The Carolina Beach Boardwalk, extending 800 feet along the Atlantic surf, once drew crowds by the thousands. From the 1930s to the 1950s, the historic stretch of shops and attractions reveled in summertime fun, while families delighted in iconic eats such as Britt’s glazed doughnuts.
Sadly, the boardwalk’s glimmering past diminished to a dilapidated state within only a few decades. Rides like the Ferris wheel moved out around the ‘80s, and the path filled with rough bars in place of the closed-up shops. The relic of Carolina Beach’s golden age became little more than an eyesore, marred by four murders in the 1990s—three of which occurred at the now-defunct bar, Longbranch.
Fed up with the lack of love bestowed upon their community’s boardwalk, residents and business owners formed the Boardwalk Makeover Group in 2008, logging 8,000 volunteer hours to brighten the scene. Legislation was passed to regulate the pavilion’s bars, and colorful murals speckled the buildings and sidewalks. Several rides returned to private land near the boardwalk, and efforts were made to attract tourists through weekly events, such as hosting live bands and fireworks each Thursday evening throughout summer.
Today the Carolina Beach Boardwalk is making a comeback; yet several hurricanes and the daily stress of salt air has taken its toll on the area. To truly return the boardwalk to the glory of its heyday, a major renovation is a necessity. For Carolina Beach Mayor Bob Lewis and the current town council, an additional expansion would be a blessing.
“We started to discuss the boardwalk as an idea early in 2013, mainly because the existing structure was in need of repair, and it looked like we would need to spend $150,000 or more of taxpayer’s money to do it,” Lewis describes.
Simultaneously, the town council secured grants to purchase parcels of land and set up an LLC in hopes of the state building an NC Aquarium pier. The grants, however, required the town to match almost $800,000. “We felt it would better serve our residents and community if we developed a concept to move those state grants from land acquisition to construction to help with our boardwalk idea,” Lewis continues.
The town was able to re-purpose $250,000 from the North Carolina Division of Water Resources. Though the grant requires Carolina Beach to match funds, the town is prepared, having $350,000 of room occupancy taxes stowed in a reserve fund, putting the burden on tourists rather than residents.
“We had to turn down a $360,000 parks grant, and we had to turn down the original $800,000 CAMA [of the NC Divison of Coastal Management] grant we secured,” Lewis explains. “We were forced to make a new application for the CAMA grant, and we ended up getting $603,000.”
Grants from any area possible were highly important to the town council. Without them, there would be no renovation. “We did not have any money in our current budget or capital improvement plan to implement this potential project,” the mayor details. “I personally did not want to bury the town in debt or take $1.5 million out of our much-needed general fund reserves. If we could not come up with outside funding, I would not support moving forward with this project.”
The town’s strategy to identify potential funding sources was to develop close relationships with state legislators, including Senators Bill Rabon and Thom Goolsby, along with Representatives Susi Hamilton, Ted Davis and Rick Catlin. “Together they all were able to help us gain access to DENR [Department of Natural Resources] Secretary John Skvarla, who listened to our proposal and opened the opportunity for us to secure state grants from CAMA and Water Resources,” Lewis details.
Though the grants equaled more than half of the necessary funds to restore the boardwalk, the council felt they could acquire the rest. “We needed public input, so we organized a volunteer ad hoc committee of about 20 residents, including town staff, to develop the concept a little further,” Lewis says. “That committee helped us create a visual concept which we used to sell New Hanover County to come in as a partner and provide our town a grant of $500,000 so we could complete the project.”
On Monday, August 19th, the county commissioners met and unanimously agreed to support the renovation with an economic development grant. Commissioner Beth Dawson motioned to approve it, and requested the council return annually with updates on the progress. Though plans are not final, the concept includes expanding the boardwalk an additional 800 feet to the north, doubling its present length.
“We have designed 10-foot access ramps to be inclusive of everyone, with a special focus for those individuals with disabilities,” the mayor explains. “We also plan to extend the width of the boardwalk to 16 feet to make it more of a promenade, and recess the seating so as to keep the entire 16 feet walk-able or usable.”
Plans also include a couple gazebos, large swings and a few covered areas. The oceanfront stage will gain an additional ramp and a permanent roof. Low-level lighting will lessen the impact on nests of loggerhead sea turtles, the hatchlings of which respond to and follow moonlight to the water’s edge. If too much light is put off, the baby turtles will crawl in the wrong direction.
The focus of the boardwalk will recall its use in the early 20th century as a family-friendly destination. A splash park, which would feature fountains kids can play in, is one of the options being considered.
“We are still discussing this concepts, as we want to review all the pros and cons,” Lewis affirms. “We are, like anyone should be, concerned about public safety, the conservation of water, design issues, hygiene, and feasibility based on the location to sand and surf.”
Other park elements, such as special seating and picnic areas, are also part of the talks. “These concepts need to be flushed out a bit, but there is a strong desire to create a unique children’s attraction to the design,” the mayor ensures.
Though amusement details are still in the works, $150,000 of the NC Division of Water Resources grant must be spent by October 1st, 2013. “CAMA is working with our town staff on granting a minor permit to accomplish just that,” Lewis shares. “We will be able to complete the 10-foot beach accesses and a connection ramp to our stage, which is out over the dunes. They are also granting us the ability to install electrical and plumbing replacement where needed, and to excavate some of the current coves at the base of the dunes, land-side. We anticipate we will have construction items to start and will use up the entire $150,000.”
Mayor Lewis, the town council, and New Hanover County commissioners are banking on attracting more tourists and jobs to the region. The county would receive an increase in sales, property and room occupancy taxes if new hotels, restaurants or shops build in the town. Property taxes will not be increased for residents, either. “We have cut our residents’ property taxes by over 11 percent in 2012 and again in 2013,” Lewis informs with pride.
Currently the council is working with a developer who recently acquired a large oceanfront parcel. “[The developer] is interested in building a new 110-room Hampton Inn and Suites as a bookend to the Marriott Courtyard in the central business district [CBD],” Lewis tells. “We are using the investment we are making in the new boardwalk to attract them to move forward with their plans this year.”
Additional land owners in the CBD are looking to attract more new hotels, while others are discussing potential retail projects. “Once the boardwalk revitalization project is complete, I think you will see a major expansion of businesses, and we could be looking at new construction to replace existing empty lots which dot this area today,” Lewis notes.
The next Carolina Beach Town Council meeting, open to the public, will be held on Tuesday, September 10th at 6:30 p.m. in the council room of the municipal administration building (1121 N. Lake Park Blvd.).