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Interview with Charlie Rivenbark, February 21, 2007 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Title:
Interview with Charlie Rivenbark, February 21, 2007
Date:
February 21, 2007
Description:
In this interview, Wilmington native Charlie Rivenbark discusses growing up and watching his town change. He also reflects on his time running his well-known, eponymous restaurant, his activities in local politics and experiences as as president of the Azalea Festival.
Phys. Desc:

Interviewee: Rivenbark, Charlie Interviewer: Jones, Carroll and Dail, Jennifer Date of Interview: 20 Feb 2007 Series: Southeast North Carolina (SENC) Length 60 minutes

Jones: February 20th, 2007. I'm Carroll Jones with Jennifer Dail for the Randall Library Special Collection Oral History Program. We are pleased to have Charlie Rivenbark with us today, a man of many interests and a can-do personality. At present, he is President of the Azalea Festival, an almost full-time job that must be earned over the years, very active in local theater, Thalian Hall, restaurant owner, real estate development. And let's let him tell the rest of this. Good morning, and welcome, Charlie.

Rivenbark: Good morning. It's a pleasure to be here.

Jones: Thank you so much. Let's start with the Rivenbark name, which seems prevalent in this area. Every time I pick up the paper, one of them is getting married, marrying, born, dead or going to jail. So tell us about that. I've never heard it anywhere else.

Rivenbark: We cover the whole range. My father was born and reared in Pender County. He had all sisters and no brothers; so therefore, I don't have any uncles or first cousins named Rivenbark. I've got lots of first cousins, but my aunts all married, and they have other names. But there is a book that was prepared on the Rivenbark name, and it's a fairly southeastern North Carolina name. There were supposedly three brothers that came here. Back in the old country, it went under a lot of different names: "Riventrop," and derivatives thereof, but I guess we Americanized it here, like so many people will. And when we've grown up, my mother and father, when they were married, they located here. My mother is from here. And so, I was born here at the James Walker Hospital with my brothers and sisters-- my one brother and two sisters. And when I was growing up, I remember there were probably three or four Rivenbarks in the phone book. And my sister went to school with one. I went to school with one. They weren't related. And we never sat down and saw our common thread, but we knew that we all come from Pender/Duplin County. Now you can pick the phone book up, the print's smaller and there's about three columns of Rivenbarks. So it's a passionate Baptist, I would assume.

Jones: So you don't have large family reunions or anything like that?

Rivenbark: Well yes, we do, and there is a Rivenbark group that gets together periodically, and we've been-- And you know, it's a lot of distant relations. People are always asking me, am I related to Celia Rivenbark? And that is her maiden name. And you know, there was a period of time when I was on City Council that Celia wouldn't claim me, but I've always been, you know, kind of curious as to exactly what the relation there is. We're probably cousins way down the line.

Jones: I think every area has some names that are peculiar to that area.

Rivenbark: To that area.

Jones: This one, in southeastern North Carolina, seems to have its share. There's another name that fascinates me. I know some of the members of the family. They're wonderful people and they joke about it. The Barefoot family.

Rivenbark: Oh, yeah.

Jones: They have family reunions every year. Last count, over 350 attended, so they figured they'd have to buy the state. [laughs] Alright. Well, we got that straight. So, you are from Wilmington.

Rivenbark: Yes, ma'am.

Jones: Can you tell us a little bit? What I'm looking for, is a little bit about growing up here and your interest in the theater, for example. When did it start? Did you have a mentor? How did it progress?

Rivenbark: Well, you know, Carroll, I don't want to correct you while we're on camera, but I think you may have me confused with Tony. Tony is real heavy into the Thalian Hall Theater.

Jones: I thought you both were.

Rivenbark: Well, I was in some stuff when I was very young, and I've been in the Thalian. Actually, it was at Thalian Hall last year, with regard to the Literacy Council; they had the Greek Wedding where the men took female parts and the women took male parts. And then we're going to do another one on the 30th of next month.

Jones: I think that's what I'm thinking about.

Rivenbark: Yes, ma'am. And that was just something that I was glad to do. You kind of check your dignity at the door the night of, and you know, go down and kind of make a fool of yourself, but it's for a terrific cause, and that's what drives it. And this year, they're going to do, it's going to be kind of a Las Vegas show, and I think I'm going to be a showgirl.

Jones: [laughs] Well, that's all right.

Rivenbark: I hope I have lots of makeup on.

Jones: So, you enjoy it.

Rivenbark: It's fun. And you know, if you can't laugh at yourself, you shouldn't laugh at anybody else. You always have to remember why you're doing it. This is for a good cause. So, people that can't read, it's probably one of the greatest tragedies a person can suffer. My aunt instilled in me when I was very little, a love of reading. She read to me, and she read all kinds of different things to me. And then, when I learned to read, she fed me the Hardy Boy books, the Nancy Drew. And then, when I was in Winter Park School, I constantly had several books checked out. I just loved to read. And it's easy to be alone when you have a love of reading. And when Beth Pancoe, who puts on these shows for the Literacy Council, when she called me, she had me, because it is, that's something that's near and dear to my heart, is everybody being able to be literate.

Jones: Tell us more about the Literacy Council, how it started and what... Tell me more about it.

Rivenbark: Well, Beth Pancoe is going to probably shoot me if she sees this and I stumble through this. The Literacy Council is something that's been around for quite a while. And back when I was, I'd say, probably in the early '80's, a friend of mine that I didn't even know, he was one of the teachers; he had been a teacher, I think, in his earlier years. And he was telling me about it one day over lunch. He had had a gentleman who had worked in, not a high-profile job, but a job with the city, and not a clerical job. He had never learned to read. And when his grandchildren came along, they wanted him to read to them, and so he went to this Literacy Council. And my friend, Bill took him under his wing and taught him how to read. And it impacted me, from that day, that there are people out there-- that you look at every day and see and interact with, and they lead normal lives-- that can't read. And having grown up, you know, from when I learned to read at an early age, it was something that I couldn't quite take in, and it was always in the back of my head. And I got involved in a lot of other things that precluded me from having the time to do a Literacy Council, but I'd like to think that I've always been a supporter of it, and the groups that do-- And they put on a number of fundraisers. They have the spelling bees with the groups, and they've got an auction coming up here, I think, in the week or ten days. And so, they are really an active-- I call it a ministry.

