Hatteras: A Tale of Two Islands

HATTERAS ISLAND, N.C. (WAVY) – Tourism numbers show stunning growth in occupancy and restaurant revenue collections for Hatteras Island in Dare County, but they may not tell the whole story. 10 On Your Side ran those numbers by one of the most notable residents on the Island who would have the working knowledge to put the numbers in some perspective.

Hatteras is one of the longest islands in the contiguous United States. It juts out 40 miles into the Atlantic Ocean.

Hatteras is the tale of two islands. It is stunningly beautiful, and a place you want to live. Yet, at the same time devastating hurricanes have sliced up Hatteras Island, blown her over, and spit her out.

“I will tell you this, the seven villages are struggling,” says Allen Burrus. His family has been on Hatteras Island since the early 1700’s, has operated a Hatteras Village grocery store for 150 years, and operated it on the same site. “I think they are struggling economically. Storms have taken a toll,” Burrus added.

Allen Burrus has represented Hatteras Island on the Dare County Board of Commissioners for 10 years, and before that served on the Dare County School Board for 12 years. “We are still struggling down here from Hurricane Isabel, and we have not returned to the economic level we were then,” Burrus told us. Isabel hit in 2003, and 13 years later Burrus says they have not recovered.

Hurricane Isabel caused an estimated $350 million of damage in Dare County. Numbers on how much of that was on Hatteras Island are hard to come by. “Look, you lose $50, $60, $100 thousand dollars, you can’t get it back quick. It doesn’t happen that way,” he added.

Hatteras is the tale of two islands, and Burrus says the reality of year round living compared to Dare County tourism numbers don’t necessarily jive. 10 On Your Side asked Burrus when they make it sound so great, is that true? “They make it sound that way, but it’s not that way,” Burrus stated.

The Dare County Tax Office reports 143 percent growth in occupancy revenue collections between 2000-2015, and 60 percent growth in restaurant revenue collections over the same period of time. The numbers have never been higher. “We have a lot to be excited about,” says Lee Nettles, Executive Director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau – the tourism arm of Dare County. Nettles did not compile the numbers, but he thinks the positive numbers show the resiliency and vibrancy of Hatteras Island. “I think the area is ripe for investment, and visitors are going to take comfort in the infrastructure improvement,” Nettles added.

Document: Hatteras Island Occupancy Collections

We asked Burrus what the disconnect is between what he is living as a full-time resident on the island and the glowing tourism numbers? “Part of it is, while figures don’t lie, people who figure do. I might as well just say it the way it is,” Burrus said with a laugh.

Burrus says look at the last two months where figures are available. The meals taxes number from June and July compared to 2015 show June is down 1.76 percent, and July is down 1.53 percent over the same time last year. The Occupancy revenue for June is down this year by 8.64 percent, and July is up this year 15.75 percent. “Hold on, this is what they don’t tell you in those numbers. There were five weekends this year in July and only four weekends in July 2015,” Burrus said.

Document: Dare County Gross by District

Burrus says there’s a disconnect between year round life for about 4300 full-time residents on Hatteras Island and the tourism numbers. Let’s take Hurricane Arthur in July 2014. “Arthur comes in and for me alone on a July 4th weekend I’m doing a lot of business, and then it drops to $200 bucks…Gone,” Burrus said.

WAVY News 10 reports all the time on Highway 12 getting washed out on Pea Island. Inlets are carved out of the land. Cars can’t pass, which means emergency ferries are set up to take residents back and forth from the mainland. There are long lines, there is a huge inconvenience, and it happened in August 2011, October 2012, and December 2013. Burrus says Hatteras still hasn’t recovered from that, “It is a long event, and people go into debt to pay electric bills, and do the stuff they need to do.”

Hatteras Harbor Marina reports some business decline because the big Tournament Fishing Boats can’t get through Hatteras Inlet. It is not dredged deep enough, so the boats, captains, and crew don’t show up. “They usually come and stay 4 or 5 days, burn fuel, eat at local restaurants, the tournament fees, contribute to scholarships, spend money in local businesses. They don’t come and it hurts our revenue,” says Jennifer Scarborough, Floor Manager at the Hatteras Harbor Marina.

Burrus says a Sysco food distributor told him owners are trying to dump restaurants, “He told me at least 75 percent of the restaurants he was working with are looking for ways to sell.” Burrus gives this Hatteras Island reality check, “The people making money on Hatteras Island are sign people. There are new signs for businesses all the time.”

Here’s an example of that: Burrus says a bank across the street from his store has had a name change four times in the last two years.

10 On Your Side asked Nettles about Burrus’ opinion that there is a disconnect between tourism and what it is like to be a resident here, “I would say even with the tourism numbers, we are looking at aggregate numbers, so they don’t reflect the individual experiences of a particular business. The numbers are taken as a whole.” Nettles points out the numbers don’t show the costs a business is incurring. For example, a restaurant might experience higher food costs as gas prices go up and deliveries become more expensive. They could still show higher revenues but end up with a smaller profit, or even a loss, if the expenses grew faster than revenues. Burrus points to that as what life is like on Hatteras Island.

Nettles points to the road infrastructure of a new Bonner Bridge, a new Inlet Bridge, and a new bridge around Mirlo Beach. These are critical improvements for quality of life on Hatteras Island, “There is a lot to be happy about. The infrastructure, the roadways, the bridges are getting a significant improvement over the next couple of years.” Nettles also mentioned the millions to be spent on beach replenishment in Buxton.

We also went up and down Hatteras and on a limited time constraint found a Salvo Surf Shop that reported to us having the best July ever. The Outer Banks Motel claims to have had the best year in recent history and full occupancy for the month of September. Rodanthe which looks like it is struggling with dilapidated buildings, closed buildings, and race tracks that have been inoperable eyesores for years, now has a building under construction. Neighbors say it is supposed to be a bowling alley, a place to play laser tag, miniature golf, and there is a climbing wall. We also found lots of activity, and stores in Avon that were bustling with lots of cars and people.

Burrus says, “They (The County) want it to look good. They want it to be good for everybody coming in and out of here, and I get that…you can’t say ‘whooo’ and then people won’t want to come, and see you and visit you…but there is a disconnect between the numbers and what life is like on Hatteras Island.”

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