Southern Columbus County: Where new development collides with a rural way of life

By Ben Rappaport 

This story was co-published by the Border Belt Independent and The Assembly.

The aroma of cigarettes, coffee, and Snickers bars fills the air outside of Fowler’s Supermarket on a rainy Sunday morning.

Just before they head to church, a dozen men gather on the long wooden benches and plastic rocking chairs outside the store and debrief the local goings on. It’s been a weekly tradition for nearly three decades since the store opened in southern Columbus County.

If you want to hear about the news and opinions of residents of the neighborhoods of Guideway, Pireway, and Olyphic, Fowler’s is the place. Recently, many of those pre-church conversations have focused on one thing: the new housing coming to their neck of the woods.

Heavy construction equipment may soon be a more common site than tractors in southern Columbus County. Photo by Les High

Throughout 2023, Columbus County Commissioners paved the way for more than 10,000 new homes, which would bring at least 25,000 more residents to this county along the South Carolina border over the next two decades. Developers have pushed to make southern Columbus County the next housing hotspot amid overflowing growth in Brunswick County to the east and Horry County to the south, just over the state line.

“Everyone around us is prospering,” said Rodney Register, 60, one of Fowler’s regulars and a lifelong county resident. “We deserve some of that as well. I just hope that tax revenue is spent in a way that benefits us, too.”

While the often-neglected rural community welcomes the increased funding and potential infrastructure upgrades, residents—many of whom have been there for generations—also fear the housing boom will bring an end to the rural way of life they know.

“The county has never cared what happened in the far corner down here,” said Cleve Gore, 74, another regular and lifelong resident. “Now all of a sudden we are attractive, folks are starting to see dollar signs.”

Their community has already changed substantially in their lifetimes. Land that was once a prime hunting ground for Bobwhite quail could soon be covered in subdivisions. The Waccamaw River, which flows south from northeastern Columbus County down to the Pee Dee River Basin in South Carolina, was once a bountiful fishing spot, but now it’s been overtaken by recreational boaters.

But residents fear the looming housing boom poses a more existential threat, as homes and farms expect to face rising property taxes. While the exact increases are yet to be determined, neighboring Horry County has seen a 3.5 mill tax increase since 2021. 

“All of a sudden it won’t just be ‘where will I hunt or where will I fish?’” Register said. “The question really starts to become ‘Will I be able to afford this land that’s been in my family for generations?’”

Forced to Grow

Anticipation of the growth and development of Columbus County has been on the lips of county officials, developers, and residents for nearly 15 years. North Myrtle Beach is less than a 30-minute drive from Pireway, making it a prime location for those seeking an escape from the traffic while keeping proximity to the coast. North Carolina beaches like Holden, Ocean Isle, and Sunset are all less than an hour away.

Now, approvals of site plans and the overflow of neighboring counties have set the wheels of development in motion for the once-quiet county.

While the residents’ fears won’t come to fruition overnight, they don’t need to look far to see what the future may have in store. 

Just 10 miles south of Fowler’s, over the border and off Highway 905 in Horry County, is Arbor Glen. The cookie-cutter suburb of cul-de-sacs features 144 single-family-homes, lined with palm trees. Flags of the Baltimore Ravens and Green Bay Packers wave in the breeze. Seniors walk their dogs and drive golf carts to the neighborhood pool house. Many of the residents in the neighborhood—where three-bedroom, two-bathroom 1,800-square-foot homes are valued at around $320,000—are from out of state.

One of those residents is Larry Goldman, who retired here from New Jersey nine years ago. The former doctor moved to South Carolina for all the reasons one might expect: warmer weather, more land, space, and most importantly, lower taxes.

Larry Goldman and his dog Molly walk in a subdivision just inside South Carolina that will mirror developments proposed for Columbus County. He left the North for lower taxes and a better climate. Photo by Les High

“When we moved down here, it was quiet and neighborly,” Goldman said. “Now, there’s too much development everywhere. Just across the road, they’re proposing building 900 new homes. There’s just no way we can support that, it’s going bonkers.”

Goldman is referring to The Ranch Community in Longs, which includes 974 single-family homes and 318 multi-family units. While homes have not yet been constructed on the nearly 600-acre site, land clearing and stormwater permitting have begun, a timeline for housing construction is not yet known, according to a Horry County spokesperson. Just up the road on Highway 9 in South Carolina are two other already-built subdivisions— Heritage Park with 482 homes and The Park at Long Bay with 305. A standard three-bedroom, two-bathroom 1,500-square-foot home is priced at close to $300,000 in each of these subdivisions, according to Zillow.