Jones: That's a good word for it.

Rivenbark: Yes, ma'am. And this was just a very small way for me to kind of take part in it, other than writing a check.

Jones: And you enjoy it.

Rivenbark: Yes, ma'am. We have a lot of fun. We just had a little deal the other night over at one of the local restaurants, Angie's Restaurant. Sid Causey, our Sheriff, is going to be the bride again. And we were all over there looking at pictures from the last little shindig we put on, and you laugh all over it again, looking at people that are rather dignified in their daily lives, and there they are, dressed up like a floozy, and it's funny. And hopefully, we'll be able to raise some more money for the Literacy Council, because I know that there are children coming through our school system today, that get to a point where they have to go out and earn their way, and they either can't read, or they're at such a low level. And if you can't read, you can't; it's hard to function in this society. It's getting harder every day.

Jones: Well, that's very true. My understanding is-- and I'm glad to see that the schools are taking front and center here in New Hanover County, because my understanding is-- our granddaughter's a teacher here, third grade, first year out of school, very dedicated.

Rivenbark: Let's hope she stays that way.

Jones: That's what people keep telling her, but she's one of these gung-ho types, anyway. She graduated with honors, worked her last semester in Greensboro in one of the worst schools possible. They asked her to come back and teach. She said, "No, I'm going to New Hanover County," but she loved them. My point is she's teaching third grade, and she says that's a make or break year, because it's the first year that they're tested, and it's also the first year they can all stay behind. And you take a look at these little termites and you think goodness sakes, they're in school. Why can't they learn to read? So anyway, this is something that I think everybody needs to be more aware of and get involved with, and the mentor programs, too.

Rivenbark: Reading to children, for about eight years, I read to a kindergarten. And then when the pre-K was established in New Hanover County, I dropped down to pre-K. Some kids that had just turned five, most of them were four, and a lot of them, as you know, I don't think it's hard to believe, but a lot of them don't get read to.

Jones: Well, I can believe it.

Rivenbark: And that's what did it for me, is having someone read to me. And I would look at those pages when my aunt would turn them and I would think, "God, if I could do that." And then you know, of course, the first day I went to school, I thought they were going to flick a switch in my head and I'd know how to read, but it was really important for me to do that-- reading. And then also, I was working in fifth grade class and read to them, and they were like sponges. They just loved to have people read to them and challenge them a little bit, and then let them give back to you what you had just fed them and see if they were comprehending. And so the printed word: you can't do science. You can't do math. You can't do anything if you can't read.

Jones: Do you find that it's across the board economically?

Rivenbark: Yes, ma'am.

Jones: Because they're being babysat by electronic gear.

Rivenbark: Yeah, the basics, you'll never, I don't think we'll out-space our need for having the basic understanding of the printed word, because I mean, when you're using computers, you've got to be able to read what's on that screen. And I'm sure you're very adept at it, Carroll, but I came up without the computers. And the business I'm in now, I've had to-- I'm dangerous, now. I do enough to get by, but these young fellows that come to work in our office, they've grown up with it. They went through college with computers and they know how to type. I use the Columbus system. I discover in LAN. But it just amazes me, and they're so far ahead of me, I mean just light years ahead of me. They can get more done in one day that it'd take me a week to do. So it goes back to being able to read and comprehend.

Jones: Well, I still think that there's a certain sense of beauty in the spoken word and just expressively speaking. That's still communications.

Rivenbark: I love to talk with people that have a command of the vocabulary. It's wonderful to, I have a word finder on my desk that was given to me by a friend who's deceased, and you can just take a word that's an every day word, not a "if," "and," "the" and "but," but a word. And you can go to this book and it gives you antonyms and synonyms and words that have a little more oomph to it, and it just makes whatever you're writing just have a little bit more meaning to it if you can embellish a little bit or express yourself a little better.

Jones: Well you must be one of those people who, every once in awhile, run across someone else who says to you I can't understand what you're saying. [laughs]

Rivenbark: [laughs] I have a lawyer friend. I'm in the real estate business, and from time to time, we have to write something that's a little bit, we want it to sound real legalese. He said, "You people that aren't lawyers, you kill me." He said, "Why don't you just say what in the hell you want to say and quit trying to sound like Clarence Darrow?" you know.

Jones: Well I think legalese is not English.

Rivenbark: No, it's not. Its doublespeak.

Jones: Yeah, that's about it. When you got out of high school, tell us a little bit about your, what led you to being so active, and your political history and the restaurant? That's the first time I met you.

Rivenbark: Yes, ma'am.

Jones: I think Will and went over and had dinner there or something.

Rivenbark: Yes, ma'am.

Jones: You had pictures of New Hanover High School football teams and everything else all over the place.

Rivenbark: We collected a lot. Well, I won't get ahead.

Jones: What did you do with those pictures?

Rivenbark: I have them. They're scattered around at various places. I've got hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pictures. Once people see that, that's kind of, like, what you like--

Jones: They give them to you.

Rivenbark: They bring them to you. So I bet you do. I can just imagine what your and Wilbur's place is like.

Jones: Don't even speak about it. [laughs]

Rivenbark: Yeah. I would need a gallery to put them all up, so I've kind of tried to put them in--

Jones: He has been lusting after some of those for years. [laughs]

Rivenbark: Well, we can get together and do business, because I'm sure he's got some things I would like.

