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Tourism still shines bright in North Carolina’s coastal counties. But the picturesque shores are also proving attractive for research, higher education, startups and real estate.
John Harris sells adventures propelled by salt air and the sea — kiteboarding, parasailing, hang gliding, fishing charters and more. He’s president and CEO of Kitty Hawk Kites, which has 10 locations on the Outer Banks, two on the Crystal Coast and seven more across Florida, Virginia and New England.
“The Outer Banks is a recreational mecca, and people don’t realize it until they’ve lived here or spent quite a bit of time here,” he says. “It’s a ribbon of land, and our purpose is to teach the world to fly. It’s a fun job.”
Plenty of people had fun over Memorial Day, when Kitty Hawk Kites set records for sales and customers. “Just ballparking here, but on Sunday that weekend, it was cloudy, and we probably had 5,000 people come through our stores,” Harris says. The Outer Banks was a one-season destination when Harris started his company in 1974. “There was very little here,” he says. “It was an impoverished area, and there was fishing and tourism from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and that was it.” Now he scurries between his Nags Head location and warehouse in Kill Devil Hills, keeping pace with growing demand for rentals, family excursions and charter gigs. “We want people to visit us, and we hope that they sign up for one of our outdoor adventures,” he says. “They will have an uplifting experience.”
North Carolina’s more than 300-mile coastline, where sandy beaches and clear water abound, is first and foremost a tourist destination. But it offers more than fun in the sun. Its location and amenities, including the state’s two ports and access to top-tier health care, have been economic boons, attracting talent, investment, research and startups.
Tourism is big business in Currituck County, where wild horses wander through Corolla and visitors climb 220 steps to the top of the 162-foot-tall Currituck Beach Lighthouse. The Currituck County Department of Travel & Tourism says $12.7 million in occupancy tax revenue was collected for fiscal year 2018-19. VisitNC, the tourism-development arm of the N.C. Economic Development Partnership, says the county saw more than $253 million in 2019 visitor spending, up 43% from five years earlier, supporting 2,130 jobs. “We’re expecting another excellent year,” says Currituck County Economic Development Director Larry Lombardi.
It’s a similar situation in neighboring Dare County, where visitor spending was $1.3 billion in 2019. The Outer Banks Visitors Bureau says that keeps about a third of county residents employed and offsets taxes by more than $3,100 per resident each year. But last year wasn’t a typical year.
Outer Banks Visitors Bureau Executive Director Lee Nettles says the COVID pandemic wreaked havoc on the region’s reliable revenue source. “Dare County’s Outer Banks closed completely to visitors for two months last spring,” he says. “Local businesses were panicked: When were they going to reopen, could they survive until then and what was going to happen to the health of the community once we did reopen? It turns out the things that had made the Outer Banks a popular choice for years — the 100-plus miles of wide-open shoreline, the abundance of vacation rental homes and the fact that we’re a drive-to market for much of the U.S. population — took on a whole new meaning with the virus. Visitors could control their exposure to the outside world while still enjoying a much-needed vacation.”
Nettles says hotels and motels finished 2020 at 20% below their forecast, and restaurants were capped at 50% capacity. But the year wasn’t all doom and gloom. He says Dare County has set lodging gross-sales records every month since reopening in May 2020. A big reason for those was rental homes, whose popularity funded about 80% of occupancy tax collections. Unlike in hotels, guests could isolate from people they didn’t know, greatly reducing COVID exposure. The Outer Banks Visitors Bureau offered them more protection. “[It] created a comprehensive local safety campaign, coordinating efforts with local businesses and with the county’s public health and emergency management agencies,” he says.
While the pandemic spurred some tourism-related businesses to records, it devastated others. “The dichotomy between segments … was one of the most unusual aspects of the past year,” Nettles says. “Like the rest of the world, our area has experienced tremendous stress and heartache over the last year and a half, but despite the emotional toll, Outer Banks tourism has once again shown itself to be remarkably resilient. All told, we’re extremely fortunate to be where we are now.”