And more is on the way for Columbus’ southern neighbors. More than 42,800 single family homes were built in Horry County between 2010 and 2021, according to the planning department. Nearly 6,000 more have been proposed in the northern portion of the county.

Brunswick County tells a similar tale. The planning board there considered 22 developments last year and approved all but two, according to Wilmington’s Star News. Those projects account for 4,400 potential housing units. Of those, nearly 60 percent are single-family homes.

Both Brunswick and Horry are the fastest-growing counties in their respective states. The population in Columbus County, however, has hovered around 50,000 people since 1970.

Despite its prime location as the next hub of growth, statistical projections say Columbus will lose population by 2050, according to the North Carolina Office of State Budget and Management—predicting a three percent decline over the next three decades. Local officials say they’re optimistic Columbus can prove the predictions wrong.

“Hurricanes Florence and Matthew left people with nowhere to go and the population dipped,” said Gary Lanier, county economic development and planning director. “Now everything is flipped: new homes and apartments are popping up and filling up quickly.”

Kim McPherson checks out customer Ricky Long at Fowler’s Supermarket, a gathering spot and primary store for locals in the Guideway community. Photo by Les High

Changing that prediction relies on the success of the pending housing developments. 

County commissioners approved four major developments last year—Cottonwood Place, Carolina Bluff, McGill Meadows, and an as-yet-unnamed subdivision. These four projects account for about 2,100 homes in southern Columbus over the next decade. 

Plans are also underway for the largest development on the Gragg Tract, a 2,400-acre plot that could add up to 11,000 homes. County commissioners greenlit that project in January, and construction is expected to take place in 14 phases over the next 25 years. 

Getting it Right

The key that unlocked all this development along the state line is a massive upgrade to the Grand Strand Water & Sewer Authority in South Carolina. This public utility system now supplies water to many of the developments popping up along the border, with more than 116,000 customers.

Grand Strand has supplied sewer and wastewater over the border in Columbus County since 2008, with the explicit intention of preparing for new developments. Columbus County is also preparing its own water improvements, including a $6 million expansion along Highway 74-76 in eastern Columbus County.

If these developments live up to expectations, Lanier says it will be a “game changer.”

“We have the opportunity to double our population,” Lanier said. “Once it’s all built out, that portion of the county will have more than a third of the county’s population—that’s pretty wild.”

If it grows at the rate predicted, it would become the most populous part of the county. Whiteville, the county seat and currently the most populous city, has around 5,100 residents. Bug Hill Township—which includes the Guideway, Pireway, and Olyphic neighborhoods—could soon have a population five times that size, if all the intended housing is occupied. Bug Hill currently has a population of about 1,900, according to the latest Census

Lanier said adapting will require substantial changes to county operations, shifts in voting districts and annual resource allocations.

Traffic is already much heavier on the small, two-lane roads that serve southern Columbus County. This photo was taken just across the South Carolina line at 5 p.m., as people left their jobs in Horry County. Photo by Les High

“It’s not going to be easy or quick, but I still believe growth is good as long as it’s planned and well executed,” Lanier said. “The folks in this county are adamant about doing this the right way.”

One concern among existing residents is that the incoming population will be mostly retirees. A persistent issue in Columbus County, as with rural areas across the country, is “brain drain,” or the idea that young people leave rural communities and don’t return, leading to fewer skilled jobs and declining populations. 

“If you got a lot of retirees, that requires a lot of fire, hospital, and rescue infrastructure,” said Larry Fowler, owner of the local supermarket. “But there’s no jobs here now and I don’t think old folks are going to help that problem much.”

Larry Fowler stocks fresh produce at his small supermarket on N.C. 904 near Guideway, an area targeted for growth. Photo by Les High

Fowler, 70, said he’s concerned about the future workforce of his community.

In Lanier’s mind, however, it doesn’t matter who buys the future homes, because anyone will bring much-needed revenue. Even if the initial influx is retirees, he believes it’s only a matter of time before others come, too. 

“If grandma buys a house down here to retire, her 35- or 40-year-old kid is going to come visit with the grandkids,” he said. “After a few years of visits, seeing that they could live a lot cheaper down here than up north, they decide to move down, too.”

And the homes on the way are sorely needed in a rural county experiencing a housing shortage. The median home sale price rose nearly 82 percent between April 2019 and March 2022, according to data from That’s among the biggest increases in the southeastern part of the state, putting the median home price at $205,000.

In the northeastern Columbus County town of Fair Bluff, a new 62-unit apartment building opened in October 2023. Three days later, every apartment was filled. 

Local leaders also see more housing as necessary to recruit economic development projects, particularly after major employers National Spinning and International Paper announced mass layoffs that are expected to affect more than 300 workers.