Jones: Oh, well. So go ahead.

Rivenbark: I grew up out here in Winter Park and went to Winter Park School. My mother's oldest sister, my Aunt Gigi, she just recently passed away at 96. She was in the first class at Winter Park School, when it was a two-room school, and so I had a lot of history at Winter Park School. The teachers there, we had four first grades, four second grades, right on through the four six grades. And we had the junior high concept in those days. And every teacher knew every kid's first name. They had either taught their children or taught their mother. And the principal was just like your dad. I went there. And then Rowland Wright School was brand new when I entered the seventh grade, so I was in the first three-year class to go through there, and then went to New Hanover High School. In those days, the city was segregated, and the only high schools we had were Williston, which was probably, at that time, considered the finest black high school in North Carolina, and of course, New Hanover. And New Hanover was quite large. My graduating class was over 1,000 people.

Jones: Really?

Rivenbark: Mm-hmm. And we only had three classes, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth.

Jones: When did you graduate?

Rivenbark: I graduated in '67, and that was the last year of just Hanover. The following fall, Hoggard opened. And the last couple years I was at Hanover, we had to kind of go in shifts. Some kids went at 7:30, 8:30, 9:30, got out at 2:30, 3:30, 4:30.

Jones: Amazing.

Rivenbark: And there were 4,000 kids at the school. I remember Wallis West, on the first day of my senior year; we were all crowded into Brogden Hall. And he was a fine man. I don't know if you ever knew Wallis West. He was the principal there, and a lifelong resident of Wilmington. He said, "Boys and girls, there are only-- " I think he said there are only two other institutions of learning in this state bigger than we are, and one was NC State and one was UNC Chapel Hill.

Jones: Oh, my gosh!

Rivenbark: We were bigger than Duke, Davidson. And of course, the university system wasn't like it is now. UNCW had just become--

Jones: Wilmington College.

Rivenbark: Well, it was still UNC, we were still part of the university system, but it had just changed. Yes, ma'am. So I got as good a education as I was willing to let them give me at New Hanover. I played a lot. I was not a, I always pulled through at the last minute, when I needed to. And when I graduated, I moved to Washington, D.C. I have family up there. My sister was up there and my brother-in-law, working for the government, and I had a couple of aunts. And I went to work in the U.S. Post Office. And then in 1968, I got drafted into the U.S. Army, and came home, spent about a week here, and then went off to the Army, and went to Vietnam, and then came back and was stationed at Fort Carson, Colorado. I was married and moved back to Wilmington, and started a small business with a childhood friend of mine, and then eventually, got into the real estate business. And in 1989, my best friend in the whole world, who hired me and owned the company, died very suddenly. And I just wanted to do something different, and so I got in the restaurant business.

Jones: And that was in what year?

Rivenbark: That was in 1990. And during that particular time, and we were fortunate. We started off with a good business. My brother and I, we were both born and raised six blocks from where we had the restaurant, so we had a kind of an unfair advantage, and we had good food.

Jones: Well, you had a popular place.

Rivenbark: We did. It kind of became a place where a lot of the little factions would come and meet. I remember one day I looked out, and I had the schoolboard over here, and I had the Democrats over here and the Republicans in the middle, and they were all having their little confabs, and it was fun.

Jones: I remember we first came back here, or Wilbur came back here and I came with him. Chris Fonvielle used to go out there for lunch.

Rivenbark: Yeah.

Jones: I think that Bill Castor and Bobby Greer were up there.

Rivenbark: All the time.

Jones: And they'd say, "Wilber, come along." So finally, he said to me, "We got to go see the..." He didn't say, "Let's go eat dinner." He says, "We've got to go see those pictures." [laughs] And I think Ronnie Phelps would show up there. He's one of the bad boys.

Rivenbark: Oh Ronnie, he's--

Jones: And George Rountree.

Rivenbark: Yeah.

Jones: He's one of the bad boys, too.

Rivenbark: Right.

Jones: They can't find a decent restaurant, so they hop around, you know. [laughs]

Rivenbark: You talk about somebody with a collection of pictures. Ron Phelps.

Jones: Fantastic!

Rivenbark: He's got a museum there at his office.

Jones: He never goes anywhere that he doesn't take his camera, and half the time, he puts them on the website. He says, "You know, if you're not nice to me, [laughs] I'm going to send this." But anyway.

Rivenbark: His wife is from out here in Winter Park. I've known Ron forever. But anyway, along about that time, there was a thing that occurred in the school system, and it kind of occurred one night late, at the end of a schoolboard meeting and it rankled a lot of people. And what they did, they moved principals around, and without any warning, anything. They just took all the principals. And one that really particularly rankled a lot of people, Bob Moore, at the time, had been principal at New Hanover High School for a long time. He was an old Wilmington boy and went to school at New Hanover. He was the principal, and he was much beloved. And they just arbitrarily picked him up and moved him, and that kind of got my blood flowing. So there was a few meetings that were going on around town and I attended them. And nothing ever happened. I mean the schoolboard decision stood. And as it turned out, they probably made the right decision. Then shortly after that, the City Council elections came along. And there was a group of men who ran on kind of a business platform, kind of put some business sense back into city government. And it was hand picks, like Youngblood and J.D. Causey. They got elected, and not long after, they got elected; one of the things that they wanted to do, was have a budget review committee. Each council member picked two people, and then they picked a chairman. And there was about 15 of us, and we just took a real hard, long look at the city structure and then made a report back to the city, and some of those recommendations were adopted; some weren't.

