Tar Heel of the Week

Tar Heel of the Week: Homer Wright’s developments win him friends all over NC

CorrespondentJuly 5, 2014 

Homer Wright left his family clothing business to become a developer. It’s a job he says he still loves.

COURTESY OF JOHN MUUSS

  • Homer E. Wright Jr.

    Born: September 1924, Eden

    Residence: Eden

    Career: Developer and founder of St. James Plantation

    Education: Attended Mars Hill College, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and UNC-Chapel Hill

    Family: Children Kenan, Martha, Margaret, Beth and Edward; eight grandchildren

    Fun Fact: Wright says developing St. James ruined his golf game because he became so preoccupied with improving the courses that he was distracted from his own play.

— When Homer Wright first visited this land, it was an expanse of pine forest lined with creeks, what he calls a “true wilderness” stretching for miles through the marshes near Southport.

Wright, a developer, had mostly built modest brick houses back in his hometown of Eden. And while he didn’t envision anything as grand at the 6,000-acre development that is now the town of St. James, he figured he could spend the rest of his life building a community here.

St. James Plantation is now home to more than 4,000 people, four golf courses, a marina, a 14-acre park and miles of walking trails. And Wright, an 89-year-old veteran of World War II, is still working to make it better.

Consistently rated a top-selling community along the Carolina coast, St. James was on the leading edge of a development boom in Brunswick County that has caused its population to more than double since 1990.

It’s also one of the state’s newest towns. It celebrated the 15th anniversary of its incorporation on Tuesday with a week of festivities honoring Wright, who has maintained close ties with the town he helped raise among the pines.

Residents revere Wright for his simple values and straightforward style, and, in particular, for keeping his promises as he has continued to improve the community with features ranging from noise-reducing street designs to signs about local plants.

“He’s an unusual man, and this is an unusual development,” says Dick LeFebvre, a St. James resident from New York. “He keeps his word. He tells you what he’s going to do and does it. St. James is a huge success story, and Homer Wright’s the reason behind it.”

A shift in careers

Wright built his first home for himself, on a plot between two rivers in Eden, near the Virginia border. He decided to build and sell a few houses on some nearby land, too.

At the time, he was working in the family business, a series of women’s clothes shops. But he liked the experience so much that he eventually left retail to become a full-time developer.

“I found what I enjoyed doing,” he says. “And I still love it.”

Wright had gone to Mars Hill College before the war, when he served in the Army based in Italy.

Upon returning, he took classes at UNC-Chapel Hill, but eventually went home to Eden. He and his wife had six children, and he says he kept working with his family business to keep his growing family fed.

He was also involved in his community, serving on the local school board and representing his district in the General Assembly for two years in the 1970s. He didn’t seek re-election, saying the role didn’t suit him.

But all along he was building homes, mainly modest starter homes that he sold for as little as $10,000. He says he loves to see the way homeowners continue to improve a community after the homes are sold, and he still likes to drive by his old projects in Eden.

One, a neighborhood near an African-American school in the days of segregation, is a particular favorite. Named for a longtime principal at the school who was a friend of Wright’s, the neighborhood has thrived in the years since.

“You can see the pride people have taken in maintaining those homes,” he says. “It’s amazing what home ownership can do.”

His move to coastal development was due in part to the economic woes in Eden, a textile town that suffered as that industry declined starting in the 1980s. Wright started exploring other places to build.

His own parents’ retirement got him thinking about ideal places to live, and he traveled widely, including to Europe and Central America, looking for ideas.

A friend who lived on Oak Island told him about the tract just northwest of Oak Island, about 10 miles from Southport. It was remote at the time, and a lot of people thought he was crazy. But Wright plowed ahead, along with partners John Atkinson and Claude Smith.

Making things better

They started with about 2,500 acres, where they built a guard gate, a sign and a simple chapel along a winding road from N.C. 211 to the Intracoastal Waterway before there were any homes. They used the chapel for storage since there was not yet a congregation.

In 1991, the first residents moved in. Wright had to work closely with the state and the U.S. Corps of Engineers to gain access to the intracoastal, so at first they couldn’t even advertise their planned marina.

Wright relished riding in a beat-up Jeep Wagoneer, getting to know the woods – and getting stuck in them several times, he recalls.

His approach to building the community has been measured, adding more as sales of condominiums and houses made it possible, trying to incorporate features to fit the land.

Later, he and his partners bought two more tracts, including an oceanfront stretch in Oak Island. About a fourth of it is 1,500 acres of protected wetlands.

Wright is known for moving quickly from the initial compliments offered by visitors and residents to the next question: What would make it better?

Many recent additions to the community have also been taken on by the homeowners’ association and the town.

Some ideas, such as an equestrian center, didn’t pan out. Others, such as a beachside clubhouse, did.

“We try to do more than we promised we’d do,” he says.

He still lives primarily in Eden, but visits St. James regularly, still keeping his eye out for new ideas – most of which he won’t share because he’s not sure yet if they’ll come to fruition.

Incorporation

On Monday, Wright was at the Founders Day Celebration, handing out trophies to children at a fishing expo. The festivities included fireworks and a parade.

It was residents who decided to incorporate, staving off annexation by neighboring towns, though Wright didn’t oppose the move, he says.

And residents have formed a number of clubs devoted to fishing, maintaining and adding facilities, and more.

LeFebvre is active in the community’s fishing club, and recalls a time when Wright showed up at a meeting. When the club president introduced Wright to the 100-some people in attendance, they all stood up and applauded.

“It was just so spontaneous,” says LeFebvre, adding that Wright paid $15 to join the club after the meeting. “It was just pure respect.”

For Wright, to see this kind of investment in a community by its residents is the surest sign of success.

“We try to provide the sort of experience that people will be able to buy into it and take possession of it,” he says. “The most substantial reward you can get is if you can make a place that becomes a real community.”

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