YOUNG TOWN, OLD SOUL: A new arts center, top-notch golf courses and lots of new residents shape the identity of Brunswick County's biggest town.

Author:Mims, Bryan

The winter afternoon is warm, even by coastal standards, and Cape Fear National Golf Course in Leland is teeming with tee-offs. Shorts and polo shirts are abundant here at one of the most renowned golf courses on the North Carolina coast.

"This is a chamber of commerce day!" enthuses Mike McGowan, 64, a player's assistant at the 7,217-yard, par-72 course. The Buffalo, N.Y., native didn't understand the oxymoron "warm winter afternoon" till he migrated down south. When faced with the prospect of an empty nest up north--his son was close to finishing college and his daughter, high school--he said to his wife, "We need to move when they graduate. We need to start looking."

Neither had any desire for Florida--too far south, too muggy, too crowded. "You can get nice warm weather in other places," he says. "We wanted a nice place where we could live comfortably without the oppressive heat."

The southeastern coast of North Carolina looked optimal. Midway to Florida, it offered tee-time winters without the long summer swelter. So in 2006, they settled in Westport, one of many master-planned subdivisions across the sprawling southern reaches of Leland, a town whose population has grown fivefold in the last two decades. In 2000, it had 4,125 residents; its population is now estimated at more than 22,000.

New development and annexation has increased to accommodate the growing population. In 2004, Leland added the Brunswick Forest community developed by Jeff Earp. It's home to Cape Fear National, a golf course open to the public and designed by Sunset Beach architect Tim Cate. Brunswick Forest spreads across 4,500 acres and is speckled with bungalows, townhomes, houses, canoe and kayak trails, walking and biking paths, and wooded parks. It's tailored mostly to retirees, and Where to Retire magazine consistently ranks Brunswick Forest among the nation's top retirement communities.

Located across the Cape Fear and Brunswick rivers from Wilmington--and a short drive from a long strand of beach communities--Leland is a Shangri-La for transplants. "I don't really want to deal with all that stuff in Wilmington because it's a big city, even though it has a small-town feel," says Burl Penton, a transplant from New England who lives in Brunswick Forest. "Over here, it's the best of both worlds."

That sentiment crystallizes Leland's allure: It's close to the fine restaurants, theaters and the moss-draped history of Wilmington but is striving to become an entity...

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