But at any rate, for about two or three months, I was kind of in and around city government, and I was running my restaurant, was raising two sons. And then I had some people-- they run every two years. And when the next election came up, some people came out and said, "We'd like for you to consider running for City Council." It just kind of-- I don't have much education, because after I got in from Vietnam, I came out here for about a year-and-a-half, and I was involved in a business, and then started another business. I was just a stupid youth. I thought, "Well, I don't need college. I've got this going." So I never got a college education. But I did. I ran and was successful and stayed down there for eight years. I think we got some things accomplished. If I ever went back down again, there's probably some things I'd do. I'd look at things maybe a little bit differently.

Jones: I was going to ask you, without naming names, how you feel about what's happened in the last few years. Do you feel-- Let me put it this way, make it easier on you. I bring these points out, not from my point of viewl from what I read in the paper, which sometimes you can't believe, but sometimes you can. Do you feel that there should be some limitations on how long someone can stay on a council, as an example?

Rivenbark: No, I've never been one that favored limitations, because the only thing worse than a politician is a bureaucrat. And if you have term limitations, then the bureaucrats, I mean they will be the ones that have the power, or the staying power or what have you. The power of the ballot is a very strong power. Where the problem is, we are our own worst enemy, because when you see a campaign or an election and you've got 15-18 percent voter turnout; that's pitiful.

Jones: It is.

Rivenbark: And I've never missed a vote, and I know lots of other people who have never missed a vote. I take it very serious, and I chastise people when they don't vote. I get involved with somebody or some calls or some whatever. The cities and counties in North Carolina have very distinct responsibilities. Cities on the one hand, and municipalities, are charged with fire, police, solid waste, water and sewer. Those are their five major functions. Counties, on the other hand, are responsible for your health, schools, the courts, the jails, and those are their main distinct responsibilities.

Jones: Would this not happen if there was consolidation?

Rivenbark: Well, there's very little that overlaps between a city and a county government. The areas that do overlap are law enforcement, planning and zoning, those types of things. And that's where I think there should be some consolidation. And we used to have a consolidated planning and zoning department back in the '50's, and one time, a city manager and a county manager despised each other and it fell apart, and it's never been put back together. I don't second guess those people down there. We read what's in the paper, what the paper wants us to see, and they're reading this way. It's like reading the Bible. You can read that Word, but unless you study it, you don't know what that verse meant. So I don't second guess them. They're smart people. I don't; I think they're doing a fine job. I think that the sewer thing is not something that snuck up. It's a very real problem. And when any state agency has designs on coming in and running your city, that's unacceptable.

Jones: Do you think the tremendous burst of growth in this area has had a lot to do with that?

Rivenbark: Of course. There's no question.

Jones: I mean that, but we had no control zoning and no control anything. It was like schmooze.

Rivenbark: Well, you've got to remember, up until 1955, there was no zoning ordinance whatsoever in any of New Hanover County. And all of a sudden, they said we're going to do a zoning ordinance. And so they took a map of the city and they say, "This is all going to be residential. We're going to make this little bit commercial. We're going to put heavy manufacturing and light manufacturing out here." And then, of course, the city urbanizes. I-40 brings in untold numbers of people. And a lot of people have settled here because of that, because you can go down the East Coast of the United States, and wherever you've got an interstate from 95 over to the coast, that's where your growth is.

Jones: We've heard that. We lived in the Washington, D.C. area for 28 years. Of course, Wilbur was born and raised here. But a number of our friends who were government people or other things, Washington area became a Mecca for a lot of the Fortune 500 companies that built their business parks down there for getting out of New York or Connecticut because of tax purposes. My point is they were looking for a place to retire without going home to Chicago, Illinois, or Boston or New York. I saw in Wilmington, for the first time, they would have real estate fairs up in some of the major hotels. And this is about the time that Landfall, they were selling lots. We were offered a lot up there from friends who were in the development business. And what happened, was when I-40 went in, everybody took a second look and came down here, I guess, to play, because of all things being equal. And we were wondering "What in the world?" because we'd come down in the summer. We'd go to Wrightsville Beach and then go home-- "What in the world?" So this was not a well-kept secret. I have literally heard newcomers way back, say they went from Long Island to Florida and back, stopped here, took home plans, and their whole neighborhood moved. [laughs]

Rivenbark: Well, in the real estate business, or when I was on Council, they were referred to as halfbacks. They went all the way to Florida and they missed some seasonal change in the weather. They missed their grandchildren, their own retirement income, so it didn't matter. I mean they didn't want to go somewhere where the cost of living would eat into their fixed retirement income-- and what better place? We have a wonderful teaching hospital, a regional medical clinic. We have this-- Dr. Harry Fields always told me that this was the gem, right here, where we are right now. We have a deep water port. We have a very diversified economy. We have manufacturing. We have tourists. We have retirement. We have education--

Jones: The arts, of all things.

Rivenbark: The arts. So, it's a good place to live. And folks, it's February 21st and it's 70 degrees outside. And I don't care how cold it ever gets: five, six, seven days, you'll have a 60 degree day. I've been here; other than the two or three years I was away, and my mother still lives here. She's 86 and she just says we've got it made here. And there's a lot of things about that growth that I'm not particularly crazy about.

Jones: I was going to ask you. This is part of what we're looking at with this project. People like you, who were born and raised here, you've had a business here; you've been a part of the politics here. The sudden growth, and it was such a sudden boom; it's still coming. I guess it slowed down a little bit in New Hanover, but across the river, Brunswick County is supposed to be the fastest growing county in the country. How do you feel about this, and where do you think it's going to go?

Rivenbark: Well, if I knew the answers to that, they'd have me in Washington, D.C. running the country. I don't know. All I know is that in my business, I live every day with a zoning ordinance.

Jones: Are you in commercial real estate?

