Town square: Hog Heaven

 In April 2016, Town square

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When hog titan Wendell Murphy discovered that his top executives were commuting as much as 30 miles to their jobs in Duplin County, the Murphy family built them a neighborhood in 1996. Since then, their River Landing development has added two golf courses, a three-story clubhouse and a fitness center. Golfers soon needed gas and sandwiches. Newlyweds marrying at the clubhouse wanted a hotel for their guests. So the Murphys kept building: a convenience store with a sub shop, a fine-dining restaurant called the Mad Boar
and a Holiday Inn.

Now, as River Landing marks its 20th anniversary with 850 residents near Wallace, Murphy Family Ventures has inked a deal with Intracoastal Realty, one of Wilmington’s largest real-estate companies. The plan is to market the subdivision to second-home buyers and retirees looking toward the coast. It is an interesting proposition given that River Landing is 45 miles from Wilmington. The Murphys turned a textile town of 4,000 into a retiree destination. Empty farmland adjacent to Interstate 40 about 90 miles southeast of Raleigh is now a bustling exit with a Super Wal-Mart and a Vidant Health clinic. But can Wallace compete with the beach?

Dozens of golf developments filled largely with Northeasterners drawn to warmer winters and a slower pace dot rural North Carolina. About 40% of River Landing’s residents migrated from the Washington, D.C., area. Growth always has its detractors: One farmer took to calling the gated neighborhood of Yankees the “gates of hell.” He could be the sole curmudgeon in genteel Wallace, which has enthusiastically embraced outsiders. After its population barely budged for a half century, Duplin County added 20,000 people in the last 25 years. And there’s room for more at River Landing; out of an available 1,000 lots, the development has 433 completed homes.

Jan Zoesch recently pedaled her hot-blue bike to the River Landing clubhouse, grand as a Swiss chalet rising out of what once was flat farmland. The retired upstate New York teacher never fretted about fitting in — “Seven traffic lights sounded great,” she says — and immediately joined the Rose Hill Baptist Church choir though she was raised Roman Catholic. Members dubbed her the Catholic-Baptist. She found Wallace-Rose Hill Friends of the Arts, a group led by New Jersey retiree Charlie Schaeffer, who asked about a mission statement at a meeting 12 years ago and has held the presidency ever since. From one production in its first year, the Friends staged 50 shows last year. Shows are free, and the group picks up the tab for student transportation.

“River Landing has been a tremendous shot in the arm for Wallace,” says Mayor Charley Farrior, who has served since 1995. He and his wife, Harriet, own an interior design company downtown, across the street from town Councilman Jeff Carter, who runs Townsend Auto Parts, where locals hold court from two rocking chairs next to the counter.

Farming remains the lifeblood of this town, which is split by the Duplin and Pender county line. In 2014, Duplin had farm cash receipts at $1.2 billion, second only to next-door Sampson County. Duplin and Sampson tied that year for the number of hogs each produced, 1.85 million. North Carolina is second in the nation for hogs, behind Iowa.

Before it became famous for pork, Duplin was known as the world’s strawberry capital, losing that status when refrigerated transportation put Florida and California on top. Wilmington developer Hugh McRae dreamed of a farm city large enough for 300 during the Great Depression. Though the Penderlea homestead never grew that large, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt famously visited in 1937, arriving by rail to see the project built under her husband’s New Deal. Duplin County, like much of the South, grew reliant on the textile industry, which employed hundreds of  residents until foreign competition toppled domestic production. A huge J.P. Stevens dyeing and finishing plant closed in 1998, eliminating 830 jobs in Wallace. The silver lining was that Wallace gained the plant’s wastewater treatment permit, which eventually gave it the distinction as being an unusually small entity with its own airport and regional waste treatment authority capable of supplying water to surrounding towns and fast-growing Pender County.

This should give Wallace an advantage in the race for new business, but agriculture — hog farming in particular — remains its largest industry. No name is more associated with hogs than Wendell Murphy, a former high-school ag teacher who parlayed $3,000 in savings and a $10,000 loan into a company with more than $650 million in revenue, Forbes magazine reported in 1998. By the time he sold his company in 2000 to Smithfield Foods in a deal valued at more than $500 million, he had revolutionized contract farming. Three years earlier, North Carolina placed a moratorium on new hog farms to curb water pollution from the farms’ waste lagoons, a problem critics pinned on Murphy because of pro-industry legislation that he helped craft while serving in the N.C. House of Representatives and Senate between 1983 and 1993.

Farming is still the largest part of Murphy Family Ventures, employing most of its 1,000 workers who are divided between North Carolina and Missouri. Day-to-day operations are led by Dell Murphy, Wendell’s son, who also oversees two car dealerships, a storage-container business, billboard company and, most recently, Albemarle Boats, which just shipped one of its fishing boats to Japan. And there’s River Landing, which at Murphy Family Ventures is shorthand for two golf courses, the restaurant with a wine shop, the Village Store and another neighborhood fronted by vines that produce grapes every fall for another local business success story, Duplin Winery.

As the pioneering retirees and former hog-company brass who bought some of River Landing’s first homes approach their 80s, the Murphys are anticipating their needs with an assisted-living center under consideration. Twenty years ago, the Murphys built, and they came. Will the next 20 years deliver Wilmington?

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