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Interview with Harper Peterson, October 24, 2006 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Harper Peterson, October 24, 2006
October 24, 2006
Harper Peterson grew up in New York State and attended college at the University of North Carolina, where he excelled in sports. After teaching school in Thailand for two years, he returned to the United States where he settled in Wrightsville Beach, married, and began raising a family. Peterson has served on the City Council and as Mayor of Wilmington. He is active in the 1898 Council and Commemoration, as well as being a champion for the education of African American members of the community. He also owns several local businesses, including a popular restaurant on Water Street which showcases up-and-coming musicians. Most recently, Peterson brought a championship soccer team to Wilmington, which infused an estimated seven million dollars into the local economy.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee: Peterson, Harper Interviewer: Jones, Carroll Date of Interview: 10/24/2006 Series: SENC Notables Length 58 minutes

Jones: Today is October 24th, 2006. I'm Carroll Jones, with Jennifer Dail with the Randall Library Special Collections Oral History program. Today, we're with Harper Peterson, former mayor in Wilmington, North Carolina. Good afternoon, Harper.

Harper Peterson: Good afternoon, Carroll, Jennifer.

Jones: I'd like to start by asking you to tell us a little bit about yourself, where you were born, raised, your family, work, remembrances of life at that time.

Harper Peterson: Great. I was born in New York on Long Island, in a small community called Dix Hills. I grew up on a farm. And until I was about five, before I entered kindergarten, I think the only friends I had, playmates I had, were the barnyard animals. We had a family of six children, and I was the youngest. My father was a farmer. And I attended public schools in Dix Hills, Half Hollow Hills High School. And came down South in 1966 and attended UNC Chapel Hill.

Jones: And how did you happen to do that?

Harper Peterson: Well, it was my last choice. I was looking at schools in the Northeast, Washington College, Princeton and Cornell. But UNC was the only one that had a Navy ROTC program. And my father was hell bent on me taking ROTC, and so we came down. Came down a week early. And traveling to North Carolina was like leaving the country. I had no idea what to expect.

Jones: Now, this was '60--

Harper Peterson: '66, forty years ago. So I came down for the pre-registration program with NROTC. And the first day, they gave me a physical, which I passed, and they gave me an eye test, and I failed. I was colorblind. My father was heart broken. I could care less, but I was there. So I established myself at UNC.

Jones: But without being part of the ROTC group?

Harper Peterson: Right.

Jones: Okay.

Harper Peterson: And was there four years, graduated in 1970. And back then-- I may exaggerate this. But being from New York, they, kind of, characterized you as being someone from the city, a gang member, carrying a switchblade. So--

Jones: You belonged at Duke, rather than UNC; right?

Harper Peterson: Actually, we had to go to Duke to date coeds. Because I think the coed population back then was around 11 or 12 percent. Today, I think, it's 60 percent coed, female, 40 male. But we did a lot of traveling on weekends.

Jones: Did you play sports?

Harper Peterson: I did. I played lacrosse, and that was one of the reasons I traveled to North Carolina. I was recruited by North Carolina and the other schools I mentioned.

Jones: For lacrosse?

Harper Peterson: Right. No scholarships back then. But--

Jones: Right. But you got to travel.

Harper Peterson: So I came down and played lacrosse. Did quite well. I'm proud to say I was a three-time first team All American.

Jones: Good for you.

Harper Peterson: Outstanding senior athlete at the University. I love to remind two of my friends, Charlie Scott and Don McCauley [ph?], who graduated in '70, that the coaches chose me as the top athlete. Which was no only an honor for me, but for the lacrosse program.

Jones: Who was the coach at that time?

Harper Peterson: Well, we had Fred Mueller, who was an assistant football coach. And my sophomore year, we didn't have a coach. So the athletic department chose Fred to come over and coach the lacrosse team. He had never played and knew nothing about it. So it was a period of acclamation for everyone. But the award was the coaches, all the major and minor coaches, chose the senior athlete. So I was very happy with that. My family was proud. Also, participated in theatre, and as a result of that I was nominated and awarded to the Order of the Golden Fleece, the highest honor __________ on the University campus. Which also was a great honor. So--

Jones: So you grew to like UNC?

Harper Peterson: Love it. We go back. In fact, I just participated in an alumni lacrosse game two weeks ago. I haven't played. I coach, presently, in a local school my son attends, Cape Fear Academy. After 40 years, or 36 years, went back and played the alumni game and got my tail whipped. It was fun--

Jones: Did they have the barbeque cookout and such?

Harper Peterson: We had a little get together after the game and then, a tailgating party the following day, for the football game. But that was a lot of fun.

Jones: Harper, what do you think influenced you most during these years to taking a direction that you eventually took as an adult? You grew up on a farm. Then, you came south. And you won these awards. Then, what?

Harper Peterson: Well, I was a Conscientious Objector. This was during the Vietnam War. And as a result, I did my service in Thailand. I decided not to stay at home. Typically, a CO would stay at home and work in a hospital or with the municipality. But I chose to go to Thailand and work there.

Jones: In what capacity?

Harper Peterson: I was an educator for my first year. I was an English Teacher. I majored in Anthropology in College, but went over with the North American Presbyterian Church and was a secondary school, high school teacher in English as second language for a year. And then, the second year, I taught English at Thomas Ott University. I taught Victorian Poetry, which I never studied. In fact, the students knew more than I did. But the fact that I was a foreigner, and it was a high honor to have a foreigner teaching--

Jones: So how long were you in Thailand?

Harper Peterson: I was there two years. The funny thing about Thomas Ott, today it's the University where attorneys are born in Thailand. So I put that on my resume now that I taught at the legal school in Thailand. But also, worked in the Northern Thailand, In Chiang Mai, Chaing Rai, with hill [ph?] tribes. The Queen Mother at the time had a program trying to steer farmers away from the opium trade. That's the Golden Triangle Thailand, Burma, ___________. And I worked with her program in Northern Thailand trying to introduce handicrafts as an alternative to the opium trade.

