Blue Economy Convergence Conversation: Travis Loop, Coastal Advocate and Founder of waterloop
It took over 15 years, but Travis Loop finally found a way back to the Wilmington, North Carolina area after he had to leave to pursue a career. A self-proclaimed “water-person,” Travis loves to surf, paddleboard, and enjoy the beautiful coastal environment and beaches of the Cape Fear region. Now that he is (back) home, he is here for the long term.
Travis graduated from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW) and worked as a newspaper reporter in the area for a couple of years after graduating. But a lack of career opportunities led him to move to Washington, D.C. to find work. Over two decades in media and communications, he worked for the Newspaper Association of America, the Governor of Hawaii, the Chesapeake Bay Program, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the Water Environment Federation.
In 2020 Travis started waterloop, a non-profit media outlet presenting podcasts, videos, and social media content focused on water solutions. The aim of waterloop is to educate, motivate, and empower action to advance water sustainability. While the platform explores issues around the country, Travis has published a number of episodes about topics on the Carolina coast and Wilmington. He is hoping to establish an ongoing internship for UNCW students to help with waterloop production. He is also a member of the board of the local not-for-profit WATERway NC, which helps people pay bills to maintain critical water and sewer services.
Travis is an energized member of the community and excited for the future of Wilmington.
In this Blue Economy Convergence Conversation, Travis and I discuss how defining what the Blue Economy means to Wilmington and then collaborating on the opportunities it presents will create the future of this beautiful coastal environment.
Deb: How would you define the Blue Economy?
Travis: On one hand, the Blue Economy can be everything that’s connected to water in a coastal community. There’s marine technology, commercial fishing, aquaculture, tourism, and everything else that is economically connected with water, including sports and recreation. But on the other hand, I hesitate to lump every little thing that happens in a coastal town under the Blue Economy. It should mostly be things that are a bit more directly connected to water technology, aquaculture, maritime activities, and environmental restoration. Those are the core considerations along with all the scientific and commercial activity that goes on along them.
Deb: You mentioned you had to leave Wilmington because the economy didn’t previously support you living in the area. How might the Blue Economy concept be important for an area such as Wilmington?
Travis: Sometimes these concepts may seem like an argument of economy versus environment, but that’s a false choice. Actually, these two things go very much hand in hand. Things that are good for the environment, for coastal communities, and for science and tech are massive economic drivers – they create businesses and jobs. I do think the Blue Economy concept that connects and benefits both the economy and the environment can provide a scalable and focused foundation for a coastal community, rather than having all different kinds of disconnected things going on.
I think often people left Wilmington in the late nineties and early 2000s because there weren’t as many professional opportunities here. That has changed because of a variety of companies — for example, PPD and Live Oak Bank — and because we have had an increase in films and television being shot in the area. We have the University of North Carolina Wilmington drawing more students to the area. And we still have strong tourism. But there’s a huge opportunity for Wilmington to build around something like the Blue Economy, to take the next leap, and really put itself on the map in a new way.
Deb: Do you think leaders in the Wilmington area have this awareness of the potential? Is there focus and collaboration to make the Blue Economy happen?
Travis: One of the critical areas to develop is the coming together of the community, especially the elected officials and government staff. The city council, county commissioners, mayor, and state representatives need to be working together on Blue Economy efforts. We even have to pitch federal elected officials to bring them in on the effort. The Blue Economy needs to be a pillar, a focal point of Wilmington’s success, not something happening on the side or as an afterthought. We need leaders to come together around a defined Blue Economy concept that involves the business community, university, environmental groups, and other stakeholders. It seems like it’s the university that’s primarily trying to drive this right now and some of the businesses are kind of involved, but there really needs a coalition of people willing to drive action. This is key and it seems like we’re on the verge of this happening.
Deb: Water is a complicated network. Do you think people have an awareness of the importance of water or how fragile our water sources are?
Travis: This is the focus of my work. For many years now, I have been working to raise public awareness around water – its value and importance, the opportunities there are to take better care of water resources, and the benefits to communities from doing so. I’ve looked at public polling and tried to find the messages and information that resonate. Major news stories about the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, the severe droughts happening in the West, and damage from flooding and hurricanes have helped to raise awareness in recent years. And the GenX in the Cape Fear River and the drinking water certainly elevated public awareness in Wilmington over the past few years.
A lot more understanding is still needed about where our water supply comes from and how it gets to our taps. We need more understanding of where the water goes when it leaves our house — what the process is and how it’s connected with all of our local waterways. There’s also a lot of room locally for education about water issues like stormwater, coastal management, and more in our community.
Deb: What does Wilmington look like in the next 15 to 20 years, and what does it feel like?
