Ocean Isle Beach
Between the Intercoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean, a myriad of homes sit in Ocean Isle Beach. Melissa Sue Gerrits / Wmforo

LELAND – Four days after Hurricane Florence made official landfall just north of here, Brunswick County Board of Commissioners Chairman Frank Williams set out to update his constituents in the state’s fastest-growing county. Floodwaters had washed out all routes between his house and the emergency services building in Bolivia, the county seat, so he went to Leland Town Hall to meet the small gathering of local reporters who could make it.

“The sheriff said I would need a helicopter to get to Bolivia,” Williams said. “The county is essentially separated into three islands.”

With a total area — combined land and water — of 1,049 square miles, Brunswick is the state’s fourth-largest county, stretching along the southeastern coast from the edge of Wilmington to the South Carolina line at Little River. It is also the fastest-growing, about 3 percent per year. Long distances and more people are a recipe that tests the limits of the county’s services in normal seasons — in a hurricane, it’s only more pronounced. Sheriff’s deputies and fire crews worked around the clock during Florence, conducting 50 swift-water rescues and blocking off countless roads where water might sweep cars away.

U.S. Highway 17 is the transportation spine from one end to the other, and Florence flooded it at just about every point where it crosses a river or creek. A washout at Town Creek cut off Leland and the northern communities; one at Lockwood Folly River cut off the southern communities, leaving a big section around Bolivia in the middle. Within those larger chunks were smaller islands, disconnected from the rest of the state for days. A dam breached in the Boiling Spring Lakes community, and workers at a nuclear power plant in Southport were stranded for six days.

Navigating disasters is part of the DNA of the wide-reaching county. Stories of the 1954 Hurricane Hazel, which came ashore as a Category 4 storm on a full-moon high tide and killed 12 people in Brunswick County, are still regular conversation starters in barbershops and salons.

What’s different now, though, is the number of people. Since 2010, the population has jumped more than 20 percent to about 131,000 residents today. Demographers predict that it will be higher than 200,000 by 2037. The U.S. Census Bureau considers Brunswick part of the Myrtle Beach-Conway-North Myrtle Beach MSA, which is the second-fastest growing metropolitan statisitcal area in the United States.

To put that in perspective, when Hazel hit in 1954, the county had about 19,000 people. Less than a century later, the climate is changing, hurricanes are more frequent, and Brunswick County will soon have 10 times the population.

This makes Brunswick an outlier in Eastern North Carolina. Throughout the region, cash-strapped counties, beaten by floods and loss of industry in the past two decades, are losing people and seeing vital services such as hospitals close. Drive through neighboring Bladen and Columbus counties, and you’ll see no shortage of abandoned homes and crumbling buildings; some towns, such as Fair Bluff in Columbus, have even been forced to consider whether it’s wise to rebuild at all after back-to-back blows from Matthew in 2016 and Florence in 2018.

In Brunswick, though, residents can expect their home values to increase by an average of 10 percent during this year’s revaluation — less than a year since a hurricane cost the county $19.6 million in damage.

Nothing, it seems, can slow Brunswick County’s growth.

“We just have this intangible,” says County Commissioner Ann Hardy, who has lived in Brunswick County since 1994. “It’s still got that rural, coastal atmosphere, but we’ve got an influx of folks coming in with artistic ability and other talents. … The communities, they’re all different. Like the storm, it was a sense of neighbors and people who care about their community and each other coming together to solve problems.”

People walk through downtown Southport on Saturday. The downtown backs up to the Cape Fear River near to where it spills into the Atlantic Ocean. The town boasts a variety of shops and restaurants with a population of roughly 3,730 in 2017. Melissa Sue Gerrits /Wmforo
Novant Health Brunswick Medical Center off Highway 17 in Supply opened in July 2011. According to its website, as of March 2019, it employs “nearly 200 physicians and specialists, 450 employees and 150 volunteers.” Melissa Sue Gerrits / Wmforo

Roots of growth

One reason Brunswick County can handle the flow of people dates to a court case in 1994.

That year, the school board believed the county commissioners were underfunding education. The schools sued and won. A jury awarded a $14 million settlement, far more than school officials had even asked for. Had the county paid that in full, the commission would have had no choice but to increase property taxes dramatically. But the two boards agreed to settle for much less — $1.35 million.

A little goodwill went a long way. And after that agreement ended, in 1998, the two boards signed a new deal to devote 36.5 percent of property taxes to schools — while also setting aside any extra income in a reserve for school capital needs.

That 36.5 percent agreement has been in place, with hardly any controversy, for over 20 years.

Hardy was the school system’s assistant superintendent back then. Now that she manages the county side, she has a new appreciation for the agreement. Free of squabbles over school funding that plague other North Carolina counties, staff and elected leaders can devote time and resources to other needs, from its rapidly increasing retiree population to public safety.

It helps that while the county’s overall population grows about 3 percent, the number of schoolchildren grows only about 1 percent. Brunswick serves about 14,000 kids in public schools, many of them in Leland, where young families settle just across the Cape Fear River from Wilmington. “I moved to Cary in the early 1980s,” Hardy says of the Raleigh suburb. “Leland reminds me of what Cary was during their growth period.”

Throughout the rest of the county, though, most newcomers are retirees from the mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions, drawn to warmer climates, golf courses and the proximity to the county’s four barrier islands — Oak Island, Holden Beach, Ocean Isle Beach and Sunset Beach. More than half (53 percent) of Brunswick’s residents are from out of state, according to a recent study by Carolina Demography, a consulting service at the Carolina Population Center at UNC Chapel Hill.

