‘He was the best Dare County had’ 

By on January 14, 2024

A tribute to the late Bobby Owens

Bobby Owens

All three hallways and the front entrance to the chapel at Twiford Funeral Home on the evening of Thursday Jan. 11 were packed wall-to-wall with people waiting to pay their respects to Bobby Owens, who spent much of his productive and long life immersed in politics, skillfully steering Dare County during its years of explosive growth.

Owens died on Jan. 9 at his Manteo home with his family by his bedside. He had turned 91 on Dec. 21.

No doubt, most of the hundreds of people who came to bid Owens farewell appreciated not just his political chops, but also his gusto for tackling problems and battling bureaucracy to help people in Dare County.

Photographs from Owens’ life streamed on a screen on the front wall of the chapel: Owens as a boy through to his later years;  Owens with his wife Sarah, his two children and grandchildren; Owens’ family restaurant, which was recently sold after 78 seasons; Owens with Gov. Jim Hunt, for whom he had worked; Owens’ family members with state Sen. Marc Basnight, Owens’ brother-in-law and the longest-serving Senate leader in the state; Owens at his beloved home in Manteo.

As a longtime county commissioner, and late-in-life mayor of Manteo, Owens seemed to know most everyone in the community. With a warm pat on the back and a big smile, somehow, he could make people feel that he genuinely was happy to see them. And he probably was.

That was Bobby Owens, consummate politician.

For nearly 22 years, he served on the Dare County Board of Commissioners, 16 of them as chairman. Local politics lured him back in 2017, when he was elected as mayor of Manteo, serving until late 2023.

In between, Owens also worked as the Director of the Eastern office of North Carolina Governor James B. Hunt Jr. and served as commissioner and chairman of the powerful North Carolina Utilities Commission.

“He was the best Dare County had,” Owens’ lifelong friend Betty Mann said, chatting while waiting to enter the chapel. “There wasn’t anything he wouldn’t do for people.”

Mann, who is 88 years old and still lives in Manteo, was Dare County’s clerk of courts for 18 years before retiring in 2000. Owens, she says, always maintained his integrity in the sometimes nasty business of politics. “I’ve known him all my life,” she said, adding that he was “like a brother” to her. “We grew up together. We went to school together.

Call him a good ol’ boy—Owens didn’t care. A lifelong Democrat with a conservative bent, he prided himself as honest, direct and tough.

“Good ol’ boys—it’s just a shallow word,” he said in a July 1997 interview, right before he took his seat on the N.C. Utilities Commission. “Well, tell me about the good ol’ boys. Who are they? What have they done? If they’ve done everything in Dare County, I’m proud to be part of it. It really doesn’t offend me.”

Owens was one of the few who so closely witnessed—and had a hand in—the Outer Banks’ evolution from a coastal backwater to one of the state’s most popular tourist destinations; from a politically inconsequential and ignored corner of the state to a powerhouse of state leadership and policy. Even after the Republican takeover in 2010 in North Carolina, Owens didn’t lose interest in politics

In the earliest days, he got his feet wet by putting up posters for Walter B. Jones Sr, a Democrat — and father of the late North Carolina Republican Congressman Walter Jones — who then was running against incumbent Rep. Herbert Bonner. Jones lost.

Owens then applied for a job as postmaster, which required Bonner’s nomination. But Bonner wouldn’t nominate him because Owens had not supported him.

“That was a revealing experience to me,” Owens recalled. “It made me mad; it hurt my feelings. But it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”  Jones eventually won Bonner’s seat in a special election after Bonner died, and Owens became close to Jones.

“Everyone was a Democrat then — the Republicans didn’t have a chance, quite frankly,” Owens said.

With his skin getting thicker by the year, Owens spent 1968-69 going door to door and making phone calls. “I was a young maverick ready to set the world on fire,” he said. The spark was lit, and politics was burned into his bones.

“It just fascinated me,” he said. “I liked the excitement of it. I like the playing with each other’s minds—the chase, the win. Somehow, it just kind of grew on me. You really can make a difference.”

By the time Owens was first elected in the early 1970s to the Dare County Board of Commissioners, the Outer Banks was just starting to grow, with developers looking to build further north and on more beachfronts.

Services were minimal, and mostly done contractually, Owens remembered. There was no EMS, no garbage pickup, no planning department, no water systems. The sheriff had just two deputies and “beat-up” cars. “There was just nothing in the 1970s in Dare County,” he said. “But not everybody wanted to rock the boat. They wanted it to stay just the way it was.”

But Owens rejected the “burn the bridges” sentiment and welcomed newcomers—and their money. Growth was good, if done right, he believed.

Under his watch, Owens helped bring the county its first reverse osmosis water plant, resulting in Dare’s water changing practically overnight from some of the worst water in the state to the some of the best. Owens also championed the College of The Albemarle campus in Dare County, construction of the Outer Banks Hospital and recreational youth sports in the county.

He was instrumental in getting county’s first occupancy tax approved by the state and got a land transfer tax implemented. With those funds, marketing was provided for the tourism industry that ballooned the local tax base and supported the county’s capital needs, creating a strong local economy and eventually one of the wealthiest counties in the state.

