Home again
He built the top-selling Carolina coastal community − then moved back to Eden.

by Spencer Campbell

Homer Wright surveys a map of St. James Plantation — a 6,000-acre coastal community in Brunswick County — from his office in a converted service station in Eden. “All that’s white is sold. That tan is to be developed. That one over there is being developed, this is being developed. We’ll have to develop here, here, here and there.” He and two partners started grading and excavating in 1985, and the development is about three-quarters complete. He’s trying to figure out what to do with the rest, leaning toward condos with rounded countertops, higher electric sockets, wider doors. “All those things that make it more livable for people like me.” Wright, 89, means old people.

Born in Spray — which, with Leaksville and Draper, would become Eden in 1967 — he built a house at the fork of the Dan and Smith rivers in 1953. His parents owned clothing stores, and after stints at three colleges and service in Italy during World War II, he had followed them into the business. The property for his house included an alfalfa field. Someone wanted to buy and turn it into housing Wright “couldn’t fully appreciate.” Instead, he divided it into 34 lots and held an auction. He sold one. To recoup his investment, he built houses and was enthralled. “I like that you can take a map of a farm and take your pencil and trace what it could be instead of what it is.” He founded The Wright Co. in 1954.

Wright became a developer and builder — appealing to homebuyers with advertisements such as “You Can Pay Less Than Rent” — mostly in and around Rockingham County. In the 1960s, needing a nice place for his parents to retire to, he scouted sites in Italy and Costa Rica. Italy was too expensive, and Costa Rica lacked good medical treatment. A friend in Edenton suggested Oak Island in Brunswick County. Land across the waterway, west of Southport, caught his eye. He and his partners bought the original 2,500-acre St. James tract in 1983.

Site work began two years later. He bought a used Jeep, scouring the land from dawn till nearly dusk. He toured everything scheduled for the day — the grading and excavation — then tried to anticipate what should come next. In July 1990, the U.S. economy entered an eight-month recession, and Wright ran out of cash. “I didn’t sleep well every night.” He eventually got a $10 million loan, and the community’s first golf course opened in 1991, right as the economy began to soar. “I started to say that I hated to confess luck, but it does play a part.”

St. James now has about 4,600 property owners and has sold the most property of any coastal Carolina community since 1991. Houses are listed from $107,500, for a 1,000-square-foot condo, to $1.6 million, for a 6,000-square-foot mansion on the waterway. “It’s one of the very, very few developments where the developer did what he said he was going to do — and more,” says Gordon Corlew, president of the homeowners’ association. It has four golf courses, a beach club, amphitheater and marina. “Golf courses were No. 1 when we started, but they’re way down. Now fitness is No. 1,” Wright says. So he’s leaning toward adding a third exercise center. But on most decisions, Wright takes a back seat. “Even though he controls the board, he doesn’t exercise it,” Corlew says. “He allows us to do what’s right in the community.” That includes managing the approximately $4 million annual budget. It was incorporated as a town in 1999, and last year its population grew nearly 10% to 3,978.

That doesn’t include Wright, who moved back to Eden in 2003. In 1896, B. Frank Mebane constructed Spray Cotton Mill, the first of his eight local textile mills. In 2001, it was the last to close. “I’ve always felt there’s something that can resurrect this town,” Wright says. The Wright Co. is turning a local mobile-home park into single-family housing. He’s hoping monthly mortgage payments will be a third lower than rent — though he hasn’t achieved that yet. “Sort of like a shadow,” Eden Mayor Wayne Tuggle says. “He gets things done but doesn’t want the adulation.”

Wright’s wife, Betsy, died in 2010, so he lives alone in a house he built in 1974 next to the one by the river. “Of course it worries you,” Corlew says of St. James without Wright. “But he’s prepared his family to be deeply involved.” Four of his six children help run the development. Wright remembers when they used to ride horses and play with the dogs in the large meadow in front of his house in Eden. He takes pleasure in the memories. “There’s something about biology that makes you want to go home,” Tuggle says. “I can’t say that for sure about Homer, but I suspect that’s the case.”