Jones: That's a good trade off.

Harper Peterson: So it was an eventful, exciting two years. I traveled quite a bit in the Far East and then--

Jones: What about the language, was there a barrier there?

Harper Peterson: There was. I didn't take any training, as you would for the Peace Corps program. I, basically, jumped on a plane, flew and landed in Bangkok and was driven to my school about 90 miles west, Nakhon Pathom, on the Quah [ph?], which is famous for the British Encampment, the prison camp during World War II. We were very close to that. And returned and came back to Chapel Hill, worked with the City for about a year, with the Recreation Department. And I was the Student Coordinator Director, taught theatre and recreational activities. And we, myself and a group of about a dozen high school students, established the Apple Chill Fair, which became quite a recognizable event every spring. In fact, they just discontinued it, unfortunately, over this past year after 30 plus years. It became so big. But it was a street fair that married the town and gown together. It became a very popular cultural event.

Jones: That was in Chapel Hill?

Harper Peterson: In Chapel Hill in 1972. I think, we-- or '71 was the first fair. So I enjoyed the work with the City, the municipality. Howard Lee was the Mayor, then. He's, today, I believe, a Senator of the State. And made some great friends. It was fun working with the University. They're very closely knit. And I see that happening here with UNCW. A lot of interest on both sides to work together and take advantage of resources and talent.

Jones: Now, that's interesting, from a fellow from New York, who grew up on a farm to come South and then, go to Thailand, and then, return to Chapel Hill.

Harper Peterson: Right.

Jones: So what prompted you, from that point on? I mean, what, you've done so many things. But did you ever go back to the Northeast to live? Or thought about it or what happened beyond that--

Harper Peterson: You know, I fell in love with--

Jones: When you were expanding, I can see that your whole life is changing a bit.

Harper Peterson: I fell in love with the South and had not been to Wilmington before 1972. When we would take a weekend off from school, we typically would go to Myrtle Beach or to Nagsine [ph]. They were closer. They didn't have I-40 back then. So Wilmington Wrightsville Beach was off the radar screen for weekend fun. So it was after I left Chapel Hill as an employee, myself and three friends, took my father's sailboat, a 40-foot sailboat, and pursued our dreams in the Caribbean. And we worked our way down. The mistake we made, we left in the middle of January in 1972. And wound up with a blown up engine in Wrightsville Beach and stayed for two months until March, and fell in love with the beach. And as you know, Carol, back then, after Labor Day, the beach was deserted, other than those folks that lived in the area. It was quite different than it is today. And it stayed that way until spring, for the Azalea Festival, when people began coming back. So it was, for me, an ideal location to, kind of, settle. I wanted to be a writer, like every other--

Jones: You did?

Harper Peterson: Graduate. Sure. And--

Jones: Now, I've forgotten. Was, in 1972, was it still brown bagging, or you could buy liquor (inaudible)--

Harper Peterson: It was. Actually, it was brown bagging. And some of the haunts back then were "The Spot."

Jones: Yeah.

Harper Peterson: "The Wits End." The "Lumina" had just been torn down, I believe, in '77.

Jones: So what did some young, healthy guys do?

Harper Peterson: Surf, run the beach.

Jones: How did you support yourselves?

Harper Peterson: Socialize. Pardon me?

Jones: How did you support yourselves?

Harper Peterson: I worked and played. I did a lot of sailing. I was in my boat. I grew up on Long Island South. So we sailed as children. Played rugby, took that sport up. We established the K Pier Rugby Club, myself and others. And it's just a wonderful place. And then, I would spend my summers in the Caribbean.

Jones: Doing what, just sailing?

Harper Peterson: Teaching sailing.

Jones: Teaching sailing.

Harper Peterson: Right. My brother and I started a sailing school.

Jones: Oh, you corrupted a brother, now.

Harper Peterson: Older brother.

Jones: Older brother.

Harper Peterson: Actually, he invited me down. So did that for about four years. And then, kind of, settled into the area. It was a great place I could see to live, to work. And married and began raising a family. So I'm here, and it's amazing how quickly it goes. But it's true. When you're having fun, time flies.

Jones: Do you miss anything about those younger years or what Wilmington was like? It's changed so tremendously. Or even New York, did you miss the life you had up there?

Harper Peterson: No. I think you, kind of, adapt to the growth of the scale or the size of a city or community. And it's still a community, even though, we've experienced tremendous growth. But you have a small circle of friends. You're involved in the community. And I think that drives you. That's the elixir that really makes it exciting. I'm sure I could survive and prosper and be happy in a large city like Manhattan or Chicago or San Francisco. You adapt. But it's still a community. You're still involved with people and activities.

Jones: You said you got married. When did you get married?

Harper Peterson: '78. 1978.

Jones: So it's 1978. You got married and you started a family.

Harper Peterson: Mm-hm.

Jones: Did, at this time, you think about a real life job? Or were you involved in something that was, like, a day-to-day work thing? Or were you, sort of, an entrepreneurial person?

Harper Peterson: I've always worked for myself. Some people were, you know, carved out that way. And I pursued self-employment. I was involved in the sign business, exterior signage, wood carving. If you happen to come to the restaurant we own downtown, Water Street Restaurant, I have a lot of my old woodcarvings I did back then. I did it as a hobby, but it became a profession, because I excelled in that craft. I come from an artistic family, happy to say. My mother was a premier ballerina.

Jones: Really?

Harper Peterson: __________ ballet.

Jones: What a talented family.

Harper Peterson: All my children, or my brothers and sisters and their children, excelled in music. And so I think that's my gift that I was able to-- my brother's an accomplished portrait artist. And I have a facility with hand tools and carving, and still enjoy it. I just don't have the time for it.

Jones: Is your wife a Wilmington native?

