By Rob Morris on April 27, 2011
With three weeks to go before a grand opening, workers at Jennette’s Pier in Nags Head are scrambling to wrap up last-minute details, including repairs to a leaky aquarium, before welcoming its first visitors.
The opening May 21 is scheduled to start at 10:45 a.m. with the U.S. Army’s Golden Knights Parachute Team, followed by speakers and a christening at noon.
Final occupancy permit inspection of the $25 million facility, which will be run by the North Carolina Aquariums, is set for May 8 and 9.
The parking lot is done, flooring is going down, final paint touchups are underway and the phone system will be installed the first of next week, manager Mike Remige told the Jennette’s Pier Advisory Committee Wednesday.
Workers are still repairing a leaky aquarium. The tanks will not be permanently populated with marine life until mid- to late-June, although some specimens might be on display temporarily before then, Remige said.
“If you do everything by the book like you should to ensure the safety of the specimens that are going in the tank, it’s a six-week process,” he said. “It’s a biological and chemical process.”
Although none of the last-minute hitches appear serious enough to affect the scheduled opening, the pier faces a community relations problem. While adult anglers will pay $12 to go out on the pier, sightseers will pay nothing.
Committee member Warren Judge said that the state had promised not to compete directly with privately owned piers on the Outer Banks. That was expected to be done by charging higher fees, including $2 to $3 for those who are not fishing.
“I just don’t think it’s right that we don’t charge,” Judge said.
Nags Head Commissioner Renee Cahoon, who owns a grocery store just north of Jennette’s, said that pier owners had asked her to attend the meeting on their behalf.
“I think you’re betraying their trust,” she said. “It’s not a good way to start out.”
Remige said that charging a fee at a state facility has to clear the state Rules Review Commission, which is a months-long process.
The North Carolina Aquariums secured permission to charge a fee for fishing, but Remige said that Dee Freeman, secretary of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, made the decision not to pursue a fee for sightseers who want to walk out onto the 1,000-foot pier.
“We, at this time, have been overruled,” Remige said.
Committee member Anna Sadler said that with no fee, free parking and a state-of-the-art bathhouse, the pier will be used as a beach access. The limited number of spaces would be quickly taken so that anglers, the only people paying a fee, would have nowhere to park, she said.
“Let me tell you, once the word gets out, you will have no space for that money that you need to operate on,” she said.
Nags Head is considering parking meters in a lot it is planning across N.C. 12 to help control its use, she said.
The committee voted for Chairman Bob Muller to contact Freeman by phone and letter to explain the implications of the decision and to urge him to reconsider and expedite the process for approving a fee.
In the meantime, the pier will ask for a $2 donation from walkers.
Committee members also pushed pier management to secure the necessary training and approval as a saltwater fishing license vendor. Those fishing on the pier will be covered by a blanket license, but committee member Damon Tatem said that the facility, as a state operation, should also be in the business of selling them to individuals.
The pier facility will be self-supporting through the fishing fee and rentals of the pier house’s second floor for meetings and weddings. At $3,300 for five hours, 20 weddings have already been planned for this year and 23 for next year.
Hiring is still under way for a staff of up to 37 full-time and part-time employees. More information is available at www.jennettespier.net/employment.
Educational programs are also planned to start in June. They include fishing lessons, collecting and identifying plankton, exploring the intertidal zone and examining wind power. A feature of the pier are three wind turbines.
Fees will cover the cost of the programs.
Fishing will be free opening day. Satellite parking with shuttles will be available at the Nags Head Municipal Complex and the grassy area south of the Dunes restaurant.
In addition to exhibits, the pier house includes a gift ship, tackle shop and snack bar.
The old Jennette’s Pier was a Nags Head icon until it was destroyed by Hurricane Isabel in 2003. Plans for the property over the years once included construction of 12 houses.
The Jennette’s Pier Advisory Committee is made up of various stakeholders, including the town of Nags Head, which invested $300,000, and Dare County, which put in $700,000.
Outer Banks Voice photo.