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River Bluff – A Bold Idea Becomes Reality

Call it a river renaissance.

It has been a part of Fayetteville since before the city even had the name, the lifeblood that brought Scots to Campbellton and Cross Creek. But these days, people rarely catch a glimpse of the river that runs right through their city, much less live on it.

That’s about to change.

River Bluff is readying itself for neighbors. By the time the project

is complete, dozens of families are expected to fill the condominiums and houses lining the banks of the Cape Fear. The neighborhood will have a waterfall at its entrance, a 3,000-square-foot clubhouse, a pool and tennis courts.

They said it couldn’t be done. But then, they also said no one could turn the 300 block of Hay Street into something useful again.

Those words are music to the man responsible for constructing both projects, River Bluff and 300 Hay. His projects are high profile, but he isn’t. It’s likely that more people know his business partner and long-time advocate for downtown Fayetteville, Dr. Menno Pennink. What they don’t know is that a 42-year-old newcomer from Pennsylvania caught the vision, too.

Mark Stout is president of Atlas Resource Management. He wound up in Fayetteville by happenstance. He met Pennink by chance. And he stumbled across a handwritten for-sale sign on the river. But then, Stout will tell you there’s no such thing as accidents.

“I’m a strong man of faith,” he said. “I don’t think any of it is an accident.”

He began his career in environmental cleanup, a far cry from river-front condominiums and houses. Stout founded Atlas Resource Management in 1989. The name is a combination of his family’s successful construction business, Atlas Railroad Construction, and a successful environmental cleanup company, Environmental Resources Management. It has come to suit the business perfectly.

At first, Stout traveled the country cleaning up hazardous sites. He gradually realized that he could tap into the next part of the job – building something new on revitalized pieces of land. But he had never built something from the ground up until a contract landed him at Fort Bragg. The project was so successful that it led to other jobs. Before long, Stout was doing everything: developing, building and marketing. Rivals jokingly called him the “guerilla contractor.”

And then he met a retired neurosurgeon named Menno Pennink. A friend bought Pennink’s house and one afternoon while Stout was visiting, Pennink stopped by to pick up some of his belongings. They talked for hours. Pennink is one of the investors for 300 Hay, a project that combines Stout’s background in environmental cleanup and his building experience. They would join together for other projects, including one in Southern Pines.

But it was Stout who spotted the river.

It all began 10 years ago as Stout was driving out of town one afternoon. He caught a glimpse of a sign that advertised property for sale by owner. On a whim, he stopped. The owners were an elderly couple with an incredible view. Stout left that day, but the idea of the river nagged at him for the next year. When he drove up again, Fred and Frances Taglialatella greeted him as if he had never left a year earlier. Fred shook his hand and said, “We’ve been waiting for you.”

Stout bought the property, making payments directly to the Taglialatellas. But he had no idea what he would do next. He made presentations to the city and county in vain. And then, Pennink came in again. Pennink knew the owners of the property next door. There were plans to expand the nearby M.J. Soffee plant, but when manufacturing jobs began to move overseas and to Mexico, those plans were put on hold. The owners sold the property, and River Bluff was born.

But still, naysayers said people wouldn’t be interested in homes off Eastern Boulevard.

“We love for you to tell us it can’t work,” Stout said recently, and Pennink completed the sentence: “And then we find a solution.”

Stout says he’s not sure why people have not tapped into the river before. “Sometimes when you’re so close to something you don’t appreciate what you have,” he said.

And sometimes it takes a newcomer to see the possibilities. Stout says residents of River Bluff will eventually be able to walk to shops and restaurants downtown and connect to the Cape Fear River Trail that will take bikers and joggers all the way to Methodist University.

Stout says he doesn’t expect everyone to live on the river, but he says people should demand bold ideas from their city. “If they do this,” he wants them to say, “I can’t imagine what they’ll do next.”