Rivenbark: Yes, ma'am. That's what I do. And we just lost a senior planner by the name of Wayne Clark, who was with the city, who was probably-- I called him the Renaissance Man. He sees things differently than-- a lot of planners see things so black and white. There's an old saying: rigid rules are bad rules. There needs to be some flexibility. And Wayne had the ability to see how things can be better. They may not look that way at first blush, but they can be. I think a tough zoning ordinance, while sometimes we crow about it, is better than a weak zoning ordinance. And the city and county are always tightening it up, and it makes development more difficult and more expensive, but I think the end product will be better. There certainly is a need to marry the planning and zoning in the city and county, because you can leave the city limits and you can tell when you've left the city limits. Sidewalks aren't required. Street front landscaping is not required. And I think the city does a better job when it comes to keeping things aesthetically pleasing. And that's not to say the county's not doing a good job. They can do a better job. But sometimes, when I get to feeling a little down about it, I'll be taking my mother to the beauty shop on Saturday, and after or before, we'll ride down the old dry pond where she grew up. And she tells me what was here, what was there and everything-- and I think, "God, it just must be-- " you know, and for Wilbur, it just must be light years. And then I came along in 1948 and I started remembering things, four, five, six years later. I mean, this right here, you know we grew up over on Wooddale Drive on the other side of the campus. We moved out here there in 1953, and this was just broom straw. That road wasn't there. There was a couple of old huts out here where some black families lived. My dad thought this was the greatest thing that ever happened. And you know, so, I'm not--

Jones: Well these are the good things that have happened for the benefit of almost anybody. But do you feel that this is, perhaps, indiscriminate growth and kind of out of control? For example, you hear all kinds of things, but you can envision, if you live places where there has been a boom. I grew up in Los Angeles, California. That's not the same place. But I've heard, well, if they put up the flying bridge, another one, a toll bridge, that it's foreseeable within a ten-year period or less, that people can live in Jacksonville, work in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Well, okay, that happens. There's the corridor from Boston to New York, New York to Washington, etcetera. But with growth, is that not-- I think the things that people should be concerned about. You mentioned sewage, schools, hospital, fire department, police, and I hope they don't ruin that beautiful downtown riverfront. I think that PPD is a must, and it's going to provide a lot of tax money, and maybe bring downtown back. What do you think about that? And what are your thoughts about a convention center?

Rivenbark: Well, I think the convention center is something that is much needed and we deserve it.

Jones: Yeah, you can use all year round.

Rivenbark: I can't think of a better way to have an investment in our city of that size that's totally paid for by someone that doesn't even live here. I'm talking about room occupancy tax. In its original format, there was going to be prepared food tax, room occupancy tax, and the prepared food tax was taken out. There are not any convention centers in the United States of America that are privately funded. The only one I'm aware of is the Curry Center in Greensboro, and the Curry family operates that. All convention centers are funded by some sort of tax, not property tax, so I don't know why these people got it in their craw that this thing is going to be a burden on everybody's shoulders. It's not.

Jones: Can I tell you something? Everyone that I have asked that question of, on camera, who has been a native here, is for it, and I'm surprised. And the people I hear say we don't need it are from somewhere else. Does that surprise you?

Rivenbark: I think a lot of people from somewhere else have been taxed to death. Everybody has kind of a built-in distrust of politicians. I was on City Council when we drafted the first agreement with the group that was going to come in. And we were going to build a convention center. They were going to build a hotel, and they were going to build a parking deck and manage all of it. And in that agreement, if there were any budgets shortfalls, the management company was going to pick that up. And I just didn't understand how it could be any clearer than that. And of course, I was defeated in an election for mayor, and I think it had a great deal to do with annexation, and I knew that. But my successor, or when the new mayor came along, he was kind of against a lot of things. And in politics, there are two things you can do. You can do something, and you can do nothing. And nothing is a hell of a lot easier and it's less painful, and nobody can hold you, you know, pin you down on something if you didn't do anything.

Jones: What year was that?

Rivenbark: That was in 2001.

Jones: That's what I thought.

Rivenbark: So it lost its momentum. And here we are in 2007, and we're still doing the same thing. And in my business, or in any business, there's an old adage that time kills all deals. And you know I'm not saying to move forward and pell-mell down the road and do something wrong, but that's not rocket science. That's a no-brainer.

Jones: It has all the essence.

Rivenbark: Yes, ma'am, so that's going to help a lot. PPD originally wanted to be where the parking deck is. And I wasn't against that so much as I was some of the mechanics of the deal, and it got defeated. And so PPD went out on 17th Street, and a lot of people felt bitter about that. But this is better where they are, because the city, for a long time, looked for a way to develop the north end of the river, and you needed dollars and you needed private dollars. And while all of that's not private dollars; there was some marriage between some government and some private side with PPD. That's what it takes. Now you will see the rest of it, it'll be just like dominoes. It'll fall right into place. So that's beautiful for the north end. It stretches the city this way.

Jones: It does. It does.

Rivenbark: And it's a gorgeous building. And when the convention center is built next to the Chamber of Commerce, and another parking deck and the hotel that's going to accompany it, I mean it's going to be beautiful. And the people are here.

Jones: And very compact, too.

