area, he spent the next decade trying to return to Wilmington. Today, Spence and his family are once again firmly planted in the area, for good. 

Spence continually seeks opportunities to give back to the world. Several years ago, New Hanover County Commissioners chose Spence to serve on a board tasked to review the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center to Novant Health. The transaction concluded in early February 2021 but he continues to serve as a member of the New Hanover Community Endowment Board, overseeing support investment opportunities and grant distribution.

In this sixth 2021 Blue Economy Convergence Conversation, Spence and I discuss the opportunities being presented to Wilmington to solve community issues and create a foundation for economic health in the future.


Deb: How does the health and welfare of people impact the economy of Wilmington? Does the concept of the Blue Economy put people at the center of discussions?

Spence: I don’t know much about the Blue Economy. Like many other people, I’m still learning about what it is or could be. I do have a background in economic development and believe that the more money people have in their pocket and the more food they have on their table, the quicker we can resolve other ills in the community. I also think that better, more impactful, and more meaningful jobs lead to more opportunities, which is critical for a community. Wilmington seems to be looking at the Blue Economy concept as a way to tie the ocean and its ecological health to the growth of our local economy. 

One thing I know about economic development is you have to differentiate yourself from other areas. We have such an opportunity with the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) and the coast. It’s one of the best places in the world to live. However, it is a little bit more challenging to make a living down here because it’s a service-based economy for the most part. Finding a way to capitalize from an economic development standpoint on resources that we have that others don’t make sense to me. It sounds like a direction we ought to figure out and pursue.

Deb: Congratulations on the sale of New Hanover Regional Medical Center to Novant Health. You were a key person in getting the deal done. It could be a key opportunity for Wilmington’s economic development. How might the New Hanover Community Endowment support the larger economy and growth of the Wilmington area?

Spence: I was fortunate enough to serve as the co-chair of the advisory group that worked through the acquisition process. We made the recommendation to the county commissioners and the hospital board. The result is that the community has an expanded regional health center with Novant Health and the Wilmington community received a large amount of money to address community needs including healthcare in the future. It’s the reason why we got into the conversation in the first place. We started with an open and honest, publicly transparent conversation about the future of healthcare for the community. The underlying questions were figuring out how to deliver the best for this community for the next generation and generations beyond? How do we pay for it? How do we stay healthy? How do we address issues of healthcare and just hospitalization issues?

It was an informative 18 months for the entire community, including me. It was a journey of understanding the healthcare industry. In some ways it’s a mess and in other ways it offers a lot of opportunities to expand healthcare where we have healthcare deserts, which we’re really looking forward to. 

Novant Health paid $1.5B in the transaction in addition to the county being able to retain about $400 million in cash from New Hanover Regional, for a total of $1.9 billion. The county commissioners had tremendous foresight to take the funds out of the government and put it into an independent endowment foundation. New Hanover County owned the hospital but by putting the proceeds into the foundation, we will be able to manage the money, get it invested, and eventually start making grants in the community that can have an unprecedented impact. The foundation has a grant target of 4% per year which could to up to $40 million to $60 million per year when fully funded. Comparing this to the great work that the United Way is doing here with approximately $2M a year, we are talking about significant opportunities. You can imagine the impact that the money could have in a small county.

We didn’t do this transaction for economic development, but we now have a commitment from Novant to invest hundreds of millions of dollars for expansion on top of the money they already paid to the county. For example, Novant has committed to spend $215 million to build an entirely new hospital on the north side of the county. We have the land and they’ve committed the funds. We’ll have the capital resources to continue to develop the healthcare network, which I believe will become an economic development hub. When businesses or entrepreneurs are looking to live here, healthcare is the first thing they look at. I think we’ve set the stage for economic growth.

The New Hanover Community Endowment has four pillars of focus, including health and social equity, public education, community development, and public safety. It encompasses a lot of the inequities that we’ve faced in our society. We have an opportunity to get to the causes. It’s not going to be easy, and it will take a long time but we’re going to get the foundation built. We’re going to get started with solving problems and taking advantage of the tremendous opportunity for economic development. It all ties together – public education, public safety, community development, and healthcare all together.

