Ambassador of the Outer Banks
The position of president and CEO of The Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce counts among the toughest of jobs in Dare County.
To run a successful Chamber, the ingredients for the top job call for equal parts diplomat, choreographer and visionary.
And, according to John Bone, who just retired from the position after almost 30 years, a succession of great board chairpersons, members, staff and volunteers.
As this chapter of Chamber history draws to a close, it is fitting to recap the career of an individual who has dedicated four decades of his life to the people of the Outer Banks.
Arrival and early years
Bone graduated from UNC Chapel Hill on June 6, 1966 (6-6-66), a numerical representation he jokes was somewhat ominous.
The prior year he spent the summer here working at the Sea Oatel and the Darolina restaurant.
Employers were reluctant to hire draft-age men during the height of the Vietnam War buildup, so job prospects were dim for the young history major. Bone returned to the Outer Banks and his dual jobs at the Sea Oatel and the Darolina in the summer of ’66.
Shortly after his arrival, the history teacher at Manteo High departed. School board Chairman Jack Cahoon knew Bone was a history major and asked if wanted to apply for the job. Bone decided to give it a try and after an interview with the principal, John Robinson, he was hired.
For 16 years a succession of Dare County students moved through Bone’s history classes, including many recognizable names today — R.V. Owens, Renee Cahoon, Robbie Parker, Superior Court Judge Jerry Tillett and others.
Bone is quick to add that many of his students have gone on to make significant contributions to the county, even if their names aren’t as recognizable and he worried he would leave some names out.
In 1978, Bone, who admits he didn’t know what he was doing, ran for county commissioner. “I don’t know how I won, but I did!” he said, and he served until 1982. For two of those years he was chairman of the Board of Commissioners. He was also the chairman of the Dare Democratic party at the time he ran for office.
The Chamber days
The following year, the job of executive vice president of the Chamber of Commerce opened up. Bone was interested in getting outside the confines of the classroom and he applied for the job.
In those days, the “EVP” position was the same as the president and CEO of the Chamber today — running the day-to-day affairs.
Three of the members of the search committee charged with filling the position were Fletcher Willey, Ralph Buxton and Chris Payne, a trio still active in the community.
From his first interview, Bone was told the committee was skeptical. “The fact that I was a politician was number one, and number two was that I was a history teacher” with no business experience.
Not surprisingly, he was told shortly thereafter they had offered the job to someone else.
For whatever reason, the new hire never showed up, and they came back to Bone and offered him the position.
Bone took the job and laughs about what he learned later. A friend on the committee told him after he accepted, “We really had concerns about you. We actually offered the job to three other people.”
Bone muses, “It finally got down to me. I guess I was close to the last straw.”
Moving the chamber forward
Teaching school turned out to be major plus for Bone. “I knew people up and down the beach” because he taught their kids, he ssaid. He also learned how tough life was in the county and he built an appreciation for the commercial fishing industry and a desire to help build a more stable local economy.
“The kids from commercial fishing families always showed up for school, even when they were dead tired from packing fish all night,” he said.
Bone recalls that “tourism was a three-month deal, from Memorial to Labor Day and then it was done.” Commercial fishing is what tided many families over the long, desolate winters.
When Oregon Inlet shoaled over in the winter of 1983, it sparked a turning point in local thinking. “Our commercial fleets began to use other ports that were more reliable and spread their operations over the coast and even the world.”
There came a dawning realization that the inlet situation might never be resolved and the leadership began to look at other ways to sustain and grow the local economy.
Even though “we are in one of the greatest fishing areas in the entire world,” he said, the frustration with the inlet and Washington, D.C. precipitated the tilt toward a focus on tourism.
At this point, Bone also takes time to acknowledge Keith Fearing, who Bone said was instrumental in bringing “city water” to the beaches, replacing the wells and Fresh Pond as the only other sources of potable water. “Without Fearing’s efforts, the beach towns could not have become economically viable and grow,” he said.
The tourism economy
Bone remembers that as far back as the late 1970’s “