By Bryan Mims
The winter afternoon is warm, even by coastal standards, and Cape Fear National Golf Course in Leland is teeming with tee offs. Shorts and polo shirts are abundant here at one of the most renowned golf courses on the North Carolina coast.
“This is a Chamber of Commerce day!” enthuses Mike McGowan, 64, a player’s assistant at the 7,217–yard, par-72 course. The Buffalo, N.Y., native didn’t understand the oxymoron “warm winter afternoon” till he migrated down south. When faced with the prospect of an empty nest up north — his son was close to finishing college and his daughter, high school — he said to his wife, “We need to move when they graduate. We need to start looking.”
Neither had any desire for Florida — too far south, too muggy, too crowded. “You can get nice warm weather in other places,” he says. “We wanted a nice place where we could live comfortably without the oppressive heat.”
The southeastern coast of North Carolina looked optimal. Midway to Florida, it offered tee-time winters without the long summer swelter. So in 2006, they settled in Westport, one of many master-planned subdivisions across the sprawling southern reaches of Leland, a town whose population has grown fivefold in the last two decades. In 2000, it had 4,125 residents; its population is now estimated at more than 22,000.
New development and annexation has increased to accommodate the growing population. In 2004, Leland added the Brunswick Forest community developed by Jeff Earp. It’s home to Cape Fear National, a golf course open to the public and designed by Sunset Beach architect Tim Cate. Brunswick Forest spreads across 4,500 acres and is speckled with bungalows, townhomes, houses, canoe and kayak trails, walking and biking paths, and wooded parks. It’s tailored mostly to retirees, and Where to Retire magazine consistently ranks Brunswick Forest among the nation’s top retirement communities.
Located across the Cape Fear and Brunswick rivers from Wilmington — and a short drive from a long strand of beach communities — Leland is a Shangri-La for transplants. “I don’t really want to deal with all that stuff in Wilmington because it’s a big city, even though it has a small-town feel,” says Burl Penton, a transplant from New England who lives in Brunswick Forest. “Over here, it’s the best of both worlds.”
That sentiment crystallizes Leland’s allure: It’s close to the fine restaurants, theaters and the moss-draped history of Wilmington but is striving to become an entity unto itself, replete with an arts center and parks that rival those across the bridge.
Leland didn’t exist as an incorporated town until 1989, though the community traces its origins to the 1890s. Back then — at the spot where Village Road crossed the Wilmington, Columbia and Augusta Railroad — a small community had taken root. Joseph Gay and some other residents successfully petitioned to have a post office established here. The area became known as Leland, named for Gay’s nephew, Leland Adams.
Historical markers outside Leland’s 44,000-square-foot town hall, which opened in 2015, offer a thumbnail sketch of its emergence. On September 12, 1989, the 12-member Leland Charter Commission made it official: Leland, with a little more than 1,000 residents, was now a municipality.
More than 30 years later, Leland, despite its growth, still lacks a true downtown. Brunswick Forest boasts its own commercial center — The Villages at Brunswick Forest bustle with retail, dining, medical offices and other professional services — but the equivalent hasn’t existed for the town.
The traditional nucleus of Leland is along Village and Old Fayetteville roads, populated with a Food Lion, Piggly Wiggly, fast-food restaurants and a hodgepodge of other familiar franchises. In the last 20 years, Leland’s commercial development has boomed along U.S. 17, with the Shoppes at Westgate — anchored by a Walmart Supercenter — serving as a hub. Asked whether Leland has a downtown, Mayor Brenda Bozeman says, “No, but we are creating one.”
She’s referring to the Gateway District along Village Road, designated to spur the development of homes, shops and restaurants. In 2011, the town adopted a plan to foster a walkable, livable downtown. The Gateway District puts “parking lots in the back so you can walk the sidewalks and walk from one store to another,” Bozeman says.
The first major project under the ordinance, Harrington Village luxury apartments and its commercial component, Harrington Square, broke ground in 2017. When build-out is complete, town officials say, the $45 million, mixed-use development will include 333 apartments and 30,000 square feet of commercial and retail space. Harrington Village is now leasing units with rates ranging from $895 to $1,475.
The town is also landing its first brewery, expected to open in late 2020. 7twenty6 Brewing Co. will tap into five acres in the Gateway District and feature a taco-stand-style eatery and outdoor concert stage. The brewery would also be a first for northern Brunswick County. “Whenever I frequent any of the Wilmington breweries, there are always people there who have come from Leland,” brewery partner Chris LaCoe said in a press release. “With the town’s continued growth, I think it is a perfect place to bring in a nice hangout spot that is convenient to residents and is family-friendly.”
Gary Vidmar, the town’s economic and community development director, said the brewery will help establish Leland’s image as a destination rather than a bedroom community of Wilmington. “The craft-brewery industry in Wilmington and the entire region has been growing rapidly but until now, Leland has not been part of the mix,” Vidmar says. “As a result, Leland and Brunswick County residents must travel to Wilmington and surrounding areas to enjoy their favorite brews.”
Leland and Brunswick County residents used to also have to visit Wilmington to enjoy an art studio or live-theater performance. But in 2015, the Leland Cultural Arts Center opened along Magnolia Village Way, occupying 18,000 square feet of space in a building the town had bought in foreclosure. “That was my dream,” Mayor Bozeman says. “That Cultural Arts Center is awesome. We have people come from Wilmington [that] like our Cultural Arts Center better than they do the arts center in Wilmington.”
The town has invested about $2.5 million into the center, and it offers an impressive array of classes to the public: Oil and watercolor painting; sculpting; jewelry, quilt and basket making; writing; photography; and even ballroom, tap and belly dancing. The center also features a 225-seat multipurpose performing arts space for hosting shows that often pack the house. Recent sold- out acts included Johnny Cash and Frank Sinatra tribute bands. “It stays busy all the time,” Bozeman says.
With the cultural center, Leland has enhanced its arts scene, but rapid population growth, if not smartly directed, has a tendency to erode the natural scene. Leland is laced with cypress-shaded wetlands and tidal creeks — prime backdrops for Leland’s several parks, including a new, 78-acre tract called Sturgeon Creek Park. The town is now soliciting ideas for how to develop the park while protecting as much as the natural environs as possible.
Right across the street from Leland Town Hall is Founders Park, formerly Leland Municipal Park, an 8-acre spread with a playground, benches, a paved trail and disc golf. On a balmy winter afternoon, Deron Webb and his two sons, Erickson, 11, and Langston, 8, are hurling discs at targets. Webb designed the disc course himself and worked with the town to put it in. “It’s a good mix of everything in this town,” he says.
To be sure, Leland often fits the Chamber of Commerce idyll: Tee times and T-shirts in February and a short drive to long walks on the beach. Wilmington, a city nearly 300 years old, is just across the bridge, and Leland is inextricably linked to the Port City. But the water is wide and this town is still young enough to shape its own identity.