Harper Peterson: No. _________ is from Connecticut and across the Long Island Sound. She's also very artistic, and all our children are involved in the arts, whether they like it or not. You know, kind of, forced--

Jones: This is fascinating. So the two of you made Wilmington in the '70s, which was hovering around 50 some thousand?

Harper Peterson: I don't remember the population. But it was busy. But I know there were seasons of activity ____________.

Jones: And this was to be home. What did you see here? Did you envision, did you have any goals about staying here? Were you taking each day at a time? You eventually got involved with politics and the growth of the city and preservation, et cetera. Was this a slope thing, or did you have any plans at that time, a vision?

Harper Peterson: You know, when you're in your 20's, you don't think about those things.

Jones: No, you don't.

Harper Peterson: You think about the present and what you're doing.

Jones: That's true.

Harper Peterson: And, you know, paycheck at the end of the week. And, you know, all the basic things preoccupy your time. But it was a great place. The climate, the activities, the amenities began to discover downtown. That's during urban renewal.

Jones: Right.

Harper Peterson: And a lot of buildings were coming down, and I was aware of it. I had friends, at the time, who were actively involved in trying to preserve buildings and some of the cultural icons. Some of the theatres, the Bailey Theatre downtown. There was quite a few. But I was fascinated by that. I remember Thomas Wright II, who established Chandler's Wharf, which is now Elijah's and the Pilot House. It was originally a maritime museum. And I know he and others bought up old homes. And back then, the government--

Jones: Al Murray and Gerald Reeves.

Harper Peterson: Yeah, the Cotton Exchange. There were, probably, half a dozen to a dozen visionaries that saw value in homes in commercial areas. Whereas, the Federal Government was paying municipalities, and municipalities were encouraging the banks and loaning institutions were encouraging people to tear down, rebuild Urban renewal. So we see the results of that in Atlanta and Charlotte and Richmond. Whereas, in Charleston and Williamsburg and Wilmington, to a lesser or greater degree, we preserved. And I know, today, I can say the house we live in sold back in-- Jennifer, you'll enjoy this-- in '68 for $2200, 4,000 square feet. And today, it's valued--

Jones: Priceless.

Harper Peterson: In excess of a million. But that's, you know--

Jones: But in that time frame, Harper, the Coast Line had moved out. People were wringing their hands, you know, "We're going down the tubes," et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. I guess, the Committee of One Hundred was in existence and trying to bring industry here. Were you a part of any of that?

Harper Peterson: No. I didn't become actively involved in local politics, or public service volunteers, until I was married and had kids. Then, I think I became involved in the school, with our children. We opened businesses downtown and became involved in the politics downtown. And then, kind of, just stepped up, worked with the D.A.R.E., Downtown Area Revitalization Effort, in its early days. A foot soldier, but, kind of, you know, always challenged myself and others challenged me to take the next step and become involved.

Jones: So what was the next step?

Harper Peterson: Well, besides volunteerism and working in downtown economic groups, became very interested in the City Council and what was happening on our riverfront. A great story to, kind of, set the scene, Carol. For downtown, was back in the '60s when the battleship came. And one of the hot topics then, when they were building the memorial bridge, was whether they should make that a high rise and travel as far as, I think, 10th or 12th Street, and bypass downtown or they should terminate where it is today. And whether they should take the entire built fabric of downtown from Second and Front Street, erase it and build a parkway along the River Front, for the Memorial Bridge to the Homes Bridge. And that was the hot debate. And fortunately, those that wanted to preserve, also, wanted to build the Riverwalk, the public space on the river. They went out, and today, we benefit in that vision. It's been passed on from City Council and from leadership to leadership to preserve and enhance an incredibly rich historic story downtown. And as you know, our story goes back to the 1660's. One of the oldest cities in the new world, a rich history of maritime related and agricultural related activities that puts us shoulder to shoulder with the great cities on the East Coast and the West Coast. And people, I think, overlook that, because of our population. We're not as big as some of those great cities. But we've got great stories to tell--

Jones: Because you're on the water. Yeah.

Harper Peterson: Yeah, great stories. So anyway--

Jones: Well, I'm glad you brought that up, because we'll get to that in a minute.

Harper Peterson: Okay.

Jones: When did you? Was it a gradual thing, as far as you as a businessperson? And also, you were on the City Council?

Harper Peterson: I ran in '93, lost and ran again, in '95 and won a seat.

Jones: Right.

Harper Peterson: A four-year seat.

Jones: The change of the flavor of Wilmington began, particularly, since I-40 opened. And I've talked to so many people, who say, "Close the gates." You know, I've talked to others who are fourth, fifth generation natives that welcome. How do you feel about the-- What did you see that changed things, and was it gradual? Did it affect you? How did you feel about it?

Harper Peterson: Well, it's gradual and rapid. I mean, you could see it coming in the '70s and '80s. And obviously, I-40 opened up, and it was like the Oklahoma Land Rush. I saw it in New York where I grew up. I grew up on a farm. They built the Long Island Expressway, which, kind of, ran down the middle of Long Island, out to River Head, back in the '60s and '70s. And that just opened up the gates for new residential growth, in a very attractive and natural environment. And also, for industry and corporate inclusions. So the same thing happened here. I think, we all knew that it would happen. We just didn't know what shape, tangible shape it would take and how it would affect, you know, our paradise. It's still a paradise, but it's changed. And you adapt to it and try to maintain what you can and, you know, accept what comes with growth. That's a delicate balance. And I think we all strive, even my political opponents and adversaries, we strive for balance retaining the qualities that make it a great place to live and work and raise kids. But also, prosper in business and education. It's going to get bigger. And if we had a crystal ball, we could, probably, argue about where we would be in 5, 10, 20, 30 years. But that's what the next generation is here for. That's what the University is here for.