To keep up, the county has in the past few years established new senior centers in the northernmost and southernmost towns, Leland and Calabash. Nearly 3,000 combined residents are regular patrons.

“What’s really neat about these senior centers is that you don’t see the socioeconomic divide,” Hardy says. “If you’re a senior, you can go there and have a nice lunch, you can participate in yoga, cards, billiards, whatever. I have a senior parent that lives in the Clemmons area. She goes to the Y, but I don’t see that same level of community that our seniors get.”

While aging communities in other Eastern North Carolina counties have seen their hospitals close in the past decade, Brunswick has added ambulances and two advanced life support stations.

In 2006, Brunswick transferred its community hospital to Novant Health, which five years later opened a new $107 million medical center in Supply with a 24-hour emergency room and 74 acute-care beds.

Brunswick leaders hope to see the old hospital turned into an addiction and rehabilitation center, which would help address the county’s biggest trouble. It was one of four North Carolina counties where the rate of opioid deaths jumped by 1,300 percent from 2010-16. In the past year, methamphetamine arrests have increased, too.

The county has added 21 sheriff’s deputy positions in the past four years and revamped its approach to drugs. For years, the goal was to find someone with drugs and use that person to find the dealer. “But that’s not working, and it’s causing, in many cases, more problems than good,” Brunswick County Sheriff John Ingram said in a community meeting last July, according to The Brunswick Beacon. “I’m sorry it took us so long to understand.”

The department’s new Anchor Initiative, in which addicts can contact the sheriff’s office and be put into a recovery program without being charged for the drugs in their possession, has become a model for other counties in southeastern North Carolina, including Bladen.

All around the region are billboards with reminders for people to dispose of their unused prescriptions. And in a county where more than 30 percent of the population is over 65, there are plenty of prescriptions.

Commissioners recently created a program that guarantees any graduate of the county’s high schools free tuition and books at Brunswick Community College. Students must apply for federal aid first, but the county covers the difference. The belief is that a better-educated population is a better-employed population and a less addicted population.

Mailboxes that are no longer used rust out in front of an abandoned set of mobile homes in Leland in March 2019. Melissa Sue Gerrits /Wmforo
Susan Bowling drives from Bolivia to Coastal Seafood and Propane in Leland every couple of weeks, she says as she returns to her car with a cooler of seafood on Saturday. The store has been open for 40 years, but closed for a short time after Hurricane Florence with minimal damage. Melissa Sue Gerrits / Wmforo

Goodbye to ‘Worms and Coffee’ at the crossroads

On the way to Southport, Highway 211 intersects with Highway 906 in Midway. For two decades, a one-story gas station and convenience store at the corner here stood as an iconic symbol of Brunswick County. Officially, the old hardwood-floored store was known as Midway Trading Post, but most people called it by the name on the glowing neon sign in the window: “Worms and Coffee.”

The name was more than odd; it was another representation of the county’s dualities: newcomers and locals, fishing and farming, hurricane season and the rest of the year, Worms and Coffee. The store’s owners were a husband-and-wife pair named Mike and Carol Richards, who moved to Southport in 1993 while his company was undergoing layoffs in Raleigh. They bought the store, and he worked there nearly every day. He became known for catchphrases and quirks, including telling customers how much of a sale went to him and how much went “to the governor.” Mike died in 2015. A year later, the state wanted to widen 211 and made Carol an offer that suited her.

Now, Worms and Coffee is gone, and immediately behind where it stood is a parking lot and shopping center that includes a Lowes Foods.

“Those are the trade-offs,” says Hardy, who lives near the old store. Other tradeoffs include traffic and parking troubles. Oak Island this year contracted with a company to create 55 pay stations around the island for its 1,100 parking locations; the company guarantees parking will bring in a $400,000 profit per year. (During the summer vacation season the county’s population swells from 131,000 to about 230,000.) “It’s a shame that Worms and Coffee is no longer there. But there are so many new places. There’s all these incredible, little neat places in Southport now.”

For years, the county’s culinary reputation was built around Calabash fried shrimp. It’s still far from a healthy-food destination, but in the past decade restaurants such as Oyster Rock in Calabash and Fishy-Fishy in Southport have helped add local flavor, complementing the already popular Purple Onion Café in Shallotte. Breweries have followed. Grocery stores, too. A Publix opened in May 2018 in Ocean Isle Beach, just across the street from a Lowes Foods that opened in 2009.

There’s no sign of slowing down. Since 1960, when the county made its first major commitments to contemporary infrastructure, the population has more than doubled every 30 years. The volume of home sales in the county was up 3.1 percent in 2018, and the average price was up 4.4 percent. It marked the second straight year that Brunswick topped $1 billion in total sales.

All this would have been hard to fathom in 1954, when Hazel wiped out most of the homes on Brunswick County’s beaches. But a few forward-thinking investors bought the islands and divided them up into parcels. Now, as you cross the Intracoastal Waterway and onto Ocean Isle, or Holden, or Oak Island, or Sunset, all you can see along these strips of North Carolina’s coast are water, marshlands, and rooftops.

The sun sets on people fishing Saturday on the Intracoastal Waterway of Sunset Beach. Bridges connect the mainland to several islands created by the Intracoastal Waterway, where communities lie between the smaller bodies of water and the Atlantic Ocean. Melissa Sue Gerrits /Wmforo

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Egrets walk through marshland Saturday on the Intracoastal Waterway at Ocean Isle Beach. Houses in the background line the beaches of the Atlantic Ocean in a county that is growing roughly 3 percent per year in population. Melissa Sue Gerrits /Wmforo

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