Travis: To get momentum going and have the Blue Economy be a pillar for the region, we have to start by coming together as a community and launching a concerted branding and marketing effort. We have to tell the story of the Blue Economy with a clear vision and focus and make people aware of the concept and value.
As I mentioned, some people tie everything happening in a coastal area to the Blue Economy, which could become overwhelming or bog down progress. It’s critical in the early stages to start with a list that is focused and not a “kitchen sink.”
What does Wilmington look like in a few decades? It’s on the map as a Blue Economy hub. There’s buzz about it outside of this area. There are job opportunities tied to the Blue Economy that get students from the UNCW to stay here rather than having to leave, as I did. It attracts people to move here. They come here for jobs, graduate school, or whatever it might be. It becomes a magnet for water-connected businesses. Wilmington becomes a place that people are aware of similar to, say, San Diego, which is the first Blue Economy place that pops to my mind. That city has brought focus and effort around the concept. Milwaukee has also established itself as a center for water innovation and the area is reaping the rewards.
Deb: Competing forces could prohibit or make things difficult for bringing focus and unity of effort. Are there tribes or groups of people in Wilmington that have different views of what Wilmington should or shouldn’t be in the future?
Travis: I’m pretty optimistic. There’s been real growth in Wilmington with more and more successful companies starting or expanding here. It’s a hot destination for people to relocate -people want to live in a warm climate on the coast. I’m constantly meeting people that have moved here from other places. There’s a tremendous amount of money from around the rest of the state invested in the Cape Fear region. People are coming from places like Raleigh and Charlotte to have second homes here or spend a lot of time in the area. I believe there’s a lot of momentum and a desire to develop Wilmington into something more.
Deb: What do you see are the challenges to this momentum picking up speed?
Travis: Getting the buy-in and commitment from the government across local, state, and federal levels must happen as soon as possible. Elected officials have to get on board to help drive the initiative. There has to be ownership and somebody has to take the lead, otherwise, it’s a ‘who’s on first’ situation. I’ve been in government myself, worked in state and federal government, and I have seen how bureaucracy and process can get bogged down with planning rather than acting. There has to be an entrepreneurial business spirit and some hustle behind this. We can’t let it get bogged down or try to be everything at once, which can happen. We’ll need to pick the handful of areas where we’re going to start our Blue Economy, such as aquaculture or coastal restoration, focus, and then as we succeed, we can add. Trying to be too many things at one time could be an obstacle.
Without collaboration, there might be some conflict in direction, so groups of stakeholders need to be in discussions. We need a collaborative initiative to get on the same page and map out tactics. There’s strength in doing this because it’s where we’ll find synergies. Bring different groups together that might not typically be together or might not have been talking to each other, then learn more about each other, and find opportunities to collaborate and offer opportunities.
Deb: If you have a range of sustainably, from zero to 10, with 10 being very sustainable, where do you think the Wilmington area is right now?
Travis: I’d have to probably say right in the middle. Let’s say it’s a five with an arrow pointing higher. There are a lot of people, especially the younger generation, who want it to be higher up on the scale. Sustainable, smart growth hasn’t been the approach in the past – you can see that from the way development has occurred and in some sense is still allowed. But there is some momentum to change that. The city and county government, some of the environmental groups, and other entities are trying more sustainable approaches with development and infrastructure, but still face obstacles and opponents. Reinventing Wilmington as a sustainable, 21st-century city is a long and difficult process, but the potential and payoff are so high.
Deb: What is your greatest hope for the future?
Travis: I’d like to see Wilmington reinvented while still preserving its character and charm. I think the Blue Economy is a way to do that. It’s a really special place. The coastal environment and historic neighborhoods are beautiful. But I drive around and see old strip malls and dilapidated buildings, unsightly utility lines and billboards, and a lot of randomness to development. It needs a shot in the arm economically and from a redevelopment standpoint. The Blue Economy can bring more advanced types of businesses and a cutting-edge type of economy. This could be a huge part of reinventing and reinvesting in Wilmington, while still keeping the essence of a smaller historic city and coastal community that makes it so special.
Travis reminds us constellations of people and organizational groups form through connection and interactions. They organize for political, social, environmental, or even cultural action. Information and communication technology serves as a powerful source for connection and gives a voice to these constellations. They shift and morph depending on the flow of progress, and they grow exponentially in number. We must collaborate with others inside the constellations we have any interaction with to anticipate, understand, and explore the known and unintentional consequences of our decisions. As interdependencies continue to grow, we must ask “what if?” with every decision and then adapt our internal organizational behaviors and operations for a connected global society and a changing planet. And by doing so, we will build deeper trust with each other.
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.