Jones: Right. In your capacity, as an elected official including Mayor, did you find it difficult? Is there a mindset that made it a little bit difficult to get your programs across. I know you were very forward in many ways. And without mentioning any names, I know that you were very proving of certain, preserving certain things and going forth very much so. Whereas, sometimes, I guess, the City Council and the Mayors, kind of, feel hog-tied that they listen to public opinions. Some of the opinion from the old people or a family thing. "No, we don't want this. Yes, we do want this." So who's, what's that delicate balance? How did you manage?

Harper Peterson: Well, you know, I was thinking about this coming over here. You know, an educated public makes for a successful democracy. And there were striking issues that face the community today, as yesterday, and will tomorrow.

Jones: Some of the same issues that keep coming up?

Harper Peterson: Yeah, I don't think they will go away. We're no different than other cities. We like to think of ourselves as unique, but we're really, you know-- politics is the same everywhere, as is development in an attractive area to live. You know, with new people coming in with new ideas, whether they're from the North, the South, the West, regardless of their age, they have a perception, a vision, for what they would like to see the city become or transition into. And as leaders, I mean, it's easy to say, but you want to listen and try to help the community formulate a vision and direction. But you have to have good debate, good dialog. I mean, I've always been enthused by Jefferson and his concepts that democracy be a clash of ideas.

Jones: That's true.

Harper Peterson: Not the swords, but, you know, active debate, responsible debate. And in a small political environment, like a city of this size, sometimes debate is not nurtured. And I've always grown up, obviously, and I've been-- you know, University of North Carolina was active in the food service strikes back in the late '60s, and became just politically active, obviously, during that time. And I saw a need for that here to have ideas, to have all issues-- I mean, issue and all sides of that issue on the table and debate and then, make a decision, a collective decision. It doesn't have to be consensus, but more likely and attractive to me, a compromise and move forward. But that wasn't the case. And I think that's what drew me into politics in '93 and '95. And then, I ran for Mayor, known as the perennial candidate, because I lost more than I won. But still, I thought, it's good to run, have a debate, win, lose or draw, and then, walk away.

Jones: You seem to have quite a staunch following.

Harper Peterson: Yeah, people say that, you know, they either love me or some people tell me there's a lot of people that hate me. I've got a friend downtown-- that's fine. I mean, that goes with the territory.

Jones: That's pretty hard.

Harper Peterson: My wife's a little sensitive. Well, you know, again, there's a lot at stake. Especially, when there's money involved. And this town is rich in resources and potential. So you tend to make allies and create enemies in your policy. And again, it's part of the communication of what you're trying to achieve and how you're representing the people.

Jones: You seem to be known, also, among the black community, as a friend of the black community.

Harper Peterson: Mm-hmm.

Jones: And I think they feel comfortable with you. They trust you. Do you think-- or you don't have to say, but-- that there are any potential leaders in that group? I know that talking to some, they say there are no role models for the youngsters coming along. Why isn't it? And yet, we encourage them to run for office and to take part. You're closer to it than anybody I've talked to.

Harper Peterson: We have, I think, good role models in our community. I mean, but we have to be realistic. And the African-American community was crippled back in 1898.

Jones: Are you part of that commemoration (inaudible)--

Harper Peterson: I was part of the State Commission, Race Riot Commission, which recently made our report after three years investigation. And this was a Hallmark event in American History that was pushed under the rug. But essentially, an existing government, primarily black, duly elected, was forcibly removed from office. Many blacks were killed. Many business owners were run out of town, with the threat of death if they ever returned. This sent a message throughout, not only the South but the United States, post Civil War, post Reconstruction, that it wouldn't be tolerated. And that if need be, violence could be taken to remove the sitting government, in this case, African-American. It ushered in the Jim Crow era for the next 60 years. The Civil Rights Movement was a result. And for the last 106 years, the African-American community, not only in Wilmington, but throughout the South, and I think the Country, suffered from this one event. It's a Hallmark event. It needs to be understood, accepted for what it was, and I think, move on from it. We can learn a lot from it. But here, locally, for me, when I was in office, I felt a responsibility to provide an opportunity. Lincoln was, before he was President, and he espoused the mobility of every American citizen to have that mobility, to own a home, to have a business, to receive an education. Regardless of their upbringing, their race, their color, their gender. And I've always held that close to me that everyone needs to have an opportunity, and we need to find ways in Wilmington, New Hanover County, in Southeastern North Carolina, for the black community to catch up. They've been pushed and left out for too long. So I am sensitive to their needs, not to the degree where I'm, you know, oblivious or insensitive to the entire population. But I've always kept that in mind with any decisions I made that may affect it.

Jones: Harper, do you feel that it is possible for more black African-Americans of Wilmington to become involved in the direction this city takes or in the political movements? Or in anything?

Harper Peterson: It's essential.

Jones: But I hear both sides. Some say, "Well, we can't. We don't have the backing." And yet, they do. Some of them can have it. They can. They can approach people and do it.

Harper Peterson: Well, it's easier said than done. You know, you have the Partners for Economic Inclusion, which was an outgrowth in the Centennial observation in 1998 and its purpose. And I don't want to misquote or misrepresent them, but to involve the business community, at large, the white community, involve them in black interests. And have a cooperative effort to bring people forward and up. And I think that's needed, and I congratulate them. But much more needs to be done in housing and transportation and education. You have to identify, be specific, not be general. And we know, today, in education, take that as an example--

Jones: It's essential.

Harper Peterson: Which I'm very interested in, even though the City Council is not considered, you know, responsible for that. I am responsible, because a majority of the black community lives in the city and they go to school in the city. And when you look at, you know, the family structure, which has been shattered, for whatever reasons it is. It's a reality. And you have single parents with, two, three jobs that never have an opportunity to be a parent. And children don't have an opportunity to have parents. Then, you begin to see the ills, the maladies, in our community. And when you see the crime rate and the gap in educational achievement, you can point to the family structure. And you work with churches, and you work with government, and you work with volunteer groups. But we're falling further and further behind. And there's an economic side to this. It costs us, the community taxpayers, a tremendous amount of money to address those maladies, rather than getting at the root causes. That could take up hours of discussion, and it's been going on and will continue to go on. But I don't see white or black leadership in this community today that's addressing these issues. I mean, making a difference, sticking their neck out and saying, "Stop. We need a new direction, a new commitment, by the entire community." A lot of lip service, a lot of tokenism, but we're not making any headway. One step forward, two steps back.