The rising tide hasn’t reached every facet of the coast’s tourism trade. As is the case nationwide, help-wanted signs are ubiquitous. Harris, for example, struggles to fill retail, crew and management positions. “We’re trying to figure out how we’re going to staff our operations, because it’s hard to find people to work,” he says. “It’s like a double-edge sword: We have this incredible business [volume] like we’ve never experienced before in the Outer Banks. There are so many visitors here. And now we’re having trouble finding staff to serve them well.”
The Albemarle-Pamlico estuarine system covers more than 30,000 square miles; only Chesapeake Bay’s system is larger. Here freshwater and saltwater mix, agitated by ocean currents. Just off the barrier islands, the warm Gulf Stream meets the cool Labrador Current, marking the northern-most limit for many southern plant and animal species and the southernmost point for many northern ones. “We are a doorway to the natural world,” says Liz Baird, director of the N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores.
The aquarium, which hosts about 35,000 visitors annually, is one of four operated by N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. It’s part of Carteret County’s marine cluster, which combines ecotourism, teaching and research. “If you think about the goals of education, we want to reach people wherever they are, at whatever level of understanding they have and however they want to grow,” Baird says. “When you look at the Crystal Coast, we are very fortunate to provide opportunities for people throughout their lives, from elementary to adult education.”
Aquaculture is next on the aquarium’s lesson plan. Baird says that includes building a lab, where a glass wall will allow visitors to watch the study of fish eggs and larval fish captured from and released into the surrounding waters. “We can provide learning experiences to help people understand the marine environment,” she says. “We have ways for our youngest guests to be inspired, and you see graduate students in the labs, and you hope one day those children will grow up to be those grad students. A large focus is on conservation. We not only want to help tell the story, we want to preserve and conserve our natural resources.”
Baird says the aquarium is seeking a $155,000 grant from Washington, D.C.-based Institute of Museum and Library Services to pay for the aquaculture project. A decision is expected next month. “One of the things I’m looking forward to is the opportunity to partner with and collaborate to enhance our impact,” she says. “We have partners in the universities and colleges who will help us if this project is funded.”
The Duke University Marine Laboratory and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lab are on Pivers Island in Beaufort. The N.C. State University’s Center for Marine Sciences and Technology, N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries, Carteret Community College and UNC’s Institute of Marine Sciences dot the Morehead City waterfront. “It’s a huge contributor to our local economy but perhaps even more importantly is the work that’s being done here has tremendous value and benefits to the state of North Carolina and our coastal communities,” says Don Kirkman, Carteret County’s economic development director.
Carteret County’s marine research and education sector contributes $83 million in economic activity and supports 1,063 jobs with an average annual salary of $68,024, which is more than the countywide annual average of $39,816, according to a 2018 economic impact study. “We have one of the largest concentrations of marine science and research in the nation,” Kirkman says. “Increasingly, as we face issues related to climate change, sea-level rise and storm events such as hurricanes, it’s important to manage how coastal communities become more resilient in the face of these challenges. And these labs also are leading efforts to address these challenges. There are new technologies and innovations that are coming out of these laboratories in the aquaculture industry. There are efforts starting at the community college and the UNC Institute of Marine Sciences on substrate material that can support living shorelines and cutting-edge research on food safety and testing for contaminates in foods. We take great pride in having this resource here.”
Steph Jeffries is a teaching associate professor at N.C. State University and coordinator of field instruction and forest management for its Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources. Students in her forest communities class, for example, spend one week in the mountains and one week at the coast. “For every site we visit, we’ll teach a deep understanding of the forest type, the environmental factors that shape it, how it changes through time, and the natural and human threats to its continued existence,” she says. “Our forest management students will leave with a better understanding for how to manage and conserve these forest types in the face of climate change and coastal development.”
Diane Durance preaches what she has practiced. The director of UNC Wilmington’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship came to the coast in 2016 from Michigan, where she started three businesses and was director of Great Lakes Entrepreneur’s Quest, which connects entrepreneurs with investors. “When I first started a business back in the 1990s, I didn’t know there were organizations to help entrepreneurs, so now it’s my mission to see that everyone starting [a business] has support,” she says. “Here in Wilmington, we have a lot of support organizations that help startups and provide services, and a lot of times entrepreneurs don’t know about them.”