“I think Dare County is one of the most aggressive, progressive counties and we’re known for that in Raleigh,” he said back in 1997. “I think we provide some of the best services in northeast North Carolina.”

As board chair in the late 1980s, Owens navigated the Outer Banks’ first intense and divisive battle against oil drilling off Cape Hatteras. But Owens was always up for a contest.

Standing 5-foot 7-inches and about 150 pounds, he had enjoyed boxing in his younger years, winning eight Golden Gloves competitions in the welterweight class. He also loved playing football. “There isn’t much I haven’t done,” he said. I’m one of those who liked to try something once.”

But Owens had openly admitted that at least four years of his adult life were spent as a “drunk” and that he had an epic struggle getting sober before conquering alcohol. And he didn’t deny that he had to learn to control a bad temper.

“I always have had an acid tongue,” he said. With maturity, he said, he learned to bite his tongue. But he never shrank from a fight.

For a time in the mid-1990s, he regularly engaged in battles with local Republican leader Danny Gray, who accused Owens of breaking state personnel laws by “peeking” into his records (the District Attorney found no merit to the accusation) and Dare County commissioner Shirley Hassell, a Democrat who seemed to thrive on conflict and who Owens accused of being a front for the Republicans.

‘I’m kind of ashamed of that night when I call Shirley Hassell a son-of-a-bitch,” Owens confessed. But he said that politics is like a good poker or chess game, and ultimately, it’s about who has the best hand or the best strategy.

“Somebody in my position, every time I throw a rock in the water, I make an enemy,” he said. “At the same time, I’d hope, I’d make a friend. If anybody is going to be really mad and vicious in politics, they don’t have any business being in politics.”

When Owens got back into the game in 2017 after winning the Manteo mayor’s race, he soon released a 10-point plan that focused on increasing downtown parking and other upgrades in the historic district. During his tenure, the town earned a sought-after designation as a North Carolina Main Street community. He even ran for re-election in 2023, but he wasn’t well enough to campaign and lost his last race.

Owens was buried at Manteo Cemetery in a private ceremony after his funeral service that was held on Friday at Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church. Betty Mann said she was glad she saw her friend the night before he died.

“I got to say goodbye,” she said. “He heard me. I know where’s he at. He’s in heaven.”



Barnhill Building Group has been selected as the Construction Manager @ Risk by the College of the Albemarle and is seeking to pre-qualify construction trade contractors to submit bids for the furnishing labor, materials, equipment, and tools for the new College of The Albemarle – Allied Health Sciences Simulation Lab (COA Health Sciences) located in Elizabeth City, NC. Please note: Only subcontractors who have been prequalified by Barnhill will be able to submit a Bid.

The project consists of the new construction of a 38,000-sf, 2-story expansion to the existing Owens Health Sciences Center and will house classrooms, labs, and a simulation lab. The site is just over just over 4.5 acres and is located on an active campus. This new construction will be a steel structure with a brick and metal panel veneer, curtainwall, and storefront glazing with a PVC roof membrane.

Principal trade and specialty contractors are solicited for the following Bid Packages:

BP0100: General Trades

BP0105: Final Cleaning

BP0390: Turnkey Concrete

BP0400: Turnkey Masonry

BP0500: Structural Steel & Misc. Steel

BP0740: Roofing

BP0750: Metal Panels

BP0790: Caulking / Caulking

BP0800: Turnkey Doors/Frames/Hardware

BP0840: Glass & Glazing

BP0925: Drywall

BP0960: Resilient Flooring

BP0980: Acoustical Ceilings

BP0990: Painting & Wallcovering

BP1005: Toilet Specialties / Accessories / Division 10

BP1010: Signage

BP1098: Demountable Partitions

BP1230: Finish Carpentry and Casework

BP1250: Window Treatment

BP1400: Elevators

BP2100: Fire Protection

BP2200: Plumbing

BP2300: HVAC

BP2600: Turnkey Electrical

BP3100: Turnkey Sitework

BP3290: Landscaping

Packages may be added and/or deleted at the discretion of the Construction Manager. Historically underutilized business firms are encouraged to complete participation submittals.

HUB/MWBE OUTREACH MEETING: Barnhill Building Group will be conducting a HUB/MWBE Informational Session. You are encouraged to attend the following session to learn more about project participation opportunities available to you. These seminars will help to: Learn about project and scope; Inform and train Minority/HUB contractors in preparation for bidding this project; Assist in registration on the State of North Carolina Vendor link; Stimulate opportunities for Networking with other firms. Location and time TBD. Please visit our planroom at https://app.buildingconnected.com/public/54da832ce3edb5050017438b for more information.

Interested contractors should submit their completed prequalification submittals, by July 22, 2024, to Meredith Terrell at mterrell@barnhillcontracting.com or hardcopies can be mailed to Barnhill Contracting Company PO Box 31765 Raleigh, NC 27622 (4325 Pleasant Valley Road, NC 27612).


See what people are saying:

  • Realistic Ray

    Some may say he steered Dare County towards its current, downward spiral. Either way, rest in peace sir.

    Sunday, Jan 14 @ 4:47 pm