June 4, 2012

Future of the Frisco Pier is still uncertain


Questions and rumors have been swirling about the future of the Cape Hatteras Fishing Pier, known to all as the Frisco Pier, ever since owner Tod Gaskill closed it down three years ago – a decision he said was one of the most difficult ones he has ever had to make.

The landmark pier was built in 1962 and was in desperate need of repair when Gaskill bought it in 2004 for $70,000 following Hurricane Isabel.  His plans were to do a temporary fix with a long-term goal of a major overhaul and upgrade. 

Today, the pier stands in unconnected broken sections and continually litters the beach with boards that regularly fall off into the ocean.  It looks very unattractive in front of many expensive oceanfront rental houses that occupy that stretch of beach.

“I didn’t put all that money into it just to close it down.  This pier is dear to me,” says Gaskill.  “I had to do it for public safety. I couldn’t let people go out there and get hurt.”

When Gaskill took over ownership, the rundown pier had become a hangout for undesirable activities.  He and his wife, Angie, cleaned it up and resumed operation with the intent of returning the structure to its former glory and a vision of upgrading the pier to a concrete structure that would last against the island’s harsh weather. 

The economy on the island was strong during that time and the couple’s construction company, Top Dollar Construction, was profitable and covered the repairs, which were costly. 

However, in 2004, the sagging pier required immediate piling work and Gaskill shopped for the best ones on the market.  Four tractor-trailer loads of pilings were used in this major repair.  Each piling was twice the size of the original ones and was driven 20 feet into the ground to withstand the force of the ocean.  Every board from the entry boardwalk to the end of the pier was replaced.

In a few short years, these new pilings failed as they rotted off near the ground.  The manufacturer came to Frisco to inspect them and blamed it on worms.  But, according to Gaskill, there was no worm damage to the older pilings, and he argued that the insect problem came with the pilings.  It was an argument that he never won.  This was a major setback that cost the Gaskills hundreds of thousands of dollars for work they did themselves – a hurdle they have yet to overcome.

“Someone made a quick buck off of me,” says Gaskill.  “There are times to fight and times to not.”

After consideration, he decided against a lawsuit, which he was unsure he would win. 

By this time, the local economy was beginning to drag and Top Dollar Construction didn’t have the money to redo the pilings and decided to ask for money from the National Park Service to repair the pier and maybe fund his dream of making the wharf a proud island landmark and community center. 

According to Gaskill, Cape Hatteras National Seashore Superintendent Mike Murray listened to his problem, and they are still working together towards a resolution, even though little progress has been made yet.

The economy continued to worsen which threw a big curveball into the personal lives of Tod, Angie, daughter Lanie, and son Cullen when Tod was forced to leave the area to find work.  Galveston, Texas was destroyed by Hurricane Ike in September, 2008, and Tod moved there without his family to work.  Hurricane Ike was the second costliest hurricane in history and the recovery work is still in full swing today.

“Life throws you a card, and you have to deal with the hand you’re dealt,” theorizes Gaskill.  “I left because of the economy. It was a sacrifice leaving the family, but it was best to keep Cullen here in school.  I never dreamed I would leave Hatteras Island, but it had gotten to that point – make a move or lose what we got.”

Tod tried to manage the Frisco Pier long distance with his wife Angie on site.  The pier was partially open to the public with the dangerous sections of the pier barricaded, but there was no getting around its dilapidated condition. 

The day before the pier was to open for the 2009 season, he pulled the plug and had the place padlocked.  It was a matter of public safety.  They had tried to just keep the pier house open for the public and visitors who fill the beach regularly by providing a bathroom facility, bait and tackle, beach toys, and food concessions but it didn’t work out.

People were very angry and upset about this turn of events.  Since that time, there have been acts of vandalism and several attempts to burn the pier down.  There are people who fished the Frisco Pier for 30 years who were greatly saddened about its closure and others who changed their vacation plans to stay in other areas.

According to Gaskill, people think that he has been asleep at the wheel for the last four seasons, but that is far from the truth. 

He continued talking with the National Park Service, since they were technically partners.  A longstanding, non-renewable contract was established in 1962 between the owner(s) of the pier and the NPS because the pier spans the beach and the parking lot is on park property.  The pier has paid 2 percent of its income as a concession fee to the park since 1962 and asking for assistance was a logical step for Gaskill.

“It’s a big liability for me and for the Park Service.  I told them that it’s on your land – find me the money,” Gaskill recalls.  “Paid in for 45 years and the pier has never ever gotten a dime back from concessions.  Where has this money gone?”

Conversations with both the state and with Dare County have also been unproductive in efforts to get funding to save or rebuild the failing structure but Gaskill is still waiting for one of them to step up to the plate.  It is a bone of contention with this Hatteras Island native that our tax money leaves the island but doesn’t come back to help the island.  Gaskill says the fact that the state paid $24 million to fund the new Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head only cements his opinion.

Talks with the NPS have been easier since the pier padlocked it door, according to Gaskill, and the Park Service has researched the options of demolition and rebuilding the pier.  But the result is the same – no money has been appropriated yet.

“I know that the community is not behind me,” says Gaskill and acknowledges that people think that he is just out for himself. 

“This is not about me,” he says. “I want it for Hatteras Island - to save this landmark.  I see it as a public need.  I want to see a family recreation area – to see it redone.  I want to see it as a community center like it used to be – where people held fundraisers and where teachers brought students to learn and do projects after school.”

With or without the Park Service, Gaskill has done his best to keep the ball rolling.  Recently, he shifted his thinking and has begun looking for a group of people to help him maintain the pier, even it means he has to step away from ownership.  He thinks government funding might be more attainable to a non-profit organization.  Maybe there is some private money available. 

Ultimately, he would like to see the pier redone and turn it over to the county or the state, but realistically, he would consider any viable offer or plan.

“I am willing to sit down and talk with anyone,” Gaskill announces.  “Takes a lot of money to maintain a pier and it’s not big profit.  The Frisco Pier needs a major overhaul or a do-over, not a Band-Aid.

Even though the rumors have been circulating, Gaskill was clear that no one has approached him about buying the pier.  He is open to anyone or any situation that can help him save the pier and move this project along.

Currently, there is momentum to build a new pier in Hatteras village just a few miles south of the Frisco Pier which would be a much larger operation with independent retail shops and an ocean learning center.  

Gaskill is confused by this, since there is already an existing pier that is trying to do the same thing.  The Frisco Pier is large enough to add a restaurant and even a second story – all ideas still sitting on the drawing board.  But with good manners, Gaskill genuinely wishes them all the luck.

To this day, he has a collection of threadbare Frisco Pier T-shirts that he wears nearly every day.  His walls are decorated with photographs and paintings of the pier he still treasures.  The process has been a slow and painful one but he continues to be diligent in his quest for proper funding to save the Frisco Pier.  His heart longs for the island he grew up on and to turn the Frisco Pier into a modern facility for the 21st century.

How much money is Tod Gaskill looking for?  The answer is $24 million like Jennette’s Pier or as much as he can get.

It seems that behind the wall of controversy that surrounds the Frisco Pier, there are lots of good intentions.

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