Durance assembled Coalition of Small Business Resource Organizations in 2017. It began with six startups and entrepreneurial organizations. “We have 13 organizations now in the coalition, and it provides free or low-cost services,” she says. She also works with several groups, including Network for Entrepreneurs in Wilmington, the NC Idea Foundation and 1 Million Cups, a collaboration that meets weekly to brainstorm ideas.
More than 100 UNC Wilmington faculty members are involved in marine sciences and ocean preservation, so Durance recently launched All Blue, The Alliance for the Blue Economy. It works to establish southeastern North Carolina as a global leader in the sustainable use of ocean resources for economic growth. “We’re looking at offshore wind, oyster aquaculture, marine engineering, analytics and marine biology and how we can build those fields and attract businesses, get some international companies to locate here, because we have the workforce and the geography,” she says.
Durance received a $90,000 matching grant from NC Idea in December to fund a collaboration with N.C. Agricultural and Technical State University, creating a semester-long marine-engineering and information-technology program. She also supports NEW’s efforts with PreCelerator, funded by a grant from NC Idea. “[It] takes ventures in the early stages and puts them through a three-month program that provides intensive support … so some of them are in a position to be competitive,” she says.
NEW founder Jim Roberts says Wilmington has many first-time entrepreneurs who want to be successful but have yet to assemble the complete package. “They may have an expertise in sales, marketing or operations but lack some of the other skills,” he says. “The purpose of the PreCelerator is to even out the bumpy skillsets of our first-time entrepreneurs.”
Roberts sees Wilmington and New Hanover County as parts of a coastal corridor whose reach stretches inland to Raleigh and Research Triangle Park. “Wilmington is no closer to the Triangle than Charlotte or Greensboro and Winston-Salem, but we have worked very hard to develop those relationships. Over 60 investors have made the trip to the coast. Yes, the beach is a magnet, but the ecosystem did not begin to grow until the opening of CIE in 2013.”
Brunswick County lays claim to five barrier islands, six beaches and 10 communities from the state line to the Cape Fear River. It also is home to one of the state’s best real estate markets. The number of units sold in the county this year through May is 50% more than in the same period in 2020. And the number sold in May is 133.2% more than in May 2020 and higher than any May in the past 20 years, says Jennifer Brown, president of Brunswick County Association of Realtors and managing broker at Coldwell Banker Sea Coast Advantage’s South Brunswick and Holden Beach offices. “The real estate market in Brunswick County is just super hot right now,” she says. “Brunswick County has been ranked as one of the fastest-growing counties multiple times and just continues to grow.”
Leland, for example, had 26,984 residents last year, up from 13,527 a decade ago. The population of Southport grew to 4,176 from 2,833 in the same period. “Most of our buyers are retired or looking for a place to retire in a few years, or people buying second homes,” Brown says. “However, since COVID started, we have had a surge in people that are now able to move out of the metro areas due to the fact that they are working from home. I feel like Brunswick has totally been ‘discovered,’ and while the market won’t always be like it is today, it will continue to be a hot spot.”
Brunswick has always been attractive. “We have seen the migration happening over the past few years — due to weather, beaches, golf, lower taxes and cost of living, slower life, no traffic, etc. … and that has definitely escalated [with the pandemic],” Brown says. “We also see a lot of buyers coming from other parts of North Carolina.”
Brunswick County’s median home price was $199,900 in 2018. Now, most of its homes have a property value of $300,000 to $400,000. Several homes in Southport and Oak Island sold for upward of $1 million last year. The highest on Bald Head Island was $3.2 million. “I feel like I’m running out of descriptive words and adjectives to describe the continuously red-hot market that we are experiencing,” says Cynthia Walsh, CEO of the Realtors group. “Prices are up, sales figures are off the charts, and available inventory and the absorption rate are amazingly low. These numbers are astounding.” ■