Deb: Does the health research at the University of North Carolina Wilmington have a role?

Spence: Yes. With the research UNCW is doing connected with the natural resources that we have in Wilmington; it can be very impactful. We all know as we move forward, we’ve got to make some changes. We need to move into renewable resources, and we can’t keep using up the planet. We must figure out better ways to balance the economy, the environment, and social equalities. Wilmington has the opportunity to be a front-runner in these efforts, thanks to our many natural resources. We need to take advantage of them economically and in ways that will help us all to be better off. And with that, more jobs will come, and we’ll have a foundation for growth.

Deb: When you look out the next 10-15 years, what do you see in Wilmington’s future?

Spence: I want my children to be able to live and raise their families here. To do that, they will need to make a living. I don’t mean to sound like it’s all about money, but we have to have an economic foundation. What I want for my kids is the same thing I worked for. Some families in town are having trouble finding affordable housing and making ends meet at the grocery store. We’ve got a great place to live, but we’ve got a lot of work to do to further our economy so that people can have a good, solid way to make a living here.

I feel Wilmington is the greatest place in the world to live. But it can be a hard place to make a living. My two older children have moved away. My youngest is a year into college and I’m holding onto them as hard as I can. But we go where our careers take us. I would love for us to develop an economy that could keep our kids here and have people from other places wanting to come here to be a part of this community. We’ve got a lot of work to do on the ills of the community. I believe the endowment is going to have a real good opportunity to do that. And it starts with putting people in a position to make a living.

Deb: What are two or three things community leaders could align around and focus on to start the momentum to get the hard work done?

Spence: The issues of the community are connected in a circle, making it hard to say where to start. For example, do we address the crime issue, which is caused by poverty, which is caused by lack of education? It just goes around making it hard to determine where to start. In my role as a leader with the endowment, we need to find non-profit partners from the university, the county, the city, or other non-profits to invest in. We need to come together in a whole community way and answer the question about what we need to do. I don’t have the answers. I have my own opinions, but to address the issues we need more voices than my own.

I think early childhood development is important. If we lose people from an education standpoint, it’s hard for them to catch up. It’s a fact we need to get to children before third grade. If we don’t, we lose them, so we have to find a way to not let that happen. It sounds noble to take a bunch of endowment money and build preschools all over the place. That may be the right thing to do, but then we have to ask where they are sleeping at night. It might be in a box under a bridge. I don’t care how many preschools we have, if our kids don’t have food, clean water, and a safe place to live, we are going to lose them. One of the first steps we’re going to do as an endowment is to hold listening and input sessions from the community to hear their thoughts on the problems and what they see we should focus on. We all have ideas.

One of our biggest challenges is to find partners for the endowment to invest significant amounts of money so we can focus on creating long-term results. I’ve been doing community work for a long time and have often seen that we don’t have enough money and we can’t tax enough to raise the money to do what we need to do. Those days are over. We have the money. We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. We have a $1.3B foundation and a small county. We can put muscle behind our mouths. We’ve got the money to determine what we are going to do and how we are going to do it. Rather than throwing money at everything, we have to spend the time figuring out where the leverage points are for real solutions.

Deb: The listening tour will be very informative. There’ll be a lot of people speaking about their immediate needs. Figuring out how to address these but also address long-term needs will be challenging.

Spence: That’s the question. We’re committed to making progress. Before we start developing our criteria for grants and people start applying, we need to gather information. It’s going to be challenging because there are many immediate needs. The United Way and other non-profits have done such good work in helping with housing, feeding the hungry, and getting coats on the backs of the people who are cold. They’re doing great things and we’re not going to replace them. It’s not our job to replace. We’re also not going to replace the work that the government is doing to educate our children. It’s their responsibility to build schools. We’re not going to do that. We’re going to add a layer on top, take it to another level and get to the social ills that are keeping areas from being successful and try to think very long-term. We’re going to try to be very long-term and strategically get beyond the symptom of the problem to get to the root cause.

Deb: What are some of the opportunities you see that could be good for the future of Wilmington?

