Irene’s impact slow to recede in downtown Manteo

By on February 22, 2012

Vacant space at the Waterfront Shops. (Catherine Kozak)

Six months after Hurricane Irene raised Shallowbag Bay up to levels never seen before in downtown Manteo, the devastated waterfront, by appearances, has recovered.

But Manteo is changed.

Vacant storefronts can be found along the streets and at the Waterfront Shops. Some businesses have moved or found temporary locations. Some merchants never came back.

“So many people lost their entire business,” said Jeremy Bliven, owner of the Roanoke Heritage Extended on Sir Walter Raleigh Street. “Some people lost both their home and their business.”

A sign installed on the weather tower near the Roanoke Marshes Lighthouse marks the height of the water that flooded downtown on Aug. 27: 7 feet 11 inches above mean sea level.

Hurricane Irene resulted in $853,000 in damages to downtown Manteo. In Dare County, damages from Irene totaled $61.5 million, second only to the $170 million of damages Dare suffered from Hurricane Isabel in 2003.

A sign on the weather tower marks the spot to which the water rose. (Catherine Kozak)

After Bliven took to selling his surviving merchandise on the sidewalk in September — -dragging it out every morning and back in at night — he managed to reopen his shop by Oct. 15. His next-door neighbor was not as fortunate.

Manteo Booksellers, an anchor on the waterfront since the 1980s, is gone. With much of its inventory destroyed by 4 feet of sound tide, owner Steve Brumfield decided not to reopen the Essex Square store.

Another bookstore, Duck’s Cottage Downtown Books, is expected to open in March at the restored building. Partners Jamie Layton and Paige Gaddy have leased two-thirds of the space to sell books and creative toys.

Layton, a Kitty Hawk resident who has managed the bookstore at the Duck location since 2002, said that she received a call in October after Brumfield told building owner John Wilson that he would not reopen. Although she knows the community mourns the loss of 26-year-old business, Layton said that merchants seemed relieved that “something similar” is filling the space.

Flooding at Manteo Booksellers. (Kermit Skinner)

Hand printing on white paper covering the storefront windows notes the sad news about Manteo Booksellers, and declares “LOCALS LOVE YOU MORE” as an appeal to shop locally.

Bliven said that everyone did as much as possible to support the downtown merchants, but the record-breaking high floodwater not only soaked merchandise, it stayed for 12 hours, rather than the typical three hours. Floorboards, furniture and walls that had survived quicker retreating sound tide were destroyed or severely damaged.

When Bliven and his father, Hubby Bliven, heard about the tide, they went downtown at about 7 p.m., took off their shoes and started wading through waist-deep water toward his shop.

“It was strangely calm — there were no waves,” he recalled. “It was very surreal.”

Despite placement of sandbags at the base of the doors and elevating merchandise — jewelry, photographs and arts-and-crafts items — above expected flood level, he said, the water came up so high that it knocked over the sawhorses and floated the furniture.

“I lost about $5,000 worth of stuff, which is not bad compared with others,” Bliven said. “It was a setback.”

Jeremy Bliven's Roanoke Heritage Extended also flooded. (Catherine Kozak)

Thankfully, the weather in September was good, he said, and with Hatteras still closed, business ended up being surprisingly busy. Regular customers drove from Virginia to buy him lunch. People bought items and insisted he keep the change.

“I think a lot of people took it upon themselves to support the community,” Bliven said.

Like many other shop owners, Bliven was dismayed that insurance covered little of the damage. Even though he had product insurance, for instance, it did not apply because of the flooding. But it would have, he said, if broken windows had allowed rainwater to come inside. And he said even those with flood insurance were barely covered.

At the Waterfront Shops on Queen Elizabeth Avenue, the high water knocked out the electricity, and it stayed off for weeks, said Steve Andrus, owner of The Andrus Gallery and Studio. With the shop area now owned by the bank — the condominiums upstairs are still privately owned, he said — no one could agree who would pay the $30,000 cost to restore power.

One frustrated woman, a tenant for 28 years, he said, gave up and moved her business across the street. Andrus’ shop is one of the few still open at the nearly vacant location, where numerous storefronts have “Space Available” signs in the window.

Prolonged time with no power, Andrus said, is an impossible burden in a seasonal economy.

“A week down here is a month anywhere else,” he said. “Five and half weeks — you’ve lost one-third of the season.”

The Dare County Arts Council was forced out of the old courthouse and into a temporary location. (Kermit Skinner)

Andrus, who fmoved to the Outer Banks in the early ‘70s, said it’s going to be tough to find renters, especially with so many vacancies. People need to appreciate the realities of Manteo’s shortcomings and make the most of its considerable assets.

“This place here could be dynamite,” he said, sitting in front of his studio window overlooking the historic seat of Dare County. “In a tourist town like this, it’s hard . . . This isn’t a city. Everybody new comes in with their little wagon with square wheels.”

Across the street from the Waterfront Shops, the former location of Magnolia Grill has been vacant since the owner decided not to renew the lease after suffering storm damage to his equipment, said Manteo Town Manager Kermit Skinner.

Skinner said that after the 10-year lease with developer Malcolm Fearing expired several years ago, Manteo, the owner of the open-air market and the land, had renewed the leases with tenants. Now, only two of the eight units are being rented.

Meanwhile, Skinner said that the Board of Commissioners is considering proposals for the market that include leasing the entire space to one person to manage; opening up the area to use as a covered creative space for performances, art shows or lectures; or leasing units to different artisans, a short-term scenario most likely for this summer.

“From the town’s perspective, we’re not necessarily so much interested in generating income,” he said. “It’s what can we do down there to stimulate traffic in downtown Manteo.”

Although the town spent $20,000 to upgrade the public bathroom facilities at the market, and has paid about $300 a month for the water bill, it is not interested in maintaining them, Skinner said. The hope is that the responsibility will be taken by the next lessee, as was the case with Magnolia.

Since Jan. 1, Skinner said the partnership with the state for operation of the George Washington Creef Boathouse on Fernando Street was dissolved because of the state funding shortfall. The board recently voted to hire a fulltime waterfront facilities coordinator to run programs.

Skinner also said the town is working to secure funding to fix damaged manhole storm drains in downtown streets, which had experienced sinkage caused by the prolonged flood. Temporary patches have been made, and the town is seeking federal emergency funds to do permanent repairs.

“We’ve restored all central services. We’ve done what we needed to get things physically in order,” he said “We realize we still have a long way to go to restore things to the way they were.”

The Dare County Arts Council, located in the old courthouse on Queen Elizabeth Street, was forced to relocate, along with the artwork it had displayed, to a temporary gallery in Kitty Hawk while Dare County, the courthouse owner, restored the building. The Arts Council hopes to return to the courthouse in April.

What the town can’t do, Skinner said, is offer financial assistance to wounded businesses. Information on total business losses from the storm is either not available, or not readily obtainable. But business owners have recently started an effort to organize a new group to represent their interests and concerns, he said.

“There hasn’t been a way to get a unified voice from downtown merchants,” Skinner said.

“But those small merchants downtown operate on such slim margins, and they lost such huge percentages of their inventory, it’s been very, very difficult for them to get back on their feet.”

Despite the hardships created by the storm, Layton, the new bookstore owner, said she is confident that downtown Manteo “is primed and ready to come back strong for this year.”

“It’s such a beautiful town,” she said. “For the Outer Banks, they have something very unique.”

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