The Outer Banks – A Quarter Century Ago
wenty-five years ago, America voted a Republican wave into Congress, were transfixed by a low-speed chase along a California highway and murder investigation involving a once-revered athlete, and gathered around their TVs on Thursday nights to watch a show about nothing.
1990s Outer Banks
While Newt Gingrich and Co., O.J. Simpson, and Seinfeld resonated nationally, events and agreements on the Outer Banks in 1994 went a long way toward improving the lives and enhancing the experience of both residents and visitors.
“A lot of influential decisions were made back then that put us on the map today and gives us the relevance that we have,” said Dare County Commissioner Danny Couch, a lifelong Hatteras Island resident and businessman. “There was some good government being done back then.”
Gov. Jim Hunt called 1994 “The Year of the Coast” amid a statewide celebration in early fall, and at least on the Outer Banks events bore that out. The year began with Manteo native Marc Basnight presiding over the NC senate as President Pro Tempore, the start of a record nine terms in the position, and the dedication of a three-acre municipal park in Nags Head. It concluded with an agreement that would bring the Internet to Dare County, which had approximately 24,000 full-time residents. The population has swelled to more than 37,000 today.
Connectivity, land, and water usage were among the area’s notable accomplishments throughout 1994. Construction of the second span of the Wright Brothers Memorial Bridge was well underway – it would open in 1995 – that would help relieve a chokepoint on and off the island. Completion of the Melvin Daniels Bridge and road expansion in the Whalebone Junction area of Nags Head meant that residents and visitors had four or five lanes on Route 158 from the Route 64/Manteo intersection all the way to the Wright Brothers bridge.
More important were agreements that allowed people to connect personally and digitally. Well into the 1990s telephone calls within Dare County to and from Hatteras Island were toll calls. But in ’94 residents voted to enter into an Extended Area Service (EAS) contract that made all intra-county calls local.
Not Yet A Thing on The Outer Banks in 1994
• The Coastal Institute in Manteo was still 18 years away from opening (2012)
• The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras Village was 8 years away from opening their doors to the public (2002)
• First Flight High School was still a decade away from educating students on the Northern Dare Beaches (2004)
Been Around A While In 1994
• Well, The Outer Banks Itself. 1994 marked it’s 407th birthday (1587)
• The Outer Banks Community Foundation had been around 14 years by then. Founded by David Stick, Jack Adams, George Crocker, Edward Greene, Andy Griffith, Martin Kellogg, and Ray White. (1982)
• The Christmas Shop in Manteo, a place where everyone stopped while on vacation, had been established by Eddie Greene for 27 years by now (1967)
• The Lost Colony had been in production for 57 years by 1994 (1937)
In December ’94, the county partnered with an early digital provider for its first online connections. The agreement came only a couple months after a local, 15-member Technology Advisory Committee gave a demonstration to residents, businesses, and civic groups of the potential uses of the Internet, what was then referred to as the Information Superhighway. Interpath, the service provider, required that at least 50 entities sign on for connection in order to make it worth their while to come to the Outer Banks. Well over 50 customers signed on, and information highway rooms were set up and equipped at Manteo High School and Cape Hatteras School, the county’s only high schools at the time. Students and the community could access the Internet and connect with not only each other, but those similarly connected anywhere.
“Kids here in Hatteras,” Couch said, “people thought, hey, maybe we aren’t so isolated after all.”
Residents often had to travel to the mainland for medical attention in 1994, as the Outer Banks Hospital was still eight years from completion. Builders and homeowners got most of their supplies from local, family-owned and run hardware stores and lumber yards, as Home Depot and Lowe’s were still years away from opening stores on the Outer Banks. Grocery shopping was limited, as well, with only Food Lion and Seamark on the beach, and Food-O-Rama in Manteo, or small stores such as Wink’s and Cahoon’s. Now, there are more Food Lions, as well as Harris Teeter, Publix, Piggly Wiggly, and Fresh Market.
Water is a vital component of coastal communities, and local municipalities in ’94 addressed needs with long-term solutions. In March, Dare County bought the water system for Colington from Kill Devil Hills for $1.12 million, a move that lowered costs for residents of the unincorporated area, provided them with a voice in water management, and improved both water pressure and reliability.
Three months later, the county sold $9.69 million in utilities system revenue bonds for three water projects, the largest of which was for a $6.6-million water treatment plant for the villages of Rodanthe, Waves, and Salvo. That plant greatly improved water quality all over Hatteras Island and sparked growth in development and tourism, Couch said.
