By Hilary Brady
Homer Wright was born on September 20, 1924, in the town of Eden — called Spray at the time — a small city in North Carolina located just a few minutes from the Virginia border. The renowned founder/developer of the award-winning community of St. James Plantation, Wright is a big business man, but he still has his small-town heart.
As I interviewed Mr. Wright, I was captivated by his humility, his humor and his gentle spirit; a shock to the expectations I held for speaking with the founder of one of the East Coast’s most successful developments. His character so sweet, his demeanor so approachable, his life story is a beautiful blend of success and struggle, demands and desires, breaking boundaries and building dreams.
From Rabbit Traps to Retail
“Growing up, I had to behave myself,” says Wright. “My parents were very strict. I did, however, do the usual things. Like sneaking up to the river to swim even though my mom told me that I couldn’t. I’d wash the mud out of my hair in the spring on the way home so she wouldn’t know.”
A typical little boy, Wright liked to get his hair wet and his hands dirty.
“I’d build things like rabbit hutches and rabbit traps,” he says. “Oh and I built a Ferris wheel out of 2’ x 4’s. I suppose I’ve always had some construction in my blood. I just didn’t realize it.”
Although Wright has a passion for building and creating, construction wasn’t in his future … as far as he understood. His grandmother, mother and father were in the retail business and it was expected that Wright would follow in the family footsteps.
Entrepreneurship was ingrained in his spirit, so running his own men’s and women’s clothing stores would satisfy his family and his personality.
“Growing up, I sold various candies and I had numerous newspaper routes,” he says. “I worked in a grocery store after school for a couple years. I might have even wanted to be a baseball player somewhere along the line.
“Aside from working in the grocery store for those few years, it never occurred to me in my life to ever work for somebody. I wanted to work for myself.”
Wright did give in to job supervision for a brief moment in his career, but only to accomplish a very important goal.
“When I got married, I knew that my marriage announcement would be in the paper,” explains Wright. “I didn’t want to be listed as unemployed, so I worked for a mill for about six weeks. And that was that.”
Wright married and opened his own retail clothing stores. But the plan to live a life in retail quickly and unexpectedly changed.
Developing His Dream
“I bought a house after I married,” explains Wright. “With the house, I took some property with it. And I had to decide what to do with it.”
Wright decided to take his extra property and subdivide it into tracts, building single-family homes for purchase.
“So, that was my first construction venture,” he says. “And I loved it.”
Wright continued to operate his retail stores while also dabbling in land development simply for security.
“I had six kids,” he says with a laugh. “I had to make sure I could afford to feed them!”
Once the kids were well fed and his family finances secure, Wright left the retail business to focus solely on his new passion — land development, specifically tract development and entry-level housing. Through partnerships with contractors and spending countless days getting his hands dirty on jobsites, Wright learned the craft of construction.
“I tried to find people who knew things that I didn’t,” he says. “I had a partner for most of the apartments that I built.”
What began with the purchase of a new home for Wright and his new bride turned into a successful career developing apartments and single-family homes in Eden, throughout the surrounding Rockingham County and into several counties in Virginia.
The Search Begins
In 1960, with a successful career in progress, Wright began a quest, a journey that sent him around the world only to settle in his own back yard.
“My parents were looking toward retirement and I wanted to find the perfect place for them,” explains Wright.
Wright traveled to Italy, then Costa Rica and later to New Zealand in search of the ideal place for his parents to retire. Each area presented its own problems. The climate, the language barrier, the medical facilities and the distance from home were all drawbacks that Wright couldn’t seem to get past.
It was 1972 when Wright received a call that would put his eye on the prize.
“A friend of mine had been doing survey work in Southport,” Wright says. “He called me and said that he thought I ought to look at the area.”
On November 22, 1972, Wright traveled to Southport and spent several days discovering the area.
“The weather was very pleasant,” he recalls. “I went back in December and again in January. The more often I visited the more appealing it was. I found that a fairly heavy shirt was about as much comfort that I had to have. So I realized that I had found the reasonable climate that I was looking for.”
In addition to his search overseas, Wright had also combed the East Coast from the major cities in the Northeast to southern Florida. He says that it was in his own back yard, Southport, where the climate was the most attractive of all the locations that he had considered.
“The climate, the waterways, the coast and the golf courses,” says Wright. “Southport fell right in with all the things that I was looking for.
“There’s a book written by Dr. Conwell. Acres of Diamonds it’s called. He talks about a fellow that was a farmer, and the diamond he found in his own back yard. Just like that book, I found that the things that are closest to you may be better than those that are way out. That’s Southport.”
In 1983 Wright learned of several hundred acres of wooded property available for sale just west of Southport, the perfect location to build a community to suit his parent’s retirement dreams. Together with his business partners Claude Smith and John Atkinson, he jumped on the opportunity, and in 1985 site work and construction began on the community, his plans for a perfect leisure neighborhood beginning to take shape. It was 1991 when the first homes were built and the first golf course, The Gauntlet, opened.
The Dream Complete
Fast-forward to 2011, and Homer Wright is a happy man. St. James Plantation celebrates 20 years in existence on October 26.
The award-winning community now features a chapel, a beach club, 81 holes of golf, two fitness centers, a full-service marina, clubhouses, a marketplace, a town hall, a community center, miles of walking and biking trails, parks, pavilions and an amphitheater.
Although his parents never got to live the dream that he built for them because they passed before the community was complete, Homer wears a smile that screams satisfaction.
“It’s a beautiful place, our community,” says Wright. “We have the greatest homeowners that I could ever hope for. They are intelligent, they’re interested in what we’re doing, and they’re cooperative. From the beginning we wanted our HOA to do what they wished. We wanted to make them top priority always. We certainly haven’t done everything perfectly, but we try in every way possible.
“These folks are contributors to the community,” he continues. “They tutor, they work in civic groups, they do everything that you would want a community to do. It’s an unusual group, our homeowners. They have our admiration and respect. When they speak, we listen. We’ve been most fortunate with our homeowners.”
Life as He Knows it
Although approaching 90 years of age, the WWII veteran and business tycoon still maintains an 80-hour work week. And even when he’s “off”, he’s still “on”.
“When I leave, I take homework with me,” Wright explains. “I like to watch the business news and public television too. Congress news and, of course, the nightly news. I spend a lot of time with the news. Every once in a while I enjoy a movie that I might have seen 40 years ago.”
Wright also enjoys reading, specifically biographies, business books and the occasional fiction novel.
Although he’s admittedly hurried and seemingly always focused on business, Wright finds great value in spending time with his family.
“I have six children,” he explains. “I lost one to cancer, two live in Chapel Hill, one in Atlanta and two in Eden. I have eight grandchildren that I love to visit. I enjoy watching them mature and coaching my children. I’m not really capable, but I do enjoy it!”
When I asked what’s next for Wright, I expected to hear “vacations in the Turks, golf with the friends, quiet afternoons on the water.” I was, once again, surprised at his answer.
“Well living is my first priority,” he says, with a chuckle. “But aside from that, I have an interest in continued development. I travel a lot to projects around the world. If I hear of something that we don’t have, I go and investigate it. There’s a lot of failed developments out there. We are very careful not to join that group. If you just have the right people to begin with, like we were lucky to have, that’s what draws success.”
Never stopping, always learning, always loving. Even at 87; that is Homer Wright’s life as he knows it, and how he loves it. That is the Wright life.