Jones: The growth of the Wilmington or New Hanover County, has been so fast. My understanding is that this year we have reached a population of 106,000.

Harper Peterson: What? Really?

Jones: That's right.

Harper Peterson: I feel like Rip Van Winkle. I fell asleep. It was 94 when I left office.

Jones: Brunswick County is the fastest growing county in the country.

Harper Peterson: In the country?

Jones: In the country. They have no more room for, no more space in their schools. And yet, Pender County still has room. And the theory is that we're going to have a megalopolis from Jacksonville to the South Carolina border, probably. And with this, my understanding is that New Hanover County, in a way, is aging. Now, I'm coming to something. I keep hearing-- and I hear two politicians who are running for office right now, both very interesting men; one for the school board and he is familiar with education-- that to utilize the older citizen, the retired person, in the schools, in the boys and girls clubs. Is this something viable? I mean, I'm sure this has come up before. And you speak knowledgeably about--

Harper Peterson: Volunteerism?

Jones: Yes.

Harper Peterson: And the importance of that? Obviously, when you have those human resources--

Jones: They keep talking about this, but it's not utilized properly.

Harper Peterson: Well, again, it takes leadership. You know, it takes an idea and honey to attract a bee. In this case, retirees. I mean, obviously, tremendous resources. And it's inviting and making and enticing these people to work with a program, whether it be in the schools or in business. And there are good programs in place, believe me, United Way and many groups. But are we, you know we, realizing the true potential of what we have and coordinating the efforts? Are we aware of all the efforts? Are we, you know, competing against each other? That's always a challenge at any level. Talking I know, you want to get to regionalism. And as we become a megalopolis, or whatever it is we become, from Myrtle Beach to whoever, Nagsine [ph?] Norfolk. It's coming. It's going to happen. Every reason to happen. No reason to stop it, other than a melting ice age. I mean, a melting, you know--

Jones: How do you feel about it? I mean, is it growing too fast?

Harper Peterson: Well, it's always too fast. I mean, there's always some discomfort. I mean, roads, schools, you know, you name it. You know, you feel the pressure, and you have to respond. It's how quickly you respond. Is it a true need for a regional coordination, understanding, cooperation? You're in a regional planning, regional growth policy. But is it happening? I just read an article the other day, where the County Planner from New Hanover County said he didn't have enough, you know, face-to-face discussion with the Brunswick County Planner. And the politicians, I know, aren't talking. I mean, they live in two different fiefdoms [ph?]. But it's coming, and it affects everybody. The people that work in New Hanover County and the city. Many of them live outside the city limits, because they can't afford here, affordable housing. They live in the surrounding counties. It clogs our roads, takes away from the commitment of people that work here that don't live here. You lose that. So, but again, I think, there have been attempts at regional planning through the Counsel of Governments, COG, some good people comprised of elected officials, which is important. Because that's where it begins and ends, with elected officials. It's great to have great planning ideas. But if you don't have the political support behind it, it's not going to happen. And again, I'm afraid it's going to get worse before it gets better. Now, it depends on who you talk to. Okay?

Jones: That's all right.

Harper Peterson: A lot of people think this is--

Jones: We're talking to you, right now.

Harper Peterson: Yeah, well, we look at some of the exciting, you know, developments in the last few years.

Jones: Name one or two.

Harper Peterson: Well, I think, PPD is an exciting development. Now, I was--

Jones: Do you think that's the right place for it?

Harper Peterson: Exactly. It's the perfect place. And now, we've said that for the last 20 years, when they were trying to build that facility downtown, in the middle of the heart of the historic district. Back before I-- in fact, that was one of the key issues that got me interested in politics. Because as a citizen living downtown and a business owner, I asked questions like, what would be the impact on our roads, our infrastructure? Just basic questions that anyone would ask. And others were asking those questions, too. And the deal fell apart, and I was, you know, labeled the one that killed PPD, and made them leave town. And I was on the City Council, and as if I made a decision. I wasn't even an elected official, then. I was just an interested, concerned citizen. But where it is today, I think, is a good location. That's where the high rise or the vertical development needs to take place. And you know, I don't want to be critical of what opportunities we missed in the last three or four years I haven't been I office. But all in all, downtown is doing well. We have the Riverwalk. It's public. Everyone has free access to an incredible amenity. I mean, how many cities have a river that runs right in front of you? I mean, with recreational opportunities, with shipping and commerce, a battleship across. I mean, it's just wonderful. I marvel, and I know others do, too, not only when my family enjoys it, but when I see other families come down and walk on the free riverfront, incredible sunsets. That's what the public amenities are all about.

Jones: What do you think about downtown right now, as a businessman, but let's say, at night? Is it, some say it's too many empty stores, not enough businesses, not enough shopping down there. Others complaining about the number of restaurants and bars. And you're, we're talking about the kind where the disco at 2:00 in the morning and that kind of thing. And then, there's talk about a flying bridge. Then, there's talk about the condos. What's happened? What should happen?

Harper Peterson: I don't know if I'm the right or wrong person to ask. Because I live downtown. I own a restaurant. I own a bar. My wife and I are in the retail business. We're in land development. And I think, downtown is doing well. I mean, these short episodes of, you know, acrimony and conflict, i.e. the bars, late night. That's the responsibility of the City to, you know, manage that, working with the private sector. And I think they're doing a pretty good job. With the advent of new development on the north side, that's going to affect, you know, new dynamic for downtown, for preservation and that constant battle. They always want to tear down and rebuild. That will never go away. Economics drive that. The Convention Center--

Jones: How do you feel about that?