Rivenbark: Yes, ma'am. The downtown is the crown jewel in the southeastern North Carolina counties. It really is. It's the straw that stirs the milkshake, so if it crumbles-- And therein lies one of the great reasons for annexation. There's a lot of, Virginia and South Carolina, for example, don't have annexation laws. And Durham just went through where Durham just about crumbled from within, because everybody was fleeing to the county, outside the city limits, because crime went up. And Durham couldn't expand its borders, and it was dying from lack of funds. So then finally, a new council came on. They expanded, and it's vibrant again. But annexation is a wonderful tool that the state has given municipalities, and for about 15 years, nobody on council would even mention the word. And when I came along, the councils that we were on, we decided that it was the right and honorable thing to do, and then we annexed out toward Landfall. We annexed out toward Bradley Creek, and on the south toward Whiskey Creek, and up on 32 and 421. And those people, they live here because of the city, and they need to take part in the vibrancy and the economic life of that city. I had a lady one day call me and she gave me up and down the road, because she was going to be annexed. And of course, with annexation comes city taxes, and that's what everybody's against. And she said, "What benefit am I going to get?" Well, I named them off and I said, "You use our city streets." She said, "Well, you come out here and use our streets." And I said, "Yes, ma'am, and I pay county taxes." "No, you don't." And I said, "Yes, we do." A lot of people thought that if you lived inside the city limits, you just paid city taxes, and if you lived outside the city limits, you just paid county taxes. Well, that's not true. There's a lot about the city that I think is wonderful; Landfall and all the wonderful people that have moved here as a result of that. They've got a lot of things going on in this city right now that wouldn't be here if it weren't for that wonderful pool of people that have come here and brought their talents, their money, their love of the arts. And they were going to see to it that we had those things, and my hat is off to them.

Jones: We have found, just randomly looking and checking, that the people who are involved, for example, in historic preservation are not the old Wilmingtonians. They're people who've come here, retired young and up to do volunteer work. It's not really a second job. In some cases, it is. And they're the ones who are hands-on. It's not writing a check once a year. They're there.

Rivenbark: And committed.

Jones: And committed. And they get into it and find they really enjoy it. I have asked a number of old Wilmingtonians, "What do you think about this? What do you think about the questions I've asked you?" They're against it, against it, against it, against it. And what I'm finding, too, in talking around town, the daughters and sons of a lot of these old families are leaving. And one of my projects is going to be to talk to those who are running old family businesses, their daughters, a lot of daughters, so that it's very-- I'm glad to hear you. Of course, you've had a chance to see things from all angles and from sitting in the city there, to see you be so upbeat about these things. If it's going to happen, you might as well do it well.

Rivenbark: I remember there were certain places you didn't go when I was young. We'd go to the Bailey Theater or the Connolly or the Maneral on Saturday afternoon with our girlfriend, and then the guys would walk down on Water Street where it was a functioning, I mean it was a functioning wharf dock; warehouses, railroad tracks on Water Street. And there were some ne'er-do-wells down there, and you were warned about: "Don't go down there. You know, there's no telling what might happen to you." South Front Street was absolutely off limits. It was skid row. If there's a skid row that we had, that was it, the bars. The old houses were abandoned. And then people like Hannah Block came along. And I remember, one time Hannah Block was standing there in her front yard, squirting water on somebody that was just a bum and needed to move on. And people in Charleston were coming up here and buying everything they could buy off these houses; the gingerbread, the balustrades, you know, all that stuff and taking it back to Charleston. And finally, I don't know who it was. I was young and stupid. Somebody said, "Well, what are they doing? You know why don't we do that?" And I guess that's kind of where it got started, but there was days you could buy one of those old homes for $10,000, and you couldn't touch one now for a million. Sometimes, people-- We're too close to the issue. I think that these people that are coming in here that are doing the volunteering and everything, I think it's wonderful. And I saw a lot of them while I was on Council that would come before us and had these wonderful ideas, and had the sweat equity they wanted to put in these projects that they had. And I don't look at them as a damn Yankee. I don't look at them as somebody that has no business coming here and telling us how to do it. I don't see it that way.

There are some people that come here and very mistakenly, think that, you know, we marry our sisters and what have you, and that's wrong. But they're as bad in that direction as some of our people are in the other direction. But they chose to come here. I was born here. And I'm always proud of the fact that they wanted to come here. We have a wonderful quality of life here. I-40 was built prematurely. We weren't ready from an infrastructure standpoint. We weren't ready for it with our schools. We just weren't, and we're playing catch-up. But help is on the way. We've got roads being built, the fact that we're talking about another bridge, schools. We're growing, about a school a year. We've got help on the way, so it's not all gloom and doom. And there are a lot of cities out there across America that would love to trade places with Wilmington and our problems.

Jones: I would think so.

Rivenbark: Because they're dying, or they don't have anything to offer. It's always been my dream that when your children grow up and go off to college, they can come back home and work, instead of having to go to Atlanta, or Raleigh, or Charlotte, or Richmond or Washington. And that's something, you know, like people like PPD; they have a heck of a payroll. And I'd like to see more and more.

Jones: It sounds good to say their national headquarters is in Wilmington.

Rivenbark: That's right. We don't need smokestack industry. We've got a wonderful place here. Brunswick and Pender are not just going to be bedroom community counties. I mean, that's the future. Land is so precious in New Hanover County. It's wonderful we've got those two counties on either side of us.

Jones: Talk about the Azalea Festival. I've always heard that you had to start in by scrubbing floors before you got to the top. [laughs] That's just a euphemism.

Rivenbark: Well you know, every year--

Jones: And it gets bigger and bigger.

Rivenbark: For the last number of years-- I don't know where it got started; it seems that the President, somewhere along the line, it became where when the President became President, it was their festival. And while that's not true, and it's not a reflection on the past presidents, it's kind of been forced on it that way. But we started doing an official artwork some years back. And here, recently, they've come up with little slogans, like "Capture the Spirit," and I can't remember what all of them say. And I didn't really have a slogan, but just recently, I was somewhere and I was thinking, "This is 60 years. This is the 60th annual." And Dr. Houston Moore, this was his brainchild back in the '30s, and then it kind of withered on the vine. The war came and it just wasn't high priority. People were struggling to get through rationing and the war years.

Jones: My father-in-law took me on a drive when I first came down here, after Wilbur and I were married, round Greenfield Lake Park to see the golf courses. He said, "And we have an Azalea Festival here." I think the only time in my life I saw an azalea was when I lived in Annapolis for a short time. I was a very small child.

Rivenbark: Yeah.

Jones: In California, you've got cactus, but no trees. [laughs]

Rivenbark: That's a beautiful state, by the way.

