Local tourism officials outlined recent Hatteras Island initiatives and the upcoming plan to build a 48,000-square-foot event center at the current Soundside Event Site in Nags Head at a public meeting at the RWS Community Building on December 8.
Thursday’s presentation was the latest stop in a series of meetings hosted by Dare County Tourism Board Chairman Tim Cafferty and the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau’s Executive Director Lee Nettles, in an effort to present the concept of the new event center, and explain the mechanics of the Tourism Board’s revenue and expenses.
Cafferty and Nettles began by detailing the recent Tourism Board grants given to Hatteras Island organizations, which included the Friends of the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, the Chicamacomico Historical Association, the Frisco-Buxton pathway project, the Frisco Native American Museum, and Outer Banks Forever’s Cape Hatteras Lighthouse pathway project.
“Over the last six years, we’ve been able to realize $1,589,199 in grants that affected Hatteras Island directly, and that’s an average of $265,000 per year,” said Nettles.
The annual grants, and larger projects like the $18 million event center, are funded by a portion of the 6% Dare County Occupancy Tax, which is derived from the rental of rooms and lodgings by hotels, motels, inns, campgrounds, private residences, and vacation homes.
Of that 6%, half (3%) is given to the county for tourism-related expenses, such as garbage collection, police protection, and emergency services. 2% is distributed to the county’s Beach Nourishment Fund, and 1% is utilized to promote tourism in the county.
“As the money comes to the Tourism Board, 75% of the money that is collected must be used for tourism promotion, with an emphasis on advertising and promoting [events and programs] that are outside the peak season,” said Nettles. “25% must be used for services or programs needed due to the impact of tourism on the county.”
“We are very intentional and conscientious about not trying to cram more people into the summer. Our goal is to have a year-round tourism economy,” said Cafferty.
“That’s a change in culture a little bit, but we feel like it’s really important because right now when we talk about occupancy tax, 70% of the money that comes in through occupancy collections happens in June, July, and August,” said Cafferty. “So 70% of that annual money happens in just three months.”
Cafferty noted that if the 70% bell curve could be flattened, it would reduce the Outer Banks’ reliance on the summer season and its vulnerability to hurricanes or other mid-summer disasters that put a sudden halt to tourism.
This is where an indoor event center would come into play, as currently, there are only a handful of sites on the Outer Banks that can accommodate more than 200 people. The Dare County Board of Commissioners heard the first presentation on the event center concept more than a year ago, and passed a resolution supporting the plan in August 2021.
Per the Tourism Board’s estimates, the new event center, (which will be located “just two stoplights north” of Hatteras Island, as Cafferty quipped), would result in $25,150,000 in new spending, more than 14,000 new room nights to bolster the occupancy tax revenue, and approximately 191 year-round jobs.
“We have taken some criticism about the new jobs because of [affordable housing issues] but consider that the seasonal positions we have now will maybe [become] full-time,” said Nettles.
The plan for the new event center is in the concept phase, and the actual construction is at least three years away. But the indoor site has been designed to accommodate a long list of events for visitors and Outer Banks residents, such as concerts or sports competitions.
The current plan includes a 26,000-square-foot event hall, a 1,500-square-foot meeting room, a 2,800-square-foot training/test kitchen, and a 17,975-square-foot space reserved for the lobby, restrooms, and halls. Outside, the site will feature a boardwalk that borders the sound, as well as an outdoor event space and parking.
Able to accommodate gatherings of 300 to 2,500 people, the event center could also be leased for galas, speakers, concerts, and smaller trade shows that do not require an expansive convention center site.
“The idea is that we want to draw people here [outside] the June, July, and August timeframe, and we don’t have a large indoor facility,” said Nettles, noting that while the current Outer Banks Event Site can accommodate large groups, its strictly-outdoor setting makes it less reliable in the off-season months.
Cafferty and Nettles also said that though the event center would be the largest of its kind on the Outer Banks, it wouldn’t necessarily be too big for the area.
“Anytime you talk about this center, people confuse it with a convention center,” said Cafferty. “As a frame of reference, the Virginia Beach Convention Center is 10 times the size of this facility. Even if we could fit a convention center here, it’s just not right for our market.”
After the presentation, Cafferty and Nettles answered questions from the roughly 20 attendees about the event center, as well as other areas of Dare County tourism, which included the nearby and abandoned Waterfall Park.
“Bringing it to a very local level, here in the Tri-villages, we have this abandoned water park in Rodanthe,” stated an attendee. “I know you have a lot on your plate right now with this event center, but do you have any interest in buying that property?”
Several meeting attendees noted that the county had made multiple offers, but the owners of the privately-owned park were not interested in selling for the proposed price. But the involvement of the Visitors Bureau remained a possibility, at some point in the future. “Never say never,” said Nettles. “As far as we’re concerned, I don’t see us necessarily driving the train for securing that property, but if there was a partnership of some kind, we’d be open to that discussion.”
Attendees also asked about the proposed rates for the indoor event center, and Nettles stated that renting the space would be a tiered cost, (depending on what areas of the facility would be needed), and that there would be a lower price for non-profit organizations versus privately-owned businesses.
There are still a number of hurdles to clear before construction on the event center can begin, which includes navigating the Town of Nags Head’s building codes and restrictions, accounting for septic and stormwater, installing a possible traffic signal, and orchestrating the funding and financing for construction.
In the meantime, the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau and Dare County Tourism Board will continue to provide public information on the long-term event center plans, with an additional Hatteras Island meeting planned in early 2023.
For more information on the proposed event center, see the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau’s FAQs at https://www.outerbanks.org/partners/event-center-faq-and-support/.