Harper Peterson: Which I was an architect for, you know, six years ago. Initiated the room tax that made all this possible, after it failed for years and years and years--

Jones: Yes, you did. I wanted you to talk about that so go ahead.

Harper Peterson: It was an opportunity to put some money on the table, in our pocket, if a Convention Center would work. Let's take a serious look, after decades of, you know, we need it, we have to have it, we want it. It's, like, Santa Claus on Christmas. We've got to have that toy train. Well, does it fit? So we developed this room tax legislation, Representative Wright and myself. We brought it to Raleigh. We ushered it through. We brought it back. Now, we've got money to work with. We don't have to go to the taxpayer. We'll rely on room tax. Well, I was defeated in 2003, and that's fine. But it took a different course. And today, it's rolling in controversy, and I'm against it. Because if nothing else, 911 demonstrated that it's affected-- not demonstrated, but affected the tourism business. It affected Convention business. Competition, fuel costs, all these things are odious [ph?]. They don't make money. They rely on local taxes to be subsidized. And the room tax, regardless of how much money it brings to the table, outside tax dollars, room tax, it's still going to have to fall back on the shoulders of the citizens. And if we experience a Katrina or a smaller version of Katrina, that's going to set back tourism for a year or two. I know, with Fran in '96, it took us a year and half to two years, as a retailer, to recover. And it will be the same here. And that would take the wind out of the sails of the Convention Center. They're a dying breed. And it's the writings on the wall. I mean--

Jones: Would this be used for other purposes, then?

Harper Peterson: Well, that was part of the investigation, Carol--

Jones: And shouldn't it be used for other purposes?

Harper Peterson: It was to be a Convention Civic Center. Okay? We were going to create, as a community, you know, a special event center for, not only outside events, but local graduations. I mean, you know, obviously, the facility here can't--

Jones: It's limited.

Harper Peterson: Yeah, it's limited. We don't have that. We talked about a concert center, adjunct to the Convention Center. It was a dream. And we had an opportunity now to get serious about it, and it's taken a different course. And then, you have the for and against sides and, you know, they make good arguments. But for me, it will go down in history as a big flop and a burden on the taxpayers.

Jones: Really?

Harper Peterson: Yeah. And, you know, as a restaurateur and a business owner, obviously, it will probably prosper us downtown. But that's a small segment of the community. And we have--

Jones: You think this is a destination place or seems to be.

Harper Peterson: You know, look at convention centers throughout the country. Okay? Look at the specific location and the facilities and the money it takes to run, and they're just sucking air. Okay? You just have to open up and see what's going on? Okay. Myrtle Beach, New Bern, right up and down the coast. And we'll compete against them. And conventions are becoming smaller in time. They used to be four or five days. They're becoming two and three days now.

Jones: The corporate level is not doing this--

Harper Peterson: The Internet has taken over. It's replaced a lot of the need for a convention center. You have to accept the fact that times are changing. And the need for that kind of facility, it's becoming a dinosaur. I don't want to exaggerate, but--

Jones: Well, what do you think about the people who come here, are here for a comparatively short period of time, two, three, four years, and think they can cure some ills and decide to run for office? I've found this happening too much in the last few years. Don't you, do you or do you not feel that it's anybody's choice or they need to be grounded and understand what's going on, first?

Harper Peterson: Well, do you give them a test? I don't mean to be sarcastic. But do you have to live here a certain amount of time before you can, you know, position yourself to be a public servant or serve on a board?

Jones: Well, serve on a board is one thing. But I think, what do you think about, for example, on a school board, I guess--

Harper Peterson: I think they have every right. If they're a citizen, there's no restriction. There's no age minimum or, you know, longevity of residence. I think, if you live here, you pay taxes, you have a sincere interest in serving the public, you're a candidate. I was criticized by the gentleman who's running for the school board today, Nick Rhodes [ph?]. He had been here three years.

Jones: Good friend of ours.

Harper Peterson: Retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel. Price-Waterhouse Cooper, management, and a sincere interest in education. His wife, Dolores, is a former--

Jones: Principal.

Harper Peterson: Superintendent. Right. A Superintendent. But I was criticized on the City Council, at the time, he hasn't lived here long enough. Yet, at the same time, and no criticism of a candidate winning. Someone ran against me that had been here three or four years and became Mayor. I mean, and more power to them. I mean, so that's the way it goes. You have to accept the rules. And I accept the rules that anyone and everyone is eligible, regardless of how long they've lived here.

Jones: Okay. That's interesting. Are you going to run for office, again? Thought about it?

Harper Peterson: Yeah, I think about it, to be honest with you, every day. And more and more, I am enjoying the direction I'm in now.

Jones: Which is?

Harper Peterson: I'm happy supporting candidates, staying involved, and I have stayed involved. And that's rewarding to me, I guess, at the end of the day or mid-day.

Jones: You don't think you could make a difference if you wanted (inaudible)--

Harper Peterson: Well, I think other people-- you know, I'm happy to see Pat Delair, who was recently elected to the City Council, given, you know, an outside chance. She excited people in the community. And I think there are other people out there that, because of her, will be now encouraged to run. Other people, I'm happy to support-- I'm happy to be a foot soldier. It's not a step down. It's just what's gratifying to me. So I'm like a dog. If I don't see a cat, I'm happy sitting here. So if that special cat runs by, who knows, I may take off.

Jones: What are you involved in right now, besides owning property, managing, done, owning a restaurant, other shops in the, for the county.

Harper Peterson: In the public--

Jones: Yes.

Harper Peterson: I was one of the founding members of the African-American Heritage Foundation.

Jones: Right.

Harper Peterson: We established ourselves two years ago. We bought a building on North Fourth Street. It has historical prominence, in that it was where the first blood was drawn during the Riots of 1898. But it's an opportunity for the black community to take a foothold, to have a physical space location that they can identify with, as a museum. A rich culture that we overlooked, but it's a fascinating history. Involved in that, on the board. What else have I done? Worked, served on the 1898 Race Riot Commission.

