Filling a void

By on August 17, 2010

The Outer Banks is not a primary convention destination “and never will be.”

These were the words of Sterling Webster, a successful hotel operator, local resident and member of the Dare County Tourism Board’s Windmill Point Committee.

If a businessperson from a sector standing to benefit from something like a convention center thinks it a bad idea, it’s a safe bet the advice is sound.

As a Nags Head resident I have a particular interest in this property. Another safe bet is that at the time the town and the Tourism Board purchased the tract they overpaid for it, as the deal was consummated during the real estate boom.

So what to do with the property if not a convention center? The town and the tourism board have about 17 acres of soundfront property to work with.

Webster hit on one idea when he observed the Outer Banks lacks a place to seat groups of 1,000 people. Many locals are well aware of the problem. The Nags Head Surf Fishing Club has run a large tournament on the northern beaches for 60 years. Eighty teams of six anglers compete for two days, requiring space to accommodate the 480 anglers, their family members and friends.

The tournament typically features a dinner each night of competition, an awards ceremony and hospitality functions. In the 90’s, George’s Junction restaurant was able to handle the entire event, including space for a band and some dancing. When it was torn down, the event was forced to move to the Ramada, where space is extremely tight. Not everyone can sit for dinner, and there is no room at the inn for a band or entertainment.

A few years ago, the regional Shrine temple held its Spring ceremonial in Dare County. Once again, the Ramada was the largest space available, and the night of the formal dance, bodies were pressed together and tables scarce.

Other annual events have become not-so-annual due to a lack of space. The Homebuilder’s Expo, where builders and related businesses show off their products for homeowners is forced each year to locate in a different vacant “big box” space. Some years, when space was not available, the event was not held.

The Outer Banks Marathon might also benefit from a larger venue, as would events such as Wings Over Water. Typically, these functions attract a number of vendors selling related products — running shoes, bird watching scopes, fishing equipment. Vendors have been scarce at such events due to space limitations and the restricted number of potential buyers able to peruse their wares in tight spots.

Boat shows, art displays, wedding planning events and other functions would be well served by a 30,000- to 35,000-square-foot building. But should such a building be put up on the 17 acres available? I am not so sure.

Many of us hoped one of the empty “big box” stores would have been snapped up for such use — the old Food Lion in Nags Head or the still-vacant Seamark unit at the Outer Banks Mall. Nags Head officials have said they contacted the management companies involved and thus far, they are more interested in finding retail tenants for their spaces. Obviously they were right about the former Food Lion, which now houses a TJ Maxx.

My vision would follow some of suggestions readers have posted on our Facebook and Outer Banks Voice pages. I prefer an outdoor use of the area. The former amusement park at Dowdy’s sat on about 5 acres of land. Locals and visitors loved it. Why not re-create a midway atmosphere on some of the land, at least in the summer months?

The “Taste of the Beach” has been well-attended, but I suspect it would become an even bigger event if held out-of-doors, perhaps taking on such a persona that out-of-town visitors would make the trek for a long weekend to sample the offerings of local chefs, including, one would hope, some focus on local seafood and vegetables that could become part of the “Taste.”

A small amphitheater is also an excellent idea. The venue at Roanoke Island is nice, but it tends toward more highbrow acts. I suspect there is plenty of local talent that could pack a small amphitheater. Equally available might be the legions of aging well-known rockers and country singers — money now gone and kids to put through college — now playing reunion tours at small clubs, state fairs and similar small-crowd locations.

A once-a-week farmers market, perhaps selling local fish if the Dare County Health Board ever relents, is another great idea.

And then there is my favorite subject — fireworks. If it can’t be done on the oceanfront, perhaps we can figure out a way to do it from the sound on a platform, maybe even coordinated with Manteo’s show. From Jockey’s Ridge and the Windmill Point location, there appears to be plenty of space for crowds to gather.

The northern beaches definitely need an indoor location that can handle crowds of one thousand. My hope is that they find another building, somewhere, to accommodate that need.

But another thing sorely missing for locals and visitors is a spot where outdoor events can be held — music, dancing, food gathering, fireworks and even a Ferris wheel.

It’s time to kill the “no fun zone” image of the northern beaches. We need to take a cue from Manteo and Duck and offer our visitors something more. Windmill Point could fill that void.

Related story: Panel focuses on what to do with Windmill Point

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