Fowler’s Supermarket, located on N.C. 904 in southern Columbus County. Fowler’s is sometimes referred to by the locals as the “Walmart of Guideway,” where residents can find many of the things they need without making the long drive to the North Myrtle Beach, Tabor City or Whiteville. Photo by Les High

“No company wants to invest $100 million into a building and new highly automated plant that needs 500 people unless they’re certain that there is an available workforce that can fill the jobs,” Lanier said. “That’s what these houses and a growing population are going to give us—an available workforce.”

Other institutions like law enforcement, rescue, and schools are also in need of resources. In January, Columbus County Commissioners terminated its contract with Nakina Fire and Rescue “due to a pattern of poor performance that has occurred for years but has recently deteriorated,” after being previously suspended in 2021, theWhiteville News Reporter reported. The next closest rescue squad is in Tabor City, 15 miles away. 

The county has also consolidated many of its schools in the southeast in recent years due to falling enrollments. In 2020, Guideway Elementary School was closed and East Columbus High School was consolidated. Many parents were upset at the announcements because of the long distances their children now have to travel. 

“All the players at the table know the recent past,” Lanier said. “They all recognize the potential upside of what’s coming.” 

Trust the Man on the Tractor

The largest portion of southern Columbus County’s development, the Gragg Tract, is on Old Dothan Road. Currently a bumpy dirt lane, it’s easy to see how the area could become a developer’s playground. Longleaf pines line the road for five miles and there’s hardly a structure in sight, aside from a few hog houses. It’s the kind of road where hunting dogs run alongside cars for exercise as they drive slowly past.

Just beyond the gravel, where the road enters South Carolina, sits another subdivision—Myrtle Grove Plantation, where three-bedroom, two-bathroom, 1,500-square-foot homes are selling for around $300,000. 

Developers like RS Parker Development, which owns the Gragg Tract and applied to build the 11,000 homes, have been clamoring to take a slice.

But the construction brings concerns about traffic, infrastructure, and what will happen to the area’s rural character. 

Laramie Fowler emerges from the meat locker at Fowler’s Supermarket in the Guideway community of southern Columbus County. His father Larry, long-time owner of the store, is concerned about high-density growth but knows it will be good for the store and his son’s future. Photo by Les High

At around 5:30 p.m. on any given weekday, Highway 905 between Horry and Columbus is already crowded. Jerry Gore, 66, a lifelong farmer who grows tobacco and soybeans along the highway, says he has seen the two-lane road grow more crowded over time.

“People around here certainly aren’t happy with the developments coming,” Gore said from atop his tractor. “If you find someone who is in favor here, it would be the first I’ve heard of it.”

Gore says his farm is one of only about a half dozen that still grows tobacco in Columbus County. He wants the tradition to continue with his son, Justin, but fears they may soon be priced out of their land due to future development raising taxes. 

“It used to be everybody had tobacco, everybody was farming,” Gore said. “With all this coming in, I don’t know what’s going to happen.”

One of the people who understands both sides of the development coin is Fowler. He doesn’t want to see the country store he’s owned for 30 years change, but he also sees the future as an opportunity to grow his business.

“I got mixed feelings about it,” he said.”Business-wise I’m really excited by all this.” 

But while it could help him personally, he said, “I’m a good ol’ country boy and I love the rural life and I don’t want that taken away.”

This map shows areas in Columbus County just north of the South Carolina line that will have more than 10,000 homes.

Fowler is on the board of directors for the Brunswick Electrical Cooperative, which serves Brunswick and Columbus counties, and said he isn’t sure the county has the proper water, sewer, and other infrastructure necessary to support a massive influx of people. Like many residents, he worries the county doesn’t have enough jobs to reap the benefits of an increasing population.

When someone is sick or in mourning, Fowler drives their groceries to them. When someone’s church fundraiser needs extra food, he’s the one supplying it. His store off Swamp Fox Highway keeps the community afloat, even when times are tough.

Fowler said he wants to ensure that community spirit can continue along with the growth. 

“When development comes in, the farms go away,” Fowler said. “That’s the way it’s been around here for years now, but never at the scale we are about to see over the next 20 years.”

He worries that mom-and-pop shops like his could fall by the wayside, too, if development draws larger chains. In Fowler’s ideal world, he’d pass the store on to his son, Laramie, who works as a butcher in the supermarket. 

For now, the store and the people who gather there every Sunday remain a fixture. 

“Enough complaining and speculating about what might happen,” Register said, getting up from a wooden bench. “Let’s go to church.”

Jerry Gore, a lifelong Columbus County resident, sits inside his tractor after bush-hogging ditch banks not far from his home. Gore knows growth will help the economy, but at what cost to the way of life known to him and generations of farmers before? Photo by Les High