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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June 19, 2012 10:56 am

What are your sources for damage values?

Lori Keck

February 24, 2012 4:56 pm

And there is the group working on putting an Art village in the old weeping radish site…which will be a good draw and a place for all local artists to be a part of.

there is a meeting there tomorrow at 12:00 pm of all the artists already signed on and to show those who would like to know more…

Nancy Harvey

February 24, 2012 4:48 am

The Town of Manteo, Roanoke Island, including Wanchese, all suffered from the storm. I had 3 feet of water…but my loss was nothing compared to others like in Stumpy Point. A friend of my son does not have a home anymore. So I can’t complain. I do really miss Manteo Booksellers especially Steve. I want “that,” what Steve gave and represented.
I wish the new bookstore all the best!
Roanoke Island can and will recover from this. We already have had a great Holiday Season with the lighting of the tree and the holiday show, Winter Lights, and first Fridays. The shop owners like Silver Bonsai and restaurants, wedding businesses, coffee shops, pottery and art galleries did an amazing job and reopened. Our town employees are amazing. One thing I have learned about Roanoke Island is that we are a strong, hard working and highly creative community. The best is yet to come. We do what we do best…we pull together, we make it happen. The show must go on. The Lost Colony 75th season is coming up, the attractions have amazing programs…I believe in us. I want my child to be proud of his hometown. We can do it!


February 23, 2012 7:03 pm

I agree with Duke. There were so many unsung heroes during this time. Everyone was volunteering wherever they could be of use. My biggest heartbreak is the lose of Manteo Booksellers. The lose isn’t just for the quaint book store, it was what Steve represented. You could count on him to sell the tickets, get the word out, give a hand wherever it was need, all events in Manteo seemed to somehow go through the Manteo Booksellers. It is a huge lose and we feel it. I’m sure everyone will welcome the new store owners with just as much enthusiasm. Manteo is such a magical place. It is a town with streets, sidewalks, store fronts, friendly folks, and the most wonderful Town events. We hope that other merchants will come and fill the empty spots that are open and once again make Manteo the bustling little artist town on the Outer Banks.

Dawn Eskins

February 23, 2012 5:06 pm

Carolina Cupcakery chose to locate our newest store in Manteo, after the stormwater subsided. After seeing the way local residents and businesses banded together to rebuild. It is heart breaking that businesses were ruined, but this is an ideal time for rebirth and renewal. Everywhere is the smell of fresh lumber and paint. We strongly encourage anyone who may be considering opening a new business to join us, in this fabulous little town of “doers”. Great folks, supportive peers and breathtaking views. If the Marathon and Tree-Lighting was any indication of what’s in store this season, then we have made a very smart move in choosing Manteo for the Outer Banks first cupcake bakery!


February 23, 2012 10:45 am

So interesting to juxtapose the day-to-day experience in Manteo with this article. The press loves disasters and seems to fixate on problems, but that’s not what is going on here – as far I can tell. Aside from Magnolia being gone – which had nothing to do with the storm – we should have more businesses in the Manteo Historic Waterfront area this season than last year. And thanks to flood insurance a lot of new renovation has been completed.

Manteo is as beautiful, fun, and full of things to do as it has ever been. And when I talk with the shop owners (I’m not one) everyone seems very positive about the upcoming season.

obx summer girl

February 23, 2012 10:26 am

Where is the new cupcake store?
We spend lots of time in downtown Manteo during the summer months – love the Farmer’s Market on Saturdays!


February 22, 2012 7:06 pm

I wish this story contained some of the successes after the storm. Ortega’s had a grill and tables and chairs set up outside for First Friday a week later. I recall that night there was fresh mulch and flowers planted around town. Everyone was helping each other, sharing dehumidifiers, moving trash off the streets and just being neighborly. BTW, Ortega’s was open for business within 2 weeks after receiving 2′ of water. 108 Budleigh hosted a wedding 5 days after the storm restoring their building to mint condition in those 5 days and putting a smile on a bride’s face who was so afraid her big day was going to be ruined. October’s First Friday, one month later, had record crowds. I got a haircut at Reynolds Barbershop a week after the storm. Poor Richards, Outer Banks Outdoors, Muzzi’s, His Shells, Nancy Pottery all were open for business in a matter of weeks. Lynn’s Custom Framing Shop never closed even with the oppressive heat until the flooded HVAC was replaced. Fidelity Title Co. moved back into a remodeled office and a new cupcake store was born. The return of Hotline’s ‘Endless Possibilities’, with their enthusiastic volunteers restocking their store, was just overwhelming. Thank you for your report but there was dozens and dozens of success stories and the perseverance of these shop keepers to suck it up, not count on the government to bail them out and their determination to keep on going is the real story behind downtown Manteo. That is why it is such a special place. Come on over the bridge, relax, have a cup of coffee, lunch or whatever, wander around and get to know the people of Manteo.


February 22, 2012 6:37 pm

Manteo’s got a great Town Manager and so many other good people and business owners who really care. If anyone can get Manteo back on her feet, Kermit can.


February 22, 2012 12:49 pm

It is great to see Manteo restore the down town park and playground so fast. When is Dare County going to fix up the park by the airport? That has been closed since the storm. We need to rebuild.

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