Around and Around We Go: Dowdy Park

When Erin Walters was a toddler, she would stand on the back of the sofa in her living room and look across the highway at Dowdy’s Amusement Park.

“I remember she would just keep saying ‘wheel, wheel,’” says mom Susie Walters, Nags Head’s mayor pro tem. Walters also recalls her husband taking Erin to Dowdy’s every Saturday evening during the summers to go on her three favorite rides. And Walter’s son, Tim Jr., got his first job at Dowdy’s around that same time, operating the tilt-a-whirl and then the racetrack. 

dowdy4Like Walters, thousands of people can likely recall time spent at the amusement park that operated for more than 40 years at the corner of U.S. 158 and Bonnet Street and entertained generations of families. 

“I went to Dowdy’s as a child and have wonderful, fond memories of taking my own children there when we moved here in 1983,” Walters said. “Anyone who was here during that era remembers Dowdy’s as a fun family place for all ages.”

“I went to Dowdy’s as a child and have wonderful, fond memories of taking my own children there when we moved here in 1983,” Walters said. “Anyone who was here during that era remembers Dowdy’s as a fun family place for all ages.”

Now, more than three decades after Erin would watch for the Ferris wheel spinning, her mom Susie has taken a lead role in developing a plan that will turn the five acres of abandoned property into another place for families to play. 

dowdy park1Three years after the town purchased the property for $1.5 million, shovels will begin turning up the soil to begin the first phase of Dowdy Park. When all phases are complete, it will include everything from a playground, tower fort, art wall and rock wall, to a multi-use turf area and playing field, children’s and wetlands gardens, pavilion, and walking path with fitness station. 

The first phase includes the all-inclusive playground, largely being funded by a $750,000 grant by Trillium Health Resources, a local government agency that manages mental health, substance use, and intellectual/developmental disability services in eastern North Carolina. It will also include the construction of an amphitheater and events plaza, fitness trail, and central green. Other funding will come from a Dare County Tourism Board grant of $250,000 and $150,000 from the town’s capital reserve. 

“From the very beginning, we wanted this to be a park for all ages in perpetuity,” said Walters. 

That beginning was in March of 2014 when the Dowdy Park Steering Committee, made up of eight Nags Head residents, was formed. Since then, the committee has turned to the public again and again to receive input to ensure the park would be one that residents and visitors wanted. Walters said more than 700 people, through survey cards and online responses, let the committee know what they’d like to see Dowdy’s become. The town also partnered with Nags Head Elementary School to survey guests at its annual pumpkin fair last year. 

dowdy plansThe committee even turned to the area’s littlest residents, asking Nags Head Elementary School third, fourth, and fifth graders to paint pictures onto cedar shakes of what they would like to see at the park. Those pieces of art were displayed on the existing wall at the site.

With an art wall, Walters said, art has become an overriding theme at Dowdy Park. A small events area could be used for anything from a farmer’s market to an art show. “This was designed as a community park above all else,” Walters said. With the Bonnet Street beach access, Nags Head Elementary School, the YMCA, skatepark, and Nags Head Woods trails all within walking distance, Walters said the addition of the park really creates a sea-to-sound recreation area. 

Much of the surveying and design took place this winter and once the town secures necessary permits this spring, the project will be put out to bid in June. Deputy Town Manager Andy Garman says he expects the playground to be complete by Nov. 30. 

dowdy2“This is the first of its kind in Nags Head,” Garman said. “It will truly be a community gathering space where people will have the opportunity to come together and have multiple opportunities for uses.”

As for future phases, Garman said he sees the park development continuing to evolve and will include features such as multi-use playing fields and a sports court and wall. 

Walters said the planning and development phase has been such a positive experience for the community. “Not everyone got everything they wanted, but we had great community involvement. And the majority of people wanted the same things,” she said.

When the park is built, Walters says the land will continue to be what it was for her and her own children when the go-carts were running, the Ferris wheel was lit up, and the tilt-a-whirl was spinning.

“The park is going to continue to be a place of fun and happiness for families.” ♦

Photos courtesy Jennifer Adams c. 1990’s. Plan rendering of Dowdy Park courtesy Town of Nags Head.

Michelle Wagner
Michelle Wagner is the editor at Three Dog Ink and has been living and writing on the Outer Banks for more than 15 years. Contact Michelle

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