By any measure, Leland is booming. As its residential population burgeons, business development follows. Rapid growth in the form of retail shops, hotels, restaurants, offices and medical practices is obvious even to the casual passerby.
With the first of its tenants in place, the development called Leland Town Center is still under construction across U.S. 17 from Waterford Village, which is almost completely occupied. Further south on that highway are other commercial developments: Magnolia Greens, the Shoppes at Westgate and The Villages at Brunswick Forest.
Other commercial outcroppings are in progress south of Brunswick Forest along U.S. 17 as part of new developments.
This expanding commercial mix serves the town’s increasingly diverse population.
“A lot of young families are beginning to move here,” said Gary Vidmar, Leland’s economic and community development director. “People think of the people moving to Leland as primarily retirees, but that’s not the case. The town’s median age is 42. School buses are coming through Waterford now, unlike two years ago. The population is balancing out.”
He cited Leland’s age demographics: 27% of residents are between 25 and 44; 28% are under 25; only 22% are over 65. And new residents aren’t necessarily coming from the Northeast or Midwest.
“A lot of folks are moving here from Wilmington, where they are still employed,” Vidmar said. “They find it easier to commute from Wilmington to Leland than through Wilmington.”
Vidmar adds that when Brunswick Forest is fully built out, that community alone will boast as many residents –about 22,000 – as live in the whole of Leland today.
One new business that is benefiting from all the growth is Farmhouse Kitchen restaurant, owned by Leland residents Thomas and Josephine Tilley (below
). Thomas Tilley was getting burned out doing software sales, according to his wife, and the couple was ready to try something new.
“We noticed the location available,” she said of a storefront in The Villages at Brunswick Forest, “and decided to try a breakfast and lunch restaurant.”
They opened Farmhouse Kitchen in April. Almost one year in, “It’s been great,” Josephine Tilley said. “It was a little stressful at first, but we have a great staff whom we trust. Our chef is amazing. The community has been amazing.”
Farmhouse Kitchen’s customers come from Leland and beyond: from Southport, from Wilmington and from people traveling along U.S. 17. More growth around them means more potential customers, Josephine Tilley said.
At least two Wilmington restaurants have successfully established new locations across the bridge: Eternal Sunshine Café opened last summer on Village Road, and just this past November, Islands Fresh Mex Grill moved into a spot in Waterford Village.
“My customers at the other locations (were) constantly telling me that Islands would be successful in Leland,” said Islands Fresh Mex Grill owner Lucas Jones. “When I looked further into opening in Leland, I couldn’t believe how perfect it was. The growth of the area is astronomical, and Islands would be the first fast-casual dining fresh Mexican restaurant to enter the market.”
Jones said he has been surprised that Islands’ customer flow has not slowed down since it opened.
“We have remained consistently busy,” he said. “What I see around me is growth everywhere, which leads to so much opportunity for the people of Leland to have everything they need at their doorstep without having to venture into Wilmington.”
Two breweries will soon open in Leland, according to Vidmar, who says they will bring a much-anticipated vibe.
Medical practices have followed residents to Leland as well. In September, dermatologist Thomas Braza opened his practice in a high-visibility site near the Waterford community entrance. After practicing in Whiteville for two years, Braza was looking to relocate to a higher growth area. Leland was attractive, he said, because it, as well as Brunswick County as a whole, is underserved in dermatology.
) built a new facility, half of which his practice, Bluewater Dermatology, occupies, and half of which he hopes to rent to another medical provider.
“Some of my old patients have followed me here, and I have some new patients,” he said. “Some come to me because they see the office while driving by. I get referrals from other patients. Brunswick Forest is growing. Compass Point is growing, and Waterford and Magnolia Greens are well established.”
As the business community expands to keep pace with residential growth, the town is working to anticipate infrastructure and service needs.
“It’s hard to stay ahead of the curve in terms of infrastructure,” Vidmar said. “Leland has had to increase staff. We’ve probably doubled staff in every department: police, fire, planning, building inspections, finance, public services and operations. That’s why we built the (new) government building, which we first occupied in 2016. Now we’re bursting at the seams.”
It’s not just new commercial centers that are driving demand for town services.
Leland has set out to enhance its older business corridor, Village Road, through a series of improvements. One of the first steps was to enact an ordinance that reduced the maximum height of signs along the road. Improved sight lines and aesthetics are apparent, Vidmar notes. More changes for that commercial strip are planned now that Leland has rezoned the Village Road area to a flex code, which, as the term implies, gives local officials and developers more leeway in the use of property.
“We are trying to create a true downtown,” Vidmar explained. “The sign ordinance went a long way toward that. We’re looking at a plan to bury utility lines, which will improve the attractiveness of the area and attract new businesses. And we want to redevelop and repurpose older buildings.”
The Village Road core area will eventually offer a combination of commercial and residential properties, redeveloped to promote a walkable downtown, according to Vidmar.
What the economic development official calls an “ideal example” of new development for the Village Road area is Harrington Village, Logan Developers Inc.’s 13-building mixed-use campus in the center of the flex code district.
One of the Harrington Village buildings is built for commercial use; the remainder are apartments, said PJ Kelly, Logan Developers’ vice president. The complex was built in two phases: Phase one is 98% occupied, and phase two, just completed, is 40-50% leased. The commercial building is about a third leased.
“We’re looking for some businesses that can bring convenience to local people,” Kelly said. “Maybe a small food store, small offices, businesses that offer everyday conveniences.”
Kelly said Harrington Village has met with approval from the community since it was in the planning stages.
“When the local population started to see plans, they were very enthusiastic, and I think that enthusiasm has led to our high occupancy rate,” he said. “I don’t see that slowing down. Before we undertake an apartment project we do months and months of study, looking both at economics and population. Our studies have shown there is still a huge need for apartments and mixed-use development (in both Leland and Wilmington).”
Vidmar hopes other developers and local property owners will take their cue from Harrington Village and provide additional housing or businesses to the Village Road area.
“There are a lot of small infill pieces of land that could hold a smaller housing development,” he said, explaining that Leland would like to see some of these parcels developed as affordable housing, which the town defines as units costing less than $200,000.
Sometimes that means apartments and townhomes; sometimes it means neighborhoods of small homes on small lots.
With more apartment complexes on the way elsewhere and developers of new neighborhoods requesting annexation so they will have access to public water and sewer, Leland’s population will continue its dynamic growth, say officials. And they want the population to swell because residents bring sales tax revenues.
“The county collects the sales tax and divides up the money based on the population of the municipality,” Vidmar said. “Leland gets the biggest chunk of any municipality in Brunswick County: It’s about $24,000 per year per 100 residents. Dense developments like apartment houses bring in more revenue than do single-family homes. We get no sales tax revenue for commercial properties.”