Spence: As a community, we have always been very sensitive to the quality of our place. Every person I’ve ever interacted with wants to keep our rivers, beaches, waterways, and marshes clean — protect the natural resources we have. I think it’s fair to say that as a community that’s why we live here. The challenge is how we take advantage of the beauty that we have. We’ve done a pretty good job of preserving while making it more economically advantageous from a job standpoint. 

We have some unique resources, but I don’t have any magic answers about the future. For example, the future of automobiles doesn’t have to be fossil fuels. It may not be too long before we’re all going to be driving battery-powered cars. From a manufacturing standpoint, what opportunities and challenges does this shift create for us? As a society, we are going to continue to recognize that we can’t keep burning gasoline into our atmosphere. We’re going to figure out things, some of which might be related to the ocean. I’m not a scientist and I don’t have much of a technical background, but I think there’s got to be a way to take advantage of the environment for economic strength.

Deb: What are the challenges in bringing the community to decide where grants will be made?

Spence: If we don’t have challenges, we’re not listening. There are going to be differences of opinion and direction. We need to listen to each other and talk to each other.  I’m proud of the county commissioners for having the foresight to take the money out of the government and put it in an endowment to keep politics out of it. Every two years, there are new county commissioners. Over time, they may end up zigging and zagging on decisions until the money’s gone. Whereas with the endowment, even if we get different political directions we’re fairly insulated from politics.

We feel like we can do the right thing. The endowment is going to be challenged. This is a healthy thing. If it doesn’t have these kinds of challenges, they aren’t asking enough questions. We need differences of opinion. People had a tremendous emotional connection to the New Haven Hospital. It was healthy for us to have transparent dialogue. We need to continue this type of dialogue. We’re going to make mistakes but we are going to listen, try things to see what works, and learn as we go.

Deb: Are there other models in other parts of the country that have done this and are you learning from them?

Spence: There are some similarities out there, but we are in a unique situation. We’ve been in existence for almost a year. We’ve had the money for about six months. We’ve been trying to slowly get it invested. The first thing we’ve done is conduct multiple sessions with leaders from other endowments and foundations in North Carolina and outside of the state to learn from them what made them successful and what actions we need to avoid. We’ve met with the Duke Endowment, which has been around since 1924. We also met with The Dogwood Health Trust, a health fund that came out of a hospital sale about two years ago. We are right behind them in learning.

We’re listening and we know there are some things that make us unique. It’s a lot of money in a very small county and we’re not restricted to one focus area, like healthcare. Community development is broad; we can hit on just about everything that goes on in the community. We have reached out and have conducted approximately 20 sessions with other endowments just to learn. We are asking what’s worked well, what hasn’t worked well, and what mistakes were made, so we won’t make them ourselves.

Deb: What is your greatest hope for the future?

Spence: I’m a practical dreamer. I live in these dreams but also get down to what can practically get done. There’s a difference between equality and equity. I start with the dream of equity for all.  Some say we’ve made some strides. As a community and as a society, we haven’t done enough to get to the dream. My greatest hope is that we can get to where there’s not even a need for the conversation anymore. If we get to this point, I think we will have solved an awful lot of things.


Spence reminds us that new types of relationships are moving influence and action out of the hands of traditional, established entities. Seeking to make a bigger impact, many are sidestepping the confines of bureaucracy, local politics, and even demographics. Those seeking to make change are finding belonging in increasingly diverse communities bound together by purpose and shared outcomes. As they do, power structures are morphing and blending across traditional boundaries to create better ways to solve problems and improve lives. Our expanding connectedness is fueling these relationships and erasing degrees of separation and the hierarchies that existing organizational models advocated. Traditional patterns of roles, authorities, and responsibilities are fracturing along new and sometimes unrecognizable lines, revealing gaps and opportunities for new ways to influence and to become an influencer. Building participation platforms for Wilmington’s citizens give voices to those who want and need to be heard to create opportunities to form communities around shared causes.

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.

Engage a human-centric perspective

Contact Deborah’s team for advisory services and speaking engagements.