Wilmington resident George Popajohn has made the trek to the Onslow County city of Jacksonville for work for 17 years, while a friend of his, Keith Popkin, has done it for more than 30.
“I really, really like working with Toyota and really enjoy working with the Stevensons and the transition to becoming a Hendrick store,” said Popajohn, who is the general manager of Stevenson-Hendrick Toyota in Jacksonville but who lives in Landfall. “It’s just been a part of my life for a long time. … I like working with the military members and have gotten involved with a lot of organizations up here.”
Popkin, who is one of the owners of furniture store Furniture Fair, moved to Wilmington in 1986 to “get to where I could separate my work from my personal life . . . I figured I’d ride until I couldn’t take it anymore, and here I am 32 years later.”
Furniture Fair has nine locations east of Raleigh, including in Jacksonville and Wilmington, while the Stevenson-Hendrick partnership has dealerships in both cities.
Commuters who travel to Onslow County from New Hanover County and vice versa abound, Popajohn and Popkin said. Jacksonville is also home to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune and Marine Corps Air Station New River, with service members who live in Onslow, Pender and New Hanover counties.
The connections between New Hanover County and Onslow County go back to long before the military presence and before Popkin started his commute, all the way to the early 1700s, when Onslow was settled as part of the colonial precincts of Carteret and New Hanover.
These days, the business ties that bind the two counties include businesses that started in either Wilmington or in Jacksonville or other Onslow County communities and have subsequently expanded to include locations in both.
Coldwell Banker Sea Coast Advantage, a residential real estate firm headquartered in Wilmington that sells homes in New Hanover, Brunswick, Pender and Onslow, opened a Jacksonville office in 2008 and is expanding with a second location in Jacksonville. The company, founded in Wilmington in 1988, does a lot of home sale business involving military moves via Cartus Relocation.
Two major markets for Sea Coast Advantage are Wilmington and Jacksonville, and officials there see connections between the two becoming stronger.
“They’ve definitely come much closer. It’s drawing closer, like when you take a trip to Wilmington, it’s nothing now because of all the growth in between,” said John Hoopes Jr., who was born in Jacksonville and is the managing broker of Sea Coast Advantage’s second office, under renovation at 1012 Henderson Drive.
Tim Milam, president of Coldwell Banker Sea Coast Advantage, said that to him, the relationship is reminiscent of Cary and Raleigh or towns that surround Charlotte.
“We’re never going to be as big as Raleigh or Charlotte, but when you think about Wilmington and Jacksonville, all these towns sort of start coming together a little bit,” Milam said.
Jacksonville is the county seat of Onslow County and is the 14th-largest city in North Carolina (Wilmington is the 8th-largest).
Onslow is about 50 miles north of Wilmington, 120 miles east of Raleigh and includes part of Surf City along with North Topsail Beach, Sneads Ferry, Holly Ridge, Richlands and Swansboro.
“We have several chamber members that have their locations or home offices in Pender or in the Wilmington area and because they do conduct business here in Jacksonville, of course they’re a member of our chamber,” said Laurette Leagon, president of the Jacksonville-Onslow Chamber of Commerce.
She said she thinks Wilmington and Jacksonville complement each other.
“I think there’s some services in Wilmington that are a benefit that Jacksonville may not have and vice versa; Jacksonville has some services that may not be available in the Wilmington area,” Leagon said.
One growth area for Jacksonville has been in the health care industry, with Wilmington Health and New Hanover Regional Medical Center expanding that way.
“We now have the ability to have some of the health care that was previously only available in Wilmington. Now they have a presence in Jacksonville,” Leagon said.
“Sometimes people forget, but health care is definitely a business and a very good employer, paying above-average wages.”
Retail options, including restaurants, have grown in Onslow County, Hoopes and Leagon said.
“We have become a regional shopping center, and it’s not just because of the military but also when you think about Jones County and Duplin County – they’re coming into Onslow and Jacksonville to shop because we just have more choices for them than they do in their own home county,” Leagon said.
At the same time, some retail options in the Wilmington area, including in Pender and New Hanover counties, are affected by Onslow County residents looking for ways to minimize drive times, even as some roadway improvements, including Interstate 140, have made driving through the region a little faster.
One example is a specialty grocery store coming to Military Cutoff Road. Earth Fare, which was set to open Nov. 14 (as of press time) in a new shopping center called Renaissance Market, is expected to draw organic and natural food buyers from throughout the region, including Onslow.
“There’s a big Jacksonville crowd that is excited about Earth Fare,” said Randy
Kelley, principal of Harbour Retail Partners, a firm that partnered with Trask Land Co. in Wilmington on the Renaissance Market project.
Home Sales Spreading
For the real estate industry and Coldwell Banker Sea Coast Advantage, military-related home sales make up roughly about 75 percent of the company’s sales in Onslow, Milam said.
Sometimes those sales result in an additional New Hanover County connection, Hoopes said.
Military spouses might not be able to find the kind of positions they’re qualified for in Onslow but can commute to Wilmington, which has more industries to choose from, he said.
“It’s inevitable in a lot of ways. And what we’re also finding is a lot of the vendors – the contractors, the appraiser, the attorneys, the termite guys – a lot of them are expanding to where they cover the Wilmington- Jacksonville areas combined,” Hoopes said.
Some of the military spouses become Realtors, he said. His company has nearly 80 Realtors in the existing office in Jacksonville and will have room for another 40 or more once renovations are complete at the new branch.
While military members make up a large number of homebuyers in the area, Hoopes said, more non-military residents appear to be choosing Onslow County.
“We’re seeing more of them because of the cost of living,” Hoopes said. “You get a little more house for your money here and more square footage.”
Popajohn said in some ways, Onslow County kind of mirrors New Hanover County, “only about five years earlier. When I first got here, there was nowhere to eat unless you wanted a fast-food lunch; now we have all these restaurants up here that they have in Wilmington.
“It’s amazing over the past 10 or 12 years how much it’s changed. A lot of the things they had to go to Wilmington for up here they’re getting in Onslow County.”
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