Jones: But anyway, to see this grow to what it is and read the history of it has been marvelous. But I want to hear you top that.

Rivenbark: Well I was just thinking, you know, of course, in late '47, he revived it and got some people, you know, the civics clubs, the Kiwanis, the Civitans, the Rotaries and Jaycees and some other folks and had, like, an organizational meeting. And these were people that come from what Tom Brokaw so aptly described as the greatest generation. And they put this festival together. And Hugh Morton told me sometime back, he said, "Don't ever miss a meeting." He said, "That's what happened to me. I missed a meeting and they made me President," so he was the first president. So this year, after a little bit of thought, I put the 60th Annual Azalea Festival, "Born of the Greatest Generation," and we've just fostered it along. As the President, you always worry that yours is going to be the last, but I think we're going to have a good festival this year. My brother got me involved in the festival. He had been working on the parade committee. In the early '80s, he said, "Man, you ought to get involved," so I did. And that was my committee for years and years.

Jones: The parade committee was your committee?

Rivenbark: Mm-hmm. And we used to get down there at five o'clock on Saturday morning. And I have frozen to death. I have gotten sunburned. I've gotten--

Jones: We have the little old ladies in the DAR. Gladys McIver is one of them.

Rivenbark: Oh, one of my dear friends.

Jones: She'd be down there at six in the morning, and she said, "You know, Carroll, there's just one problem." She said, "I can take the cold, but I cannot take not having Don's John closer."

Rivenbark: [laughs] Well, here again, early on, you just didn't have them. And in about-- I guess it's been about maybe eight or ten years, we've got those portalettes or port-a-johns, three every block, because that is a real problem. But we'd have mothers down there with little ballerinas in tutus.

Jones: Princesses.

Rivenbark: Oh yeah, at 6:00 in the morning. And of course, the parade didn't even start till 9:30. But I did that. And one day, I was coming back from Raleigh in, I guess, it was just after I'd gotten off of City Council, and I got a call from Bill Rudisill and brother Cobb: "Would you be interested in putting your name in as an officer?" And I thought, "Wow, I can't believe they're asking me," and so I said, "Yeah," and I got on it. And it's a six-year ladder. You start off as secretary and then you move up, and this is my year.

Jones: You've earned it, then.

Rivenbark: It's overwhelming. That's all I can say.

Jones: Are you having fun with it?

Rivenbark: Yes, ma'am. I'm finding out that I can manage my time a little better than I thought I could.

Jones: Because that must be a trick. I mean I've heard it's all time-consuming.

Rivenbark: It's all year long. And we've got a wonderful board. We've got over 1,100 volunteers. We own our own office out on Oleander Drive. And we have a young lady named Alison Barringer, who graduated from here, is our-- "Office manager" doesn't come close to describing what she is. I don't even want to think what I'd have to do without her. She is like an executive director, and she's wonderful, and she covers, makes us all look good. Anyway, that's coming up April 11th through the 15th.

Jones: How much revenue does that involve?

Rivenbark: Our budget is a little over a million dollars. That's what it takes to run it.

Jones: What are you taking in, do you suppose?

Rivenbark: Oh we don't make anything. It takes--

Jones: Does the city?

Rivenbark: Well, the city doesn't have anything to do with it.

Jones: Well, people come here.

Rivenbark: Well, according to Doctor Woody Hall, and-- What's the other economist out here? Anyway, the two that always do the economic forecast.

Jones: Oh okay, all right. Now I know what you mean. Go ahead.

Rivenbark: They estimate that it's somewhere between five and seven million dollars. That was about four or five years ago, so I suspect it probably pumps somewhere around seven and eight million dollars into the economy during those four days.

Jones: How do you choose the entertainment? Who does it? How is it done?

Rivenbark: Well, that's interesting. That's an interesting question, because we get people come up to us all during the year and they give us their druthers, who they'd love to see. And we have our entertainment over at Trask Coliseum. And when you put the stage up and you have to take into consideration, you've got your major sponsors and your patrons who they get tickets in their package, so it only leaves about 4,000 tickets to actually sell. And at $40 or $45 a ticket; you can do the math. That's about $160,000. And you have to pay all the expenses out of that and your production, and it doesn't leave much leftover for an entertainer. And one year, we had Carrie Underwood. Well, we couldn't get her this year. I mean, if we wanted to get her this year, we couldn't, because her price has gone up exponentially with her awards that she's won and what have you. It's kind of a, it's really a game. You have to find out who's available, first of all, and then: Are they within your budget? So it's not like we put out a list of all our favorites and then we go out and get one. You have to--

Jones: Take a look at who's available for what price from the pick.

Rivenbark: Exactly, Exactly.

Jones: How do you pick? Does a group of you do it?

Rivenbark: Well yes, ma'am, the board, and we start off with this long list. And this year, we've done something a little different. We've got a gentleman working for us by the name of Russell Johnson. He has a production company. He's doing it for-- he's not an agent; he's a middleman. He's compensated by us, but he's working for us, so we were able to do a little better on our bang. He's also helping us with our celebrities and our queen. And I wish I could tell you what they are. We haven't made that announcement. We try to keep a little bit of suspense in the air and make it nice. We've got a lady coming in here this year, I can tell you. Her name is Margaret Carey, and she was the original model for Tinker Bell. She was one of the two remaining people that were in the original Walt Disney inner circle. And she loves children and has a program for children, and she's going to be here. She's in Europe right now. They've got this new Peter Pan movie coming out and she's plugging that for Disney. And our parade marshal this year, is the Commanding Officer of the new USS North Carolina submarine that's being built.

Jones: I know about this.

Rivenbark: Commander Mark Davis. And we're excited about him being here. And also, this year, we're going to try and do something that's children-oriented.

