Long-sought funds to finish the Graveyard of the Atlantic in Hatteras could be provided soon, but it might not be smart for supporters to hold their breath.
The money would be forthcoming only if the General Assembly this session backs Gov. McCrory’s “Connect NC” $2.85 billion bond proposal, agrees to put it to a public referendum in November, and the public votes to approve it.
One of the two $1.4 billion bonds would include $3.5 million to fabricate and install the museum’s permanent exhibits for the 1,600-foot lobby and the 5,500-foot galleries, the final leg of the project that broke ground in 1999.
The bonds are tailored to support transportation and public infrastructure improvements in 64 counties across the state.
“We understand that tourism is an economic driver. It’s a job creator,” North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources Secretary Susan Kluttz told a small gathering at the museum on Thursday. “This is critical. We firmly believe that if the people of North Carolina have a chance to vote, this is going to happen.”
Kluttz said that the projects were selected based on their connection to jobs, educational opportunities, and preservation of the state’s heritage and quality of life. And the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum — which memorializes the 2,000 or so ships lost to pirates, war and weather off the coast — is unique.
“There is no other history like the history found here,” she said.
But it doesn’t help that both the House and Senate members who represent the Outer Banks in Raleigh are not – at least not yet – supporting the governor’s measures.
“I have several concerns and I have expressed them to the governor’s office,” Rep. Paul Tine, U-Dare, said in an e-mail. “ Particularly there are issues with the revenue projections used to pay back the bond and our capacity to take on debt strategically. With interest rates so low, I understand the desire to move some projects more quickly, but we have to make sure we are not setting ourselves up for problems in the future.”
Tine, who is co-chair of the transportation committee, said that further discussions are anticipated with state Transportation Secretary Tony Tata and the governor’s budget director Lee Roberts “to see if a responsible plan can be negotiated.”
State Sen. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, also has his reservations about the bond.
“Yes, at this time the proposals to take on additional debt didn’t have my support to be included in the budget, but again maybe it could be addressed in a future bill,” Cook said in an e-mail, adding that infrastructure needs are addressed in the proposed Senate budget. “Our first priority should be maintaining our existing state buildings, and that’s why our proposal shores up the Repairs and Renovations Fund by $300 million – far more than any other year in recent memory – and includes $30 million for capital improvements.”
Cook also said the Senate proposal provides “significant enhancements” to transportation funding that allow pay-as-you-go for long-term capital needs.
But Kluttz emphasized that the bond proposals would enable her department, and others, to tend to some of the many underfunded needs among the state’s cultural and historic assets, without having to raise taxes. She urged citizens to contact their state legislators and ask them to support the bond.
“I’m very thrilled at what would happen right here,” she said, “and I want this to happen so badly. And we need your help.”
Although the museum has managed from the beginning to be planned, designed and constructed on a shoestring budget, it has needed about $3 million, more or less, since the early 2000s to complete the job. But fundraising has been competitive and frustrating, and continually coming up short.
Inspired by the discovery of the wreck of the famous Civil War ironclad Monitor off Hatteras in 1973, villagers in Hatteras started the ball rolling in the 1980s for a museum to house the ship’s artifacts in the village in the 1980s. Over time, the concept expanded to interpret the 400-year maritime history of the Outer Banks.
By 2003, the museum’s exterior was completed, and the museum, partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Park Service, opened with limited exhibits in completed areas around the unfinished space. In 2007, the museum became one of the state’s three maritime museums.
In recent years, a larger exhibit area has been opened, but since the museum is not completed, no fees have been charged.
Still, the facility has proved to be popular. Last year, more than 82,000 visitors came to the museum, which is located adjacent to the ferry docks at the tip of the island.
“We have a state-owned asset right here, and we have a conceptual design,” Kluttz said in an interview after the event. “We are ready to go. It makes sense if you’re wanting to invest in tourism as an economic driver.”
To Danny Couch, the chairman of the museum’s Friend’s Group and one of its most loyal supporters, he figures he might as well be optimistic that the funding will come through.
“I just know that after 30 years,” he said, “at some point, it’s going to happen.”