Reviving the heart of old Ocracoke
By CATHERINE KOZAK
Coastal Review Online
a tourist town, bathrooms are a big deal. For a tourist town surrounded
by water, public access to the water is a necessity. For a tourist town
dependent on the cleanliness of that water, stormwater runoff from the
street should not be flowing into that water.
what seems like obvious planning details have not been tended to in
Ocracoke village, a remote Outer Banks community bursting at the seams
every summer with thousands of visitors, who snake through traffic on
skinny streets in vehicles, on foot, or on their rented bicycles and
it rains, the water from the heavily trafficked main road is fed into
Silver Lake harbor --- right off the Community Square in the heart of
the tiny village that is home to 900 year-round residents. Off
the docks at the square is some of the village’s only public access to
the harbor. The only public restrooms, besides a few porta-potties, are
on the outskirts of the village at the National Park Service Visitors
the umbrella of the Ocracoke Foundation, the Community Square
Revitalization Project proposes to not only preserve the square and its
docks for public use with protective easements, it also is aims to
manage the stormwater, restore the shoreline, provide wastewater
treatment so restrooms can be built and protect clean water with a
dedicated boat pump out.
want people to be able to come to the harbor and sit down and enjoy it
and not have to buy a beer or a burger,” said Robin Payne, executive
director of the foundation, a nonprofit established in 2006 to help
preserve Ocracoke. “Pedestrian access is as important as boat access.
The harbor is the focal point of the tourist experience. That’s what
draws people in --- it’s the historic village that surrounds the
$2.2 million project would cover purchase of the square and the 1913
Dixon-Williams house and 16,900 square feet of land across the street
from the square, both being sold at appraised value, Payne said.
Engineers will design wastewater treatment improvements on the
Dixon-Williams property that will make it possible to build public
bathrooms and a community kitchen to process specialty products from
Ocracoke Seafood Co. to sell online.
on the project’s goal to preserve and create jobs and to protect the
environment, public waterfront access and the island’s cultural
heritage, the foundation is currently seeking money from state, federal
and private foundations to finance the project by March 2013.
business leases would be maintained, Payne said, and a portion of the
money would provide a steady revenue stream that would be put back into
the village. A manager would be hired to oversee day-to-day operations
at the square.
Ocracoke and its residents are going to take hold of change and think
about its future,” she said, “it really needs access to dedicated
funding and responsible asset development . . . because I don’t think
it’s reasonable to plan for the future with grants and donations.”
said that the project would restore the square to its original
simplicity. Asphalt walkways would be replaced with concrete instead of
modern pavers. A rain garden with resilient native plants would
be planted in the middle of the square to help drain stormwater. The
docks would be repaired.
the project is completed, she envisions that the square will again be
the vibrant center of the community, where folks can come together for
events and open-air markets can thrive.
events held in the square this year, including the Ocrafolk Festival
Dance and Women’s Arm Wrestling at the beginning of the summer,
illustrate the square’s value as a gathering place, Payne said. The
Homemade Homegrown market, selling products produced or created by
local residents, expanded so much and became so popular, it was moved
inside the Community Store at the square to be opened for business
much of the village activity centered on the Community Store, which
since it was first built in 1918 has provided everything from candy to
coffins for villagers. Until recently, it had also been a popular
stop for vacationers.
store, with rocking chairs on a shaded wooden porch, draws tired, hot
tourists like flies to honey -- even though it is not currently open.
Peeler, visiting from Norfolk with her husband, stopped by last week to
buy drinks and take a break from walking. Wearing a big sun hat
and sensible shoes, she sat down with a sigh and started rocking. Her
husband went to the door, saw the sign on the door and announced it was
“Well that doesn’t make sense,” she responded. “Does it say for today, tomorrow or for always?”
a question that has troubled villagers about the historic store for
more than six years, when the Community Square was put on the market
for $3.5 million. Over that time, the business has been closed months
at a time in shifts of ownership.
have also come and gone at the other buildings in the square, now
occupied by a kite store, an ice cream shop, a watermen’s exhibit, a
nautical store and a boat tour business.
of this is doing exactly what I wanted to do,” said David Senseney, who
bought the store in 1980 and the rest of the square four years later.
“I am so glad that this will become community owned.”
if not for the stubbornness of the property’s owner to wait for the
right buyer, and the determination of the foundation, working with the
nonprofit Trust for Public Land, to be that buyer, it could be lost to
development in a village with minimal zoning restrictions.
one of the founders of the Ocracoke Preservation Society, wanted to
sell the property, -- which includes two docks with 15 boat slips, a
large parking lot and four historic buildings -- to help fund his
retirement, but at the same time, he wanted the new owner to agree to
former teacher of biology and entrepreneurship for 22 years at the
Ocracoke School, Senseney said he turned down a “substantial” offer
from a prospective buyer who wanted to turn the waterfront into an
exclusive private yacht club. Even though the market now has dropped
considerably, he said he is willing to take the financial hit.
67-years-old. It’s time to do it,” said Senseney, who now lives
fulltime near Asheville. “I’m ready to be done with it. But I wouldn’t
be ready to be done with it if it weren’t being taken care of.”
Paul, who ran the 3,000 square-foot store with his wife for four years
until Hurricane Irene in August 2011 put them out of business, came by
and explained to the Peelers and several other people who walked up to
the porch that the store was closed indefinitely, but there’s hope that
someone else will be able to reopen it next spring.
lot of people ask, because people are just used to coming here,” said
Paul, a 43-year-old native islander who speaks with the distinctive
who today operates a go-cart rental business, said he supports what the
foundation is trying to do. Over his lifetime, he’s seen lots along the
“creek” --- the term locals use for Silver Lake, once called Cockle
Creek --- be developed, and the subsequent loss of access. He has seen
how haphazard change has threatened the heritage and image of the
fishing village he knows so well.
think this is a good thing,” he said, looking from the store’s porch at
the bustling square. “This is old Ocracoke right here.”
story is provided courtesy of Coastal Review Online, the coastal news
and features service of the N.C. Coastal Federation. You can read other
stories about the N.C. coast at www.nccoast.org.)