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Proposed Ecology Center Makes Strides

Reprinted from The Island Free Press

HATTERAS — While another busy tourist season has been underway on Hatteras Island, a project that has the potential to be one of the largest visitor attractions on the island has been moving forward.

The project is the Hatteras Island Ocean Center, which would be in Hatteras village and would include two components.

The site for first phase of the center is 1.5 acres of oceanfront property in Hatteras village where the Gen. Mitchell Motel was before it was destroyed by Hurricane Isabel in 2003. The center would include a pier house with shops, a restaurant, facilities for events, outside decks, a fishing pier and public beach access and a bathhouse. Parking would be on the west side of N.C. 12.

The second phase of the center will be the Coastal Ecology Education Center, also on the soundside of the highway, on property that includes many acres of wetlands, including creeks and marshes. Located here will be trails walking, facilities for launching kayaks and canoes and the educational component of the center, including a nature education and research center, classrooms and environmental education exhibits.

These are the creeks and marshes on the soundside of Hatteras. The circle marks the property where the ecology center could be built. Photo: Larry McCarter, the Island Free Press.

The idea was conceived a year ago by Eric Kaplan, who lives in Charlottesville, Va., and owns a home in Frisco. It is not a moneymaking venture for Kaplan, who says his work to make the center a reality is grounded in his belief in giving back to the community. The ocean center has been incorporated as a non-profit and is run by a board of directors.

Kaplan’s vision is that the shops and restaurants will be opened by local business people, perhaps as a second location. It would, he thinks, not compete with existing local businesses, but would complement and enhance the village’s economic activity, which has been lackluster since Hurricane Isabel. It would draw more people who are staying on the northern beaches or other Hatteras Island locations to the village and be a destination for day-trippers and a reason for travelers passing through the area to stay for a while.

Kaplan knows there is a long road ahead to make the project a reality, but he recently said that he is really encouraged by what has been accomplished during the spring and summer months.

“We haven’t run into any obstacles so far,” Kaplan said, adding that, “It’s all about momentum.”

In the past six months, the ocean center has:

  • Closed on the oceanfront property.
  • Received a $200,000 grant over five years from the Nora Roberts Foundation.  The popular novelist owns three houses in Frisco. The grant is for economic growth and development.
  • Hired Liz Browning Fox of Buxton as a part-time development director – with funds from the foundation grant.
  • Secured a change to the Dare County Zoning Ordinance that would allow piers as a conditional use in areas zoned C-2 H. The ocean center will be required to submit a site plan for the project before it is approved by the county.
  • Received a donation of property for the Coast Ecology Education Center from Lou and Linda Browning of Frisco that includes 4.6 acres of wetlands.
  • Started a competition to design a new logo for the project.
  • Continued working with the National Park Service on commitments that would be needed to locate part of the pier on seashore property. The Park Service has said that it is committed to the project and is working its way through the bureaucratic hoops necessary.

These wetlands along the west side of N.C. 12 in Hatteras could serve as a classroom for the proposed Hatteras Island Ocean Center’s Coastal Ecology Education Center. Photo: Liz Browning Fox, the Island Free Press. 

Meanwhile, Kaplan and Fox are working on identifying and applying for other grants to finance the project. Several have been submitted already.

And they are continuing to work with the community on enlisting support for the center. Kaplan said they are getting good reaction to an outreach program to get the support of local businesses.

There have been some individual and business donations, and locals and visitors can find out about supporting the center financially through such things as buying a lifetime pass to fish on the pier and volunteer opportunities. Volunteers are needed and welcomed.

Earlier this year, Kaplan said that the project would be built in phases.  At that time, he envisioned that the pier house might be built first to ensure a steady stream of income to finance the pier.

Now, he thinks the parking area and bathhouse could come first.

It will depend, he said, on financing and the type of grants the center can obtain.

In some ways, he says, the second phase is moving faster than first.  “There is a lot of interest in the educational component,” he says.

Phase 2 leaped ahead with the Brownings’ property donation, and Kaplan said the center is looking at buying other properties and buildings on the soundside.

Although if you drive into Hatteras village on N.C. 12, about all you can see are shops and homes on the west side. Behind those shops and homes are a rich network of interconnecting creeks and spectacular marshes, perfect for exploring and teaching about coastal ecology.

Kaplan still seems confident.

“This is a big project,” he says. “You can’t just go out on Day 1 and expect money.”

The good news, he says, is the ocean center is “way ahead” of where he thought it would be a year ago.

About the Author

Irene Nolan

Irene Nolan is the co-owner and editor of "The Island Free Press," an online newspaper serving Hatteras and Ocracoke islands. She is a veteran journalist who edited "The Island Breeze" on Hatteras for 16 years after 22 years as a reporter and editor at "The Courier-Journal," a statewide newspaper based in Louisville, Ky. Irene was managing editor of the newspaper for the last five years of her tenure there, and during that time the newspaper staff won a Pulitzer Prize for general news reporting on a church bus crash, caused by a drunk driver, that killed 27 people, most of them children.