Jones: Right.

Harper Peterson: I am involved in local politics, supporting candidates.

Jones: Tell us about your summer, this past summer, what you did here.

Harper Peterson: What did I do, Carol? Oh, right.

Jones: Very important, brought money into the community.

Harper Peterson: Oh, right. I call it a convention, without a convention center. I play soccer for Greensboro United. It's an adult soccer team. We play nationally. And as Mayor four years ago, I submitted Wilmington as a candidate for a two-year commitment for the National Adult Soccer Championships. And we won that. We were awarded that honor. And this year and last year, 2005, we were the home for the Veterans Cup, which attracted over 22, 2500 soccer players, men and women over 35. And it's a life-long passion, believe me, just like football and baseball. There are a lot of soccer people in this country.

Jones: You had a tremendous turn out.

Harper Peterson: We did. It was great. And it was successful, and it's over, and I can take a deep breath and exhale.

Jones: When is it going to happen again?

Harper Peterson: It will happen next year in Bellingham, Washington for two years. It's a two-year commitment. And those at the National Organization Committee want to come back, or they say they do, in three or four years. Because they have to move it around regionally. But what it brought to the community was not only soccer for a week, but it brought an economy with it. The CVB, the Convention and Visitors Bureau, estimated-- I didn't have anything. I didn't play with the numbers. They said it generated over seven and a half million dollars each year, in revenue, in not only the City, the County, but the Region. Because you can imagine people come, families--

Jones: How big an involvement did you have in bringing that here?

Harper Peterson: Well, again, as Mayor, representing, you know, playing for Greensboro, representing the State of North Carolina. We submitted and I think, we competed against LA, Saint Louis and Tulsa, Oklahoma, as candidates for the 2005-2006, you know, location for this tournament. They visited every site. I gave them a tour of downtown. I got Bob Jenkins, a local icon or legacy, to give them a tour. And they said, "This is where we want to be." And we had it for two years. So it was fun. But that's a kind of activity. We have opportunities like that. And you know this. You're a historian--

Jones: This is part of the flavor of this area. And so it's important to talk about that, too. If people come here and they think of Thalian Hall, and they think of the Cape Fear River, and they think of the Battleship. And maybe, they think about the Azalea Festival, which has undergone so many transformations since its inception. You know, it was a golf tournament, really. And this is the kind of thing, which, probably, is responsible for our getting to be 106,000 right now.

Harper Peterson: Do you want to hear a funny story?

Jones: Yes.

Harper Peterson: I don't want to get off track. But--

Jones: No, it's all right.

Harper Peterson: My wife and I and our kids attended the 50th anniversary of the ACC. I'm going to put a little feather in my hat here. And I was nominated to the greatest 50 players of all time in the ACC and lacrosse. So we attended. And when I was introduced, along with four or five hundred other athletes-- well, maybe, not that many, two or three hundred from UNC, as part of the greater ACC family. Lacrosse All American, and everybody, you know, politely clapped. And then, Mayor of the City of Wilmington. And everybody went, "Hurray, all right. Wrightsville Beach. Let's go," you know. It was funny.

Jones: That was ACC lacrosse?

Harper Peterson: Right. But everybody knows Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach, and you know, this little corner of the world is a great place to come. And I get calls all the time from people from Chapel Hill, when they're coming down, and they'll say hello, you know, while they're here.

Jones: What are you proudest of, Harper, in your life, so far? You've got a long way to go.

Harper Peterson: It always goes back to your family. You have to be proud of your family. And, you know, we have five kids. And I was just thinking about--

Jones: I didn't know that.

Harper Peterson: Yeah, 14 through 28. And they're all doing well. They're doing much better than I was at their age. And I say that honestly and proudly. And that's essentially where it starts, your family. And you go from there. I'm more interested in the process than the results, in terms of my own professional or political pursuits. You know, I enjoy the process. And I say that unabashedly. I'm not being false about it, but, you know, I don't regret and I don't lose sleep over, feel pain over, you know, the last loss I had or what I didn't succeed in, in politics. I'm always looking forward and, you know, kind of, regenerating yourself each day.

Jones: How do you? Do you give musicians an opportunity, do you think, by hiring them to play in your restaurant? Is this a showcase?

Harper Peterson: We did, actually. Water Street has had live music for the last 16 years. It's a development. And loving music and knowing that customers love music, and having a nice venue. Our building is the oldest commercial building downtown, 1836. It's a nice space, good acoustics. And we've enjoyed it. It's been good for the business. It's been good for musicians, and music is flourishing, along with The Arts in general, in this community. We're known, nationally, as being, kind of, a funky, you know, cultural center on the East Coast. A small town that is, kind of, a small Austin, Texas. But anyway, in Water Street, I've enjoyed that. We have an eclectic group of musicians that come in. Because the Universe is a good example of it. Look where you are now developing your cultural performance center. I don't know the correct name for it.

Jones: Well, yeah, they're raising money for it.

Harper Peterson: And that's an outgrowth, and I'm sure it's going to receive a lot of support because of places like history, like Thalian Hall and the Thalian Association.

Jones: Are you still involved, in any way, with drama, the theatre?

Harper Peterson: No, just attend.

Jones: Just attend, buy the tickets.

Harper Peterson: Yeah, when we can. It's great. I mean, we have a great theatre. My favorite play last year was Peter Pan. I don't know if you saw that, but I loved it. Did you see?

Jones: Some of us are married to Peter Pans.

Harper Peterson: Oh, man. We took our three-year old nephew, and he just sat in the third row mesmerized by Peter Pan. It was great.

Jones: The Community Arts Center, which is now the USO, which will continue to--

Harper Peterson: Burn it down. I'm so tired-- We live two doors away from it. No, I'm just kidding. I know your husband is heavily involved in that.

