Island Free Press: Renovation of Pea Island Visitor Center celebrated with ribbon-cutting ceremony

Shannon Estenoz, Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, and Mike Bryant, President of the Coastal Wildlife Refuge Society, cutting the ribbon outside the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge’s Visitor Center. [courtesy Joy Crist/Island Free Press]

By Joy Crist,
On Friday, December 17, an official ribbon-cutting ceremony was held at the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge’s Visitor Center to celebrate a recent milestone for the popular Hatteras Island landmark – the raising of the visitor center by five feet, in an effort to protect it from future storms.

Photo by USFWS in North Carolina

Though the renovation project wrapped up in 2020, (and the center has been open to the public since June of 2021), the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic prevented a celebration of any large scale to occur. But with stakeholders and project volunteers finally able to all come together, which included Shannon Estenoz, Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife and Parks, the much-anticipated ribbon-cutting event finally came to fruition.

The visitor center is located on an especially vulnerable stretch of N.C. Highway 12 that is regularly subjected to cycles of ocean overwash during storms. As a result, a project to raise the center above ground level was first discussed in the fall and winter of 2019, and renovation work officially began in the spring of 2020.

Two contractors were involved in the roughly $30,000 project – a house-moving company that conducted the actual raising of the structure, and a pilings expert who added new pilings once the center was up the air. The building was then lowered on its new, elevated foundation, and new stairs and ramps were also added for easier access.

Photo by USFWS in North Carolina

The project was spearheaded by the Coastal Wildlife Refuge Society – a non-profit organization that helps support and maintain national wildlife refuges all across the state – which raised the funds necessary for the project through individual donations.

“This visitor center and gift shop facility is one of many tangible, measurable services we provide,” said Mike Bryant, President of the Coastal Wildlife Refuge Society. “The society built and donated this building in 1995, and over the years, it has made additions and improvements. We’re here today to dedicate the most recent improvement, which is an inter-resiliency project in response to more frequent overwash from the ocean.”

Since the visitor center was able to reopen this past June, the center and gift shop has hosted more than 23,000 visitors, and has generated $100,000 in net sales, which goes back into salaries, visitor infrastructure, and other refuge-related endeavors.

However, the long-term future of the visitor center, (as well as N.C. Highway 12 and Hatteras Island in general), was a theme throughout the roughly 20-minute ceremony on Friday, with several stakeholders noting the importance of finding solutions that will be viable well into the 21st Century.

“There needs to be a long-term, sustainable response that will continue to allow us to serve the visiting public, so we can continue to introduce them to the incredible concentration of waterfowl and other migratory birds and wildlife and their habitats, along with [this] beautiful dynamic landscape,” said Bryant.

Assistant Secretary Estenoz, who also had the honor of holding the scissors during the ribbon-cutting, stated that this was her first visit to the Outer Banks, and she was inspired by the dedication of the folks involved in the refuge’s preservation and management.

“I’m ready to transfer from Washington, D.C.,” said Estenoz. “You guys have just energized us to go back to D.C. and do whatever we can to help you further all of the goals that you’re pursuing here… You are really at the intersection of what so many of our [coastal] refuges are trying to deal with in the country. You’re at the forefront of climate change.”

Refuge Manage, Scott Lanier, presenting plaque honoring 30 years of service to Art Beyer.

“What you have done here with this visitor center, which is to adapt it to what Mother Nature is going to dish out to us over the next coming decade, is what we’re going to be doing a lot more of in the country,” said Estenoz. “I think we can take hope from the bipartisan infrastructure law that just passed last month, and which the President signed into law. This is a generational investment in the resilience of both national infrastructure and hard infrastructure… And, of course, it’s a generational commitment to preparing our future generations for meeting climate change and the challenges that confront us.”

In a later interview, Estenoz expanded on how the new infrastructure law might have local impacts, and especially when it comes to the future of N.C. Highway 12.

“I don’t know about specific projects [that are currently being considered], but I will tell you that the infrastructure bill is looking to invest at record levels in projects exactly like this. We want our infrastructure to live a long life, and I think this area will benefit from the opportunities that the bipartisan infrastructure law presents.”

Friday’s ceremony also included a special salute and thank you to Art Beyer, Assistant Refuge Manager, for his thirty years of working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife’s National Wildlife Refuge system. A plaque was presented to Beyer from Refuge Manage, Scott Lanier.

After the roughly 20-minute indoor ceremony, which included thanks to the volunteers and folks who helped get the elevation project off the ground, the ribbon cutting commenced outside, and many folks lingered after the event to enjoy the 70-degree, mid-December weather, as well as the hundreds of tundra swans and other waterfowl that were a permanent fixture in the background.

“This was just a perfect opportunity, and the perfect time, for all of us to come together,” said Becky Harrison, Supervisory Wildlife Biologist for the Alligator River and Pea Island Refuges. “And we couldn’t have asked for a prettier day to celebrate.”

Exterior of the Pea Island National Wildlife Refuge’s Visitor Center Today