November 14, 2011

Hatteras Island Ocean Center is a new project
that would be a fishing pier – and much more


If all goes the way that Eric Kaplan sees it going, Hatteras Island may have a new fishing pier in the near future.

Kaplan is the driving force behind the just recently conceived Hatteras Island Ocean Center, which would be a fishing pier for southern Hatteras Island – and much more.

Kaplan’s idea is that the Ocean Center would be an island-wide attraction, a place where locals and visitors could go not only for the fishing but for other forms of recreation, education, dining, and shopping.

In his description of the project, Kaplan says the Hatteras Island Ocean Center would be “much more than a replacement for the Frisco Pier,” which is in poor condition and has not been open for several years.

It will be, he says, “a place for everybody to enjoy the ocean, play, learn, and have fun.”

It will be a major destination for day-trippers and for folks going to and from Ocracoke—the island’s center for ecotourism.

The facilities would include a world-class fishing pier, huge oceanview deck  for weddings and parties, a food court with indoor and oceanview dining and a coffee shop, a covered playground, an arcade, plentiful parking, a public bathhouse, tackle shop, surf shop, equipment rental, indoor and outdoor exhibits, classrooms, research areas, and wildlife rehabilitation area.

Kaplan sees locals and visitors using the area for fishing, swimming, surfing, kiteboarding, windsurfing, standup paddleboarding, scuba diving, bird watching, stargazing, wintertime seal and whale watching, dining, enjoying live music, and just sitting and watching the sunrises and sunsets.

The educational components, he says, will include coastal studies to complement and enhance the program at Cape Hatteras Secondary School of Coastal Studies, bird and marine biology, wildlife rehabilitation, and exhibits that would highlight the island’s commercial fishing industry and the current commercial fishing issues. And he says that there might be satellite exhibits from the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum.

He envisions quite an impressive and far-reaching project that could be extremely economically important to all of Hatteras Island, especially the southern villages.
It’s not just a “pie-in-the-sky” project for Kaplan.

He’s obviously a no-nonsense person who jumps right in with both feet when he envisions a project like this. And the vision for this project began just three months ago.

In those months, Kaplan has formed a non-profit corporation, The Hatteras Island Ocean Center, Inc., that is in the process of gaining its 501(c)(3) status from the Internal Revenue Service.

He has a board of directors that so far includes his wife, Harriet, Tim Midgett of Midgett Realty, and Lou Browning, a Frisco wildlife rehabilitator and business person.

The Ocean Center has two pieces of property under contract in Hatteras village. One is a 1.5 acre piece of oceanfront property where the Gen. Mitchell Motel was located until it was destroyed in Hurricane Isabel in 2003. The other is across the highway on the soundside of the ocean and is where Kaplan envisions parking and such things as a septic system.

The property is under contract for six months and secured by a personal loan from Kaplan to the Ocean Center.

It is Kaplan’s goal to get the necessary permits for the Ocean Center from the National Park Service, Dare County, and CAMA in the next six months and then to focus on fundraising.

A site plan is also underway.  It’s being done by Gary Price of Avon.

And Kaplan is working very hard to gain the support of Hatteras Island’s business, community, and political leaders. So far, he’s had a warm reception.

Kaplan has talked with Warren Judge, chairman of the Dare County Board of Commissioners, and Allen Burrus of Hatteras, the vice-chairman.

The county does not have money to contribute to the project, but it has been well received.

“I would do anything I could to help it get going,” Burrus says. “I think it would be a very positive development for Hatteras Island, and Hatteras village, in particular….This could be huge.”

Tim Midgett, who just met Kaplan after Hurricane Irene, says he is “most favorably impressed.”

“It’s an ambitious project, at best,” Midgett says, but he is willing to lend his support because he also believes it could be important to the economy of the island.

One part of Kaplan’s vision that Midgett especially appreciates is his view that the shops, dining areas, and other retail spaces at the Ocean Center will be leased by island business owners.

“I don’t want to create competition for island businesses.  I want to complement them,” Kaplan explains.

Midgett says he sees Kaplan as “unflappable” and “tenacious.”

“He doesn’t seem to back away from a challenge,” Midgett adds. “He has a tall mountain to climb, but he doesn’t seem overwhelmed.”

Lou Browning also hopes the Ocean Center will be an economic boost to Hatteras, but his vision goes further – environmental education for locals and visitors.

Browning, like the others, likes piers and hopes folks will come for the view and to fish. But his vision, which he says will be stage 2 or 3 of the project, will be educational programs and seminars that focus on the unique nature of this barrier island.

“A lot of locals and visitors have a curiosity about the environment of the island,” he says.

“Nature,” he adds. “That’s what we have to offer people.”

Mike Murray, superintendent of the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, has also met with Eric Kaplan and finds the Ocean Center an “intriguing” idea that he can fully support.

“Piers provide a very valuable recreational opportunity,” he says, adding that the educational aspects of the Ocean Center “complements the National Park Service mission.”

“The NPS and I support the concept,” Murray says, “but there are details to be worked out.”

Most of those details involve what kind of a mechanism that NPS can use to let the Ocean Center cross federal property.

So who exactly is the man with the ambitious vision of a new pier and a major attraction on Hatteras?

Eric Kaplan, 53, is a New York native who moved to Charlottesville, where he started a company, Frontline Test Equipment, in 1985. About 10 years ago, the company started working with a then relatively obscure technology called Bluetooth.

That turned out to be a good decision, and Kaplan eventually sold the company to his employees. He is somewhat still involved but is transitioning out of an active role.
Selling the company has given him the time and money to do what he really likes, and that is giving back to the community.

“I truly believe,” he says, “that if each person does their best to make a difference, the world can be a bit better.”

And he says that without making it sound at all corny.

Eric and Harriet Kaplan were instrumental in creating the Peabody School in Charlottesville.  The school’s mission is “to serve the needs of intellectually advanced children in one or more areas of all backgrounds by promoting cognitive, social and emotional development for each child at a rate commensurate with his or her ability, while providing a foundation for students to become life-long learners.”

Several years ago, the Kaplans bought a lot in Frisco and had a house built by Sound Contruction. They now spend much of their time here and have made it another community to which they want to give back.

Kaplan admits that raising the money for the Ocean Center is a large task in a community that has not been able to complete its vision for the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in 20 years of trying.  The museum was taken over by the state several years ago, but is still needs several million dollars to be finished.

Kaplan says that he thinks it will take somewhere between $5 million and $10 million dollars to complete the Ocean Center.

He aims to do it by looking for several large donors, getting smaller grants for $50,000 to $100,000 from foundations, and contributions from the folks who will use the pier.

He envisions the project being completed in phases.

The first phase, he said, will be the fishing pier, which won’t be as grand as the newly opened Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head.

For one thing, the Ocean Center will be a wooden pier, not concrete like Jennette’s.

Kaplan envisions it becoming self supporting when finished, and an attraction “that will play an important economic role as Hatteras Island fully embraces ecotourism.”

And, he adds, the Ocean Center will complement – not replace – public access to the seashore’s beaches.

Kaplan welcomes questions and ideas from locals and visitors.  You can reach him at [email protected].

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