Jones: That's interesting.

Rivenbark: Yes, ma'am.

Jones: Who's doing your art poster?

Rivenbark: This year, our official artist was a young lady named Cathy Poulos. I've known Cathy for a number of years. Her husband is a native of Wilmington and they have three children. One's at NC State, one's at Carolina, and one's at-- Her daughter was the teenage princess last year, and she's over at Chapel Hill, and then they have a son here in high school. It's kind of a--

Jones: They have a house divided. [laughs]

Rivenbark: Yeah. They sure do. Her artwork this year was kind of a whimsical look at the parade, and the reviewing stand, and bands, clowns, senior citizens, spectators.

Jones: Oh, I'm dying to see it.

Rivenbark: It was well-received, and it's very, very colorful.

Jones: I have to tell you that Deborah Cavanaugh told me that when she was chosen to do the poster, that it really put her on the map. She was helped amazingly well in her career, as a single mother with two kids, who learned how to paint from a paint box that her kids gave her on Mother's Day.

Rivenbark: Yeah. We've had some beautiful artwork. In fact, Sherman Hayes, I guess he's the librarian--

Jones: He is our university librarian.

Rivenbark: Yeah; he is in the process of trying to do a little history on the artwork, and we're working with him. I've gotten Susan Taylor Block involved with him, so we hope that that'll be.

Jones: On the history of the art for the Azalea Festival?

Rivenbark: For the Azalea Festival, yes, ma'am. He's working on that. And I think it's important that we do keep as accurate a history of the festival. We've got lots of newspapers. Susan Block called me just the other night to tell me that she is getting ready to receive a home video from the '50s that's in very good condition and good shape-- of one of the festivals during the '50's. So I don't want all this stuff to be left up in peoples' attics. I want everybody to get together so we can have a history of the festival, because, I mean: 60 years. It's a long time.

Jones: That's marvelous. That's marvelous, yeah. I wasn't aware of all that. I knew some of this was going on. Sherman is quite interested in art, and I usually take him with me when I go visit some artist in the studios, and so he's really into that kind of thing.

Rivenbark: Great. I look forward to meeting him.

Jones: You've not met him?

Rivenbark: No, ma'am.

Jones: Well, when you leave, we'll go downstairs and say hello.

Rivenbark: Okay, all right.

Jones: Sherman is a very interesting man who's got many, many interests. But at any rate-- Well, this is marvelous. That Azalea Festival, I guess, has become almost nationally known now.

Rivenbark: We received a plaque here, recently. We're one of the top 20 festivals in the country, and one of the top five in the Southeast. And of course, we just roll along fat, dumb and happy, putting on the festival. And I guess that just in spite of ourselves, it's been a success.

Jones: Well, you've got, what, a couple of days where people can come and do all kinds of things if they wish. And I have seen whole families coming from the country, and bringing their picnics and their little kids, and just sort of camping out. For them, it can be expensive, or it can free, you know, almost free.

Rivenbark: The street fair is free. We have all kinds of wonderful entertainment down there. We've got about 13 bands that are going to be performing throughout the street fair. Miss Carey, the Tinker Bell lady, she's going to be down by the Cotton Exchange. We have a children's place. We have Airlie Gardens, is open; that's gorgeous. Of course, all my flowers bloomed back in January. [laughs] I hope we'll have some blooming in April. And of course, just, you know the area, and the concerts on Wednesday and Friday night.

Jones: You can't get any better than that.

Rivenbark: Well, we hope so. I mean, we always try to.

Jones: Well, have you got any words of wisdom, before we close, about what you would like to see happen here in the immediate future to continue with the quality of life here?

Rivenbark: Well, you know, it's like driving a big bus, and you've got all these people on it, and you've got all these diverse opinions, and that's healthy. I guess I'm stumbling here a little bit. I'm the big picture guy. There are people around me that are detail-oriented, and that's wonderful, and you can't do without them.

Jones: I can understand people like you. I live with one. [laughs]

Rivenbark: Yeah. I see the way things should be and can be. And you know, perhaps there is some overdevelopment, but I think that the city and the county certainly have the right idea with making things, not tough, but making them good, so that when things are developed, they will look good and they'll be pretty, and something we can all be proud of. We all go to other cities and go, "Why can't we do that in Wilmington?" I'm guilty of that. And we can. The business I'm in, I see movers and shakers all the time that are coming in here, and they want a piece of the rock. And they want to do it good. They want to do it right. They don't mind spending the money.

Jones: Who are you with?

Rivenbark: I work with a company called Moss, Warrick and Matthews.

Jones: Yeah, well I know some of those people.

Rivenbark: Yeah, I've grown up-- I've know them for a long, long time, and there are 13 of us. And there's so many wonderful people in the business that I'm in. I don't know quite how to answer your question, Carroll, except I just think that we're lucky to be here.

Jones: But you're a happy man. You're doing what you like to do.

Rivenbark: You probably won't meet anybody, today, any happier.

Jones: Quickly, where are your sons?

Rivenbark: I have a son in Colonial Heights, Virginia. He's married. And I have a son that lives here over on Pine Street and he has three little boys. And they're just happy, and I wish they were all here.

Jones: You're a devoted granddaddy?

Rivenbark: I'm a granddad.

Jones: Oh great. Thank you so much for visiting with us, and I'd like to have you come back in maybe a year to see what's happening.

Rivenbark: Okay.

Jones: And also, to retrospect, and see where we're going then. And you'll be more involved with the real estate business. And probably, this is behind you, the Azalea Festival, but you'll probably be involved in a few other things, too.

Rivenbark: Well, I've already got my eye on some things.

Jones: Oh; well, uh-oh.

Rivenbark: Can't let the grass grow.

Jones: Thank you very much.

Rivenbark: Thank you, Carroll. It's very nice. Jennifer, thank you.

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