Manteo operated a new, $5-million wastewater plant in ’94, which was in part made possible by the town’s annexation of Pirate’s Cove. Today, Pirate’s Cove provides approximately 60 percent of Manteo’s tax base, said Mayor Bobby Owens, who was chairman of the county Board of Commissioners in ’94. Nags Head paid more than $600,000 for improvements to its water system and entered into a long-term, three-way agreement with the county and Kill Devil Hills.
“You’ve got to be able to secure your water in order to sustain what you presently have and in order to have any growth at all,” Nags Head town manager Cliff Ogburn said. “A lot of hard work between the town, the county and Kill Devil Hills to come to an agreement, I think that has solidified our future for years. We kind of control our destiny now. It used to be a concern that we didn’t have enough water and everybody was scrambling to get water rights, but that ’94 agreement put us in great position.”
In February ‘94, the state Department of Transportation held a hearing to discuss plans to replace the Bonner Bridge across Oregon Inlet, which was at the end of its projected 30-year lifespan. The pricetag for a new bridge was $55-60 million at the time. Lawsuits, delays and countless hearings later, the county finally got a new, state-of-the-art bridge 25 years later. The new Basnight Bridge opened in early 2019, at a considerably higher cost than those early projections – $246 million.
A three-way agreement between Dare County, Kill Devil Hills, and the Nature Conservancy addressed educational and environmental concerns. The town sold 21 acres to the county in the First Flight school complex area, a site on which First Flight High School was later built. The Nature Conservancy obtained 47 acres near Nags Head Woods that helped preserve the Run Hill Dune, a regional landmark.
“There were a whole lot of partnerships that seemed to be productive,” said KDH commissioner Terry Gray, who was town mayor in ‘94. “The thing that got me more than anything, it seemed that we were able to create a little bit more sense of community, especially with Kill Devil Hills, than maybe we experienced in the past. Improvements like adding the site for the high school, understanding that was going to be realized, even made us more of a community.”
Southern Shores celebrated the 15th anniversary of the town’s incorporation and established the county’s first curbside recycling program. It also launched Project Blue Sky, a partnership with federal and state agencies to improve home and commercial construction to better withstand conditions and storms in ocean areas.
Kitty Hawk completed a deal that preserved 461 acres in the heart of its maritime forest, Kitty Hawk Woods, and began to loosen public parking restrictions for residents and tourists wanting to take advantage of its beaches.
Dare County commissioners narrowly approved Phase 1 of the development of Scarborough Lane Shoppes in Duck, a plan that also included a center turning lane in anticipation of increased traffic.
Nags Head devoted a great deal of money and discussion to enhanced recreational facilities throughout 1994. In addition to the park that opened in January near Nags Head Woods, the town also approved a bike/hike path in South Nags Head the length of Old Oregon Inlet Road that would be completed in ’95, in partnership with the state Department of Transportation. Ogburn said that the park was the catalyst for other recreational areas in town, such as Satterfield Landing and Whalebone and Dowdy parks. The bike/hike path spurred paths and sidewalks later built in the northern end of town along both the Beach Road and the Route 158 Bypass, improving safety by getting residents and visitors off the roads.
The 1994 storm season was less severe than ’93, when Hurricane Emily did major damage. But Hurricane Gordon brushed the coast in November, and a Christmas-time low pressure system shut down parts of Route 12 south of Oregon Inlet and forced workers to shore up breached areas around Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. NCDOT moved approximately 200,000 cubic yards of sand from the Pamlico Sound to the ocean beaches between Avon and Buxton. An inter-agency task force that consisted of reps from the U.S. Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Federal Highway Administration, and the state Department of Environment, Health and Natural Resources was formed to address the challenges of keeping Route 12 open.
“It seems pretty easy now, but everything that Dare County has gotten, it had to fight for,” Owens said. “Now, we had Marc Basnight and we had some other people that were out there making it happen for us, there’s no doubt about that, but we’ve always been together and fighting as a team, and that’s what really has made it happen. It wasn’t one person, it was everybody working together for one common goal, and that was the betterment of Dare County. I know it sounds a little corny, but it’s true.” ♦
Dave Fairbank is a freelance writer living in Kill Devil Hills. Dave was a sports writer for 30 years at the Newport News (Va.) Daily Press prior to relocating the the Outer Banks.