Jones: In many things. What do you see for the future of Wilmington, let's say in the next ten years? Just give me a ten-year crystal ball gaze.

Harper Peterson: Well--

Jones: What would you like to see? Let me pass that question. What would you like to see happen here over a ten-year period?

Harper Peterson: Well, I think, it begins and ends with a politic. And if we don't take a close look at our growth policy, how we grow and how we pay for growth, roads, water, sewer, schools, all the infrastructure, we're going to lose that shine, that sheen. And we're going to become another community that's exciting, attractive, in the fast lane, like a Myrtle Beach. But the character that's been building for 350 years-- And I don't exaggerate when I say that-- that have made us unique. We'll lose that slowly. It's, like, you know, the analogy to the frog. And I borrow this, and I hear it now. But you take a frog and you put him in boiling water, okay, on the stove. And you plop him in. He'll jump right out. Right? And that's what we're-- we're boiling, okay? You take that same frog; right? And you put him in a room temperature pot, and you slowly turn the heat up, and he, kind of, gets comfortable and relaxed. And before you know it, he's asleep, and he never wakes up. And we're boiling, but a lot of people just don't recognize the heat's slowly rising. So we're at that boiling point now. I don't want to say we're at a crisis stage or a crossroads. Every generation faces these challenges. But a finite physical area, okay, that's busting at the seams and spilling into surrounding counties, okay? Polluted creeks and waterways. We have ocean concerns, now. We have air quality concerns. You know, just on--

Jones: Green space.

Harper Peterson: A green space, you know, on and on. But a growth policy that addresses this. I voted against both green space bonds. Okay? And then--

Jones: Did you?

Harper Peterson: I'm a tree hugger.

Jones: Yes, you are.

Harper Peterson: What the heck's going on here? I mean, is this guy a hypocrite or what? No. Because why did we have to get to the 11th hour and come back to the tax payer and say, "Well, we don't have enough green space. We're going to come back to you." Okay. Why didn't we ask the community, as a whole, as we grew, new people coming in, the development community, I mean, developer, to kick back a little bit, and put in the pot a little something extra earmarked for this purpose that would enrich and maintain our quality? Didn't do it. So now, at the last minute, we go back to the taxpayer, again. I mean, that's bad growth policy. Okay? That's desperation. And what have we got for it? I don't know. And we miss so many opportunities. There's still opportunities out there, though.

Jones: That's what I was going to ask.

Harper Peterson: And we need to be aware of that. And how are we going to take advantage of those opportunities? The city's going to grow. I mean, but you still want to, you know, preserve. And that is a delicate balance that needs to be defined by the community at that time. Not me, not you, but the community. So education--

Jones: How can the community do this without a leader?

Harper Peterson: Well, I'm, you know--

Jones: (inaudible).

Harper Peterson: We have leaders. I mean, it's just, again, I think, the political leadership, you know, they make the decisions that affect. It's great to have Civic leaders and corporate leaders--

Jones: They don't listen to the voices of the people?

Harper Peterson: Well, you know, but who put them in office? I mean, I don't criticize my opponents, when I lose, that win or those people that support them. I congratulate them and pat them on the back. It's the people that didn't care or didn't know or didn't feel enough, you know, involvement or responsibility, that didn't come out and participate. That concerns me. So I'm not critical of those that are in power. It's those that should've been aware and made a difference in that last election or where we're going with our policies.

Jones: Along with this, how do you feel about Cape Fear community college wanting to expand downtown area and take over a lot of the land down there?

Harper Peterson: Are they still interested in expanding? I mean, I thought they had, kind of--

Jones: Sort of.

Harper Peterson: If there's anything, they're expanding on the Northern Campus. Well, it's worked. I mean, for years back in the '80s and early '90s, we wanted them out, you know?

Jones: Right.

Harper Peterson: And then, with the arrival of Eric McKeethan [ph?], I think, Eric's another volatile figure. But he's, you know, he's a leader. I mean, he gets things done. He has a vision. He takes people with him. And they're a force to be reckoned with and continue to be a good force. But very proud of what they've done and how they serve the community, through their vision and purpose. I think, they hopefully, will build up and not out. They gobbled up a lot of land when the city was turning their back. I mean, we all turned our back on downtown.

Jones: How do you feel about closing off, let's say, Front Street or, God forbid, Water street-- Front Street, let's say, and making it traffic?

Harper Peterson: Well--

Jones: You know, foot traffic, with benches, et cetera. It's worked in some places. But--

Harper Peterson: Yeah, I think, at the time, it was a good design change when they made it one-way and added-- But I look at South Front Street. Okay? You have the contrast between one-way and two-way. And I think South Front Street works very well. You still have a pedestrian environment, sidewalks. You have storefronts. You have trees. They mix well together with vehicles. I think the same needs to be looked at for North Front. So I support it. I introduced the idea three years ago, by a gentleman who has lived here for 75 years, who kept stopping me in the street and saying, "Mayor, we need to take North Front Street and change it into a two-way street." And I said, "You're crazy." But he kept saying, "You've got to do it." And he told me why. And it makes good business sense, and you can still preserve what's there. Just a shade of blue that, you know, you need to consider. But now, with the Northern Development Convention Center, and PPD and other businesses that are going to come, they're coming fast and furious. And you're going to have development across the river, next to the Battleship complementing, I hope, the Battleship. You're going to need that two-way traffic.

Jones: Thank you for being with us. We could talk on and on. I think you've got a lot of ideas and you've been here long enough. A transplanted New Yorker taking this place to heart--

Harper Peterson: Damn Yankee.

Jones: Damn Yankee.

Harper Peterson: Blankety-blank. That's what I used to--

Jones: And you've been a force in the community. I hope you keep going. I hope we hear from you some more.

Harper Peterson: Great. Same to you, Carroll.

Jones: Thank you.

Harper Peterson: Thank you, Jennifer, and have a good day.

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