As Wilmington marks its 278th year of formal incorporation, many local businesses and organization also marked anniversary milestones this year.
Among them are Old Baldy Lighthouse (200 years); New Hanover/ Pender Medical Society, Wilmington Chamber of Commerce and StarNews (at 150 years each); Community Boys and Girls Club (80 years); N.C. Azalea Festival and University of North Carolina Wilmington (70 years); New Hanover Regional Medical Center (50 years); Make-a-Wish Eastern North Carolina, Cape Fear Habitat for Humanity and Well Care (30 years each); Capt’n Bill’s Backyard Grill (25 years); and Big Sky Dreams, DREAMS of Wilmington and Spectrum Jewelry (20 years each), just to name a few.
Some of these icons have survived because of their obvious historical value. Old Baldy is the oldest surviving lighthouse in the state. Built to mark the entrance of the Cape Fear River, its thick stone and brick construction saved it from erosion and inclement weather. It was deactivated in 1935 but served as a radio beacon in World War II.
Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, its maintenance and preservation were assured by formation of the Old Baldy Foundation in 1985.
The New Hanover/Pender Medical Society marked its 150th anniversary with a summer social this year. The membership association has 525 physician members and 35 physician assistant members, said executive director Bonnie Brown. She noted, however, that the original membership would have been very small because as late as 1950, there were only 60 physicians in Wilmington. The group’s original stated purpose continues today: “to fortify the strength and camaraderie of the medical community and to provide valuable service to our fellow citizens.”
Those services reflect the community’s needs and range from free annual student-athlete screenings to premedicine scholarships to contributions to a long list of local efforts and charities including She Rocks! Inc., Habitat for Humanity and more.
Brown says the society’s purpose has remained unchanged through its 150-year history. What has changed is a necessary move from volunteers to a paid director and incorporation of modern technology. In his message to members, this year’s president Ed Ricciardelli pledged to “expand and improve our social media presence” and to optimize the use of technology to better serve current members and to make the society “relevant and attractive to younger physicians.”
Staying relevant to customers has also been the strength of Capt’n Bill’s Backyard Grill and Volleyball, which marked its 25th anniversary in March.
Owned by John and Erin Musser, the business grew out of a family love for volleyball, said office manager Debby Shaw. Begun as a small restaurant with a handful of courts, the business became popular for pick-up play as well as leagues.
“We’ve had to adapt with changes in volleyball; the rules have changed,” Shaw said.
That’s meant changes in format as well as food to keep up with the healthier lifestyle. They do, however, still serve their famous slop burger, in-house barbecue and fried seafood from the original menu.
Competition opening nearby has affected their numbers, but Shaw says they’ve stayed true to who they are and what they’ve been for the past 25 years. “We’ve always been known for our customer service and our friendly staff. The owners are very hands-on.”
Social media keeps them in touch with their customers, who use it for league schedules, cancellations and updates. “People like to post and see pictures of themselves and their winning teams,” Shaw said.
The company opened Bill’s Front Porch Pub and Brewery about 1ó years ago adjacent to the volleyball complex. “It’s going good. We have a regular clientele that’s coming in,” Shaw said.
Brewmaster Jim Deaton and staff are planning their first beer festival on Dec. 9.
To stay in business long enough to hit a milestone requires adaptability, said aMuse Artisanal Finery founder Jan Wutkowski.
Her original incarnation opened 10 years ago in a tiny space on Wrightsville Avenue.
“I had been making hats for 10 or 12 years and had a dream that I would have a retail space. I didn’t know how it would work or if it would work,” she said. “My goal was to work with women who were going to special occasions, mostly weddings, Kentucky Derby parties, teas.”
She said she wasn’t even “aware of the Azalea Festival garden party being a hat event.” It has become one of her biggest revenue generators.
“The first year was trying to figure out who liked what kinds of hats or even if they did like hats,” she said.
She moved downtown, locating beside a bridal shop.
“I thought ‘What better?’ My bridal clientele had mushroomed, and I did even more when I moved next door to the salon,” Wutkowski said.
The location worked well until bridal trends changed. Three years ago, as more brides moved away from veils and hats, Wutkowski closed her shop, relocating to a space with an expansive workroom and a neatly appointed meeting space.
“I was still going great guns on making custom hats for special occasions. I needed more space for my materials,” she said.
She posted her sign out front: “By Appointment Only.”
“The key to success is continually knowing who your customer is, how the market is changing, and being adaptable to that, and changing your business model so you can continue to keep the doors open to do what for me is an art and a passion,” Wutkowski said. “It’s not just a retail space. It’s where I’m able to do the things I love artistically. Be prepared to change. I’ve seen so many of the shops that started when I did have gone out of business. I’m very happy with where I am. It’s very different than it was when I started. I will continue to change to do what I love.”