August 29, 2012

Hatteras Island Ocean Center project makes gains over the spring and summer


While another busy tourist season has been underway on Hatteras Island, a project that has the potential to be one of the largest visitor attractions on the island has been moving forward.

The project is the Hatteras Island Ocean Center, which would be located in Hatteras village and would include two components.

The site for Phase I of the center is 1.5 acres of oceanfront property in Hatteras village where the Gen. Mitchell Motel was located before it was destroyed by Hurricane Isabel in 2003.  The center would include a pier house with shops, a restaurant, facilities for events, and outside decks, a fishing pier, and public beach access and a bathhouse. Parking would be located on the west side of Highway 12.

Phase 2 of the center will be the Coastal Ecology Education Center, also located on the soundside of Highway 12, on property that includes many acres of wetlands, including creeks and marshes. Located here will be trails walking, facilities for launching kayaks and canoes, and the educational component of the center, including a nature education and research center, classrooms, and environmental education exhibits.

The scope of the project promises to be a terrific economic boon to Hatteras village and to southern Hatteras Island.

The idea was conceived a year ago by Eric Kaplan, who lives in Charlottesville, Va., and owns a home in Frisco.  It is not a moneymaking venture for Kaplan, who says his tireless work to make the center a reality is grounded in his belief in giving back to the community.  The ocean center has been incorporated as a non-profit and is run by a board of directors.

Kaplan’s vision is that the shops and restaurants will be opened by local business folks, perhaps as a second location. It would, he thinks, not compete with existing local businesses, but would complement and enhance the village’s economic activity, which has been lackluster since Hurricane Isabel.  It would draw more people who are staying on the northern beaches or other Hatteras Island locations to the village and be a destination for day-trippers and a reason for travelers passing through the area to stay for a while.

Kaplan knows there is a long road ahead to make the project a reality, but he said this week that he is really encouraged by what has been accomplished during the spring and summer months.

“We haven’t run into any obstacles so far,” Kaplan said, adding that, “It’s all about momentum.”

In the past six months, the ocean center has:

  • Closed on the oceanfront property.
  • Received a $200,000 grant over five years from the Nora Roberts Foundation.  The popular novelist owns three houses in Frisco.  The grant is for economic growth and development.
  • Hired Liz Browning Fox of Buxton as a part-time development director – with funds from the foundation grant.
  • Secured a change to the Dare County Zoning Ordinance that would allow piers as a conditional use in areas zoned C-2 H. The ocean center will be required to submit a site plan for the project before it is approved by the county.
  • Received a donation of property for the Coast Ecology Education Center from Lou and Linda Browning of Frisco that includes 4.6 acres of wetlands.
  • Started a competition to design a new logo for the project.
  • Continued working with the National Park Service on commitments that would be needed to locate part of the pier on seashore property.  The Park Service has said that it is committed to the project and is working its way through the bureaucratic hoops necessary.

Meanwhile, Kaplan and Fox are working on identifying and applying for other grants to finance the project.  Several have been submitted already.

And they are continuing to work with the community on enlisting support for the center.  Kaplan said they are getting good reaction to an outreach program to get the support of local businesses.

There have been some individual and business donations, and locals and visitors can find out about supporting the center financially through such things as buying a lifetime pass to fish on the pier and volunteer opportunities.  Volunteers are needed and welcomed.

Earlier this year, Kaplan said that the project would be built in phases.  At that time, he envisioned that the pier house might be built first to ensure a steady stream of income to finance the pier.

Now, he thinks the parking area and bathhouse could come first in Phase I.

It will depend, he said, on financing and the type of grants the center can obtain.

In some ways, he says, Phase 2 is moving faster than Phase I.  “There is a lot of interest in the educational component,” he says.

Phase 2 leaped ahead with the Brownings’ property donation, and Kaplan said the center is looking at buying other properties and buildings on the soundside.

Although if you drive into Hatteras village on Highway 12, about all you can see are shops and homes on the west side. Behind those shops and homes are a rich network of interconnecting creeks and spectacular marshes, perfect for exploring and teaching about coastal ecology.

Kaplan still seems confident.

“This is a big project,” he says. “You can’t just go out on Day 1 and expect money.”

The good news, he says, is the ocean center is “way ahead” of where he thought it would be a year ago.


To read two previous stories in Island Free Press about the plans for the Hatteras Island Ocean Center, go to and

To check on updates on the ocean center and see site plans and an architect’s rendering of the pier and pier house, go to the website,

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