A Club for the Community
Leland Area Rotary builds the foundation of service for a growing town.
Maybe you think this is a story about a service club’s 10-year anniversary. And, sort of, it is. But the bigger story is how some people realized in 2009 that Leland’s rapid growth wouldn’t stop anytime soon.
That much seemed inevitable and turned out to be true: Leland’s population was around 4,000 in 2000. By 2010, Leland hit 14,000, and that number likely will double soon. The Town of Leland website notes that Leland is the fastest-growing municipality in North Carolina and the 12th fastest-growing in America.
What wasn’t inevitable in 2009 was Leland’s path as a community. Would the town evolve into another sprawling, disconnected suburban sea of strip shopping centers and subdivisions? Or, was there passion and leadership to create a thriving community with a strong sense of place, pride and people working together? The fundamental question was this: Where would you rather live, work or shop?
The answer seemed obvious to a group of people who started meeting at the Two Guys Grille in Waterford, where the morning sun through the front windows was so bright that George Murray drove to Walmart to buy shower curtains to block the glare. The initial group included Murray, Jon David (now Brunswick County’s district attorney) and two regulars from the South Brunswick Islands Rotary Club — Shallotte auto dealer Gary Younts and Tim Daniels, a state trooper.
They also gathered regularly at Murray’s frame shop, which has evolved into Murray Signs & Graphics. Murray, an Air Force veteran and former executive with Waste Management, had always wanted to own his own business. In 2004 he picked a site in an empty strip center in what is obvious now as the thriving U.S. 17 corridor in northern Brunswick County. But that wasn’t always the case.
“People would ask me what the hell I was doing,” Murray recalls. “At that time, there were no stoplights and few buildings. But I had the data from my job with Waste Industries. I could see all the housing starts and what was coming.”
When Walmart opened in 2006, the Highway 17 corridor was off to the races as a major retailing hub. But Leland seemed to lack identity. One example was the lack of civic groups. There weren’t many local opportunities to engage, David remembers.
“George and I began discussing the ways to serve the community at the local level,” David says. “We went on a listening tour of the area and visited various service clubs. Rotary attracted us. It draws from a lot of different professions, and our strength is our diversity. That’s what distinguishes us.”
David’s twin brother, New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David, was a member of the Downtown Wilmington Rotary Club, and members of that club joined with other area clubs to provide encouragement and support to the Leland group.
“We wanted a sense of community in our own backyard,” Jon David says.
The South Brunswick Islands Rotary Club provided direct, ongoing mentoring that led to the charter for the Leland Area Rotary Club going into effect on February 11, 2010, with Murray as its first president. (North Brunswick Magazine Publisher Justin Williams was a charter member.) Today, it’s one of the region’s strongest Rotary clubs with around 40 active members.
From the beginning, David says, the club has helped numerous community groups such as Matthew’s Ministry and the Hope Harbor Home for domestic violence victims. The priority has consistently been to assist children in northern Brunswick County with programs such as giving away backpacks, providing a dictionary to every third-grader in the area, offering mentors and guides to North Brunswick High School and sponsoring the high school’s athletic hall of fame.
“Their timing was terrific,” Younts says. “A businessperson wants to see that the community is involved. I can’t stress visibility enough, and they have been very visible.”
The club also has been visible with its community-based fundraising, such as a popular golf tournament that raises funds for Alzheimer’s research and food distribution to hungry children. The David brothers have offered a Cape Fear evening of “wine, cheese and mystery” in which they discuss intriguing local criminal cases.
For the future, David says, the club will continue to support youth in multiple programs while remaining a place where people from different walks of life can come together. That includes fresh outreach to tap the life experiences of the many older newcomers to Brunswick County.
“Brunswick County is a place where a lot of people retire with different backgrounds and life experiences,” David says. “Early on, we were focused on business and political leaders, so we had that. What we failed to do initially was leverage the power of the retirees. Many of them served their communities and were Rotarians where they lived before. We want them to be involved in the life of this community.”
To Chris Stevenson, the area governor overseeing the local clubs and a member of the Leland Area Rotary, the club’s growth and evolution is a signature example of what Rotary represents to a community.
“I stand on the shoulders of giants,” Stevenson says.
The Five Rotary Clubs in Brunswick County
Brunswick County has five active Rotary Clubs that meet weekly, either in person or by Zoom in recent months. All clubs provide numerous opportunities for fellowship and service, both to the community and internationally. Prospective members and visitors are welcome. The five clubs are these:
Leland Area Rotary Club – lelandarearotary.org
Shallotte Rotary Club – shallotterotaryclub.com
South Brunswick Islands Rotary Club – sbirotary.org
Southport Evening Rotary Club – southporteveningrotaryclub.com
Southport Rotary Club – southportrotary.com
Photography by Chris Stevenson