Cape Lookout’s Beaufort Visitor Center to close

By on September 10, 2023

Suspension of ferry service likely amid impasse between town and NPS

Beaufort Visitor Information Center on Front Street. (NPS photo/Nate Toering)

In December 2023, the National Park Service “Beaufort Visitor Information Center” located at 701 Front Street in Beaufort, NC will permanently close its doors to the public. Suspension of ferry transportation from Beaufort to Cape Lookout National Seashore will likely follow sometime thereafter.

In 2013, the National Park Service and the Town of Beaufort entered into a ten-year agreement which will expire on January 1, 2024. That agreement allowed for use of a portion of space in the historic Beaufort Post Office Building on Front Street as a National Park visitor center, as well as the use of a dock area on Front Street to provide ferry transportation, and a portion of Grayden Paul Park to provide orientation signage for visitors headed to Cape Lookout National Seashore. This combination of a visitor center and transportation hub effectively turned the Town of Beaufort into what the National Park Service refers to as a “Gateway Community.”

In the initial agreement between Beaufort and the National Park Service, space for the visitor center and the ferry service was provided by the Town of Beaufort to the National Park Service without any compensation for the town. At the time of that initial agreement, town leaders’ expectations were that if Beaufort was a National Park Gateway Community, it would create a direct and substantial economic benefit to businesses in town. This would have a secondary effect of bringing money back to the town by increasing the town’s tax revenue base and improving employment opportunities. Beaufort has long embraced tourism as their primary economic driver and have worked to increase visitation by promoting the town as a destination location with a great visitor experience.

A peer-reviewed visitor spending analysis conducted by economists in 2023 estimated that the 542,000 visitors to Cape Lookout in 2022 spent about $26,800,000 in surrounding communities. Cape Lookout National Seashore ferry utilization from Beaufort has steadily increased from an initial count of about 12,000 riders a year up to 52,000 riders in 2022. Island Express Ferry Service, the current holder of the NPS ferry contract, employs 14 people in Beaufort (48 total in Carteret County) and leases a store and office space on Front Street in Beaufort.

Cape Lookout National Seashore made an initial investment in Beaufort of $340,000.00 for signs, visitor orientation waysides, and visitor center exhibits. The visitor center is staffed by a Park Ranger five days a week during the peak visitation season. In 2022, the visitor center received over 11,000 visitors, and Park Rangers and volunteers working in Beaufort made over 10,000 additional contacts during outreach and educational events in town.

In early negotiations over renewing the agreement, the Town of Beaufort expressed a desperate need for space to expand services for town residents. They proposed utilizing the area currently occupied by the NPS Beaufort Visitor Information Center for new offices for town employees. Complaints about a lack of parking in Beaufort were also voiced.  The town suggested the NPS pay “fair market value” to continue use of the portion of the building currently housing the visitor center. Unfortunately, there are no federally allocated funds to pay for this change.

Contract requirements with the ferry service mandated an agreement be concluded prior to issuance of a prospectus for ferry service before the end of the existing contract on December 31, 2023. With no agreement in place between the town and the National Park Service, there is no way the NPS can require a ferry service to operate out of Beaufort.

The current agreement would allow for the National Park Service to execute an optional three-year extension and retain the visitor center through the end of 2026. However, there is no viable reason to execute this extension for the visitor center beyond the end of the current ferry service contract. Cape Lookout National Seashore intends to close the visitor center at the end of the season in 2023 to provide the town with the office space they have requested.

Without the agreement in place, providing ferry service out of Beaufort can no longer be a “mandatory” component of the new contract and must be an “optional” component. This change opens the door for the ferry service to choose another location, negotiate with the town independently, or discontinue the service completely.

Jeff West, Park Superintendent, said that “Over the last two years, I attended and spoke publicly at several Waterways Committee meetings. During that time, I attempted to speak publicly with the town commissioners when there was still time to adjust course but was unsuccessful until recently. I was finally able to speak with them during their meeting on August 28, 2023. At that meeting, they confirmed that without direct financial compensation, they were not interested in retaining a National Park Service presence in Beaufort. I think a lot of Beaufort, and believed it was the right place for a Gateway Community…I am greatly disappointed that we were not able to reach any kind of viable agreement with the town.”

For its part, the Town of Beaufort responded with a statement presenting its response to the situation. Here it is.

In August of 2023, the National Park Service (NPS) notified the Town of Beaufort of their intent to terminate their existing lease. The current 10-year contract entered into between the NPS and the Town in 2013 expires on Jan. 1, 2024. The agreement provided an irrevocable option for the NPS to extend the lease an additional three years with an expiration of Jan. 1, 2027.

Despite the additional 3-year option, the NPS has decided to cease operations in December of 2023; thereby terminating the contract early.

The existing contract with the NPS includes space inside the Beaufort Town Hall at 701 Front Street, use of dock space to operate a ferry service via a concessionaire, and space at Grayden Paul Park. These spaces/services have been provided to the NPS since 2013 at no charge per the terms agreed upon in the 2013 contract.

“We regret that a decision was made to severe the agreement despite them (NPS) having an irrevocable right to exercise an additional three-year lease in Beaufort at no expense to the National Park Service,” said Beaufort Town Manager Todd Clark.

The Town of Beaufort values its longstanding partnership with the NPS and recognizes their importance to the community. We look forward to continuing partnerships with the NPS.

“I value the great partnership between the National Park Service and the Town of Beaufort. Although our partnership is not over, I respect their decision to close the visitor information center in Beaufort,” said Mayor Sharon Harker. “I appreciate the many years the visitor center has provided information about the Park Service and Beaufort to visitors near and far.”


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Comments

  • Luminous

    So as it stands now, as of January 2024, Island Express Ferry Service will still provide public access to Cape Lookout from Harkers Island but no longer from Beaufort?

    Sunday, Sep 10 @ 6:13 pm
  • Tom Jackson

    Someone must always not find contentment with the golden egg and must eat the goose too.

    Thursday, Sep 14 @ 2:49 pm