Tourism Board looking for community involvement

Published 4:44 pm Friday, February 28, 2020

In unrelated Thursday votes, Dare County Tourism Board members approved a tourism research project and then authorized the demolition of a vacant building in Nags Head.

During a regular session meeting on February 20, the board’s executive director Lee Nettles pointed out that while tourism has been a consistent and reliable way of life here for generations of Dare County families, in order for it to grow responsibly it will require more than the cooperation of the Tourism Board, governmental entities and industry partners.

“We also need our local residents on board,” said Nettles. “We all have to be kind of paddling in the same direction.”

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Citing statistics that show consistent occupancy and meal tax receipt growth in spite of sluggish economies, hurricanes and other events, Nettles said the board is in a unique position to lead the industry.

“Not just to make sure tourism prospers right now,” he continued, “but we should also be equipped to ensure that we are able to continue to responsibly grow tourism in the future as well.”

Nettles went on to say that while he felt the community has done an excellent job of managing tourism so far, he was confident a research study aimed at locals and key stakeholder groups would be a valuable tool for directing future decisions to increase the benefits of tourism for the region while decreasing any potentially negative impacts.

Using a company the board has worked with previously, Destination Analysts, the plan is to have a study completed in time for a summary presentation at an Outer Banks tourism summit in May.

According to Nettles, Destination Analysts will, among other things, assess current sentiments towards tourism, identify any strengths or weaknesses to the Outer Banks region, examine attributes that make the Outer Banks a unique tourism destination and provide recommendations for future tourism marketing, destination development and community involvement.

He went on to say that there are several issues interconnected with tourism, such as the availability of affordable housing, a 15 percent reduction in hotel inventory over the past 20 years, a rise in vacation rental homes and increased size of those homes, a limited workforce and attempts to preserve quiet residential neighborhoods.

“Money, wages, housing, all this stuff is interconnected,” Nettles continued. “The key is to recognize all those dynamics. Because if you think about it, tourism creates seasonal jobs, which creates demands for housing, which drives up the prices of housing, which puts the locals in a position where they need additional income, which leads locals to rent out rooms or homes, which brings visitors into traditional residential neighborhoods, which can be a bad experience for locals who have been here, which upsets locals so they give visitors a bad experience and then the visitor does not come back. That’s one example of how this is all connected.”

As the discussion that followed touched on what Tim Cafferty termed as a “pervasive attitude” among some locals that visitors are not welcome here, others chimed in with similar concerns of negative local opinions toward tourists until one board member pointed out that having experienced similar opinions in several other vacation areas, it is not something limited to Dare County.

“It is hard to not notice the impact of tourism here,” Cafferty added. “Like the walkways in Nags Head, tourism drives so much of our quality of life.”

Nettles pointed out that he saw the $45,000 survey, already included in the approved budget, as an opportunity to begin a community conversation.

“It will,” he explained, “give people a chance to be heard with their thoughts on the future of Outer Banks tourism. But will also give us a chance to inform the public about the value and importance of tourism and clear up misconceptions along the way. That’s been a long-standing strategic goal of the Tourism Board, to have that communication and understanding. We need to work together and hopefully this study will begin that conversation between the board and the community.”

After talking about clearing up misconceptions, the board discussed clearing the site of the South Beach Grille Restaurant at 6806 South Virginia Dare Trail in Nags Head.

Purchased with an eye toward expanding the nearby Event Site, removing the building almost doubles the space available for parking.

Nettles explained after the meeting that the building was of little use and there are no immediate or specific plans for the property other than for Event Site overflow parking.

“We didn’t know if we needed the property for event site development or not,” Nettles explained. “What we did realize is that while we still don’t have a specific use we would hate to get rid of it and then find out it was needed.”

The board approved up to $60,000 for demolition by East Coast Abatement and Demolition, who will secure any necessary permit and disconnects, remove and dispose of the structure along with any debris or bushes immediately around the structure and provide rough grading of the disturbed areas.

Money will come from the Restricted Fund, which requires Dare County commissioners’ approval. Pending commissioners’ approval, the work could be completed as early as the first of April.

Other business for the day included an invitation from Dare County Arts Council executive director Chris Sawin to a 10 a.m. March 3 groundbreaking ceremony. Sawin said thanks to Tourism Board support, a courtyard renovation project would take place at the Historic Dare County Courthouse in downtown Manteo.

Once completed, the expansion will enable the Dare County Arts Council program to showcase a broader range of activities, such as outdoor art and demonstrations.

Following the groundbreaking will be a free reception open to the public. A grand opening will be scheduled for later, sometime in the fall of 2020.

Sawin added that the Visitors Bureau was also a major player in the restoration of the interior of the courthouse.

Also providing public comments was Beach Food Pantry executive director Elisabeth Silverthorne, who gave a brief overview of services the non-profit at 4007 North Croatan Highway in Kitty Hawk provides to Dare County residents.

Founded in 1989, Silverthorne explained that the Food Pantry assists Dare County residents by providing two weeks of groceries to families and individuals experiencing emergency or crisis situations.

“We serve 10 to 11.5 percent of the county population in any given year,” said Silverthorne. “Many work in tourism and hospitality related positions susceptible to seasonal variations in demand. We also help fill the gap for school age children during the summer when they might otherwise go hungry and offer holiday meal bags for families unable to afford putting a Thanksgiving or Christmas meal on their table.”

According to Silverthorne, donations helped make it possible to give out more than 185,000 meals last year. She then added that a steady increase in need has led the non-profit to look for creative ways to generate additional donations and volunteer support.

One idea on the horizon, as explained by Beach Food Pantry event planner Martha Wickre, is an Annual Outer Banks Rum Festival.

Scheduled for 4-9 p.m. at The Pavilion at Pirate’s Cove Marina in Manteo on Saturday, June 13, Wickre said there will be samples of rum and chefs will be pairing dishes with spirits. Also on tap will be live music, outdoor games, vendors and speaker sessions.

“This has the potential to grow by leaps and bounds in a relatively short time,” added Wickre. “And of course we will have pirates with sword fighting, singing and various different demonstrations. You can’t have rum without pirates.”

An official after-party will also be held at the Outer Banks Brewing Station with more details to be released at a later date.

During committee reports, treasurer Pat Weston advised that actual receipts for the previous month have occupancy up 37.4 percent and meals up 13.7 percent over 2019 figures. So far, a little over 90 percent of the projected income has been received with 46.1 percent of the budget spent, leaving an account balance of $3,067,202 in restricted funds and $9,044,027 in unrestricted funds.

The next Dare County Tourism Board meeting is set for 9 a.m. on Thursday, March 19, at the Sarah Owens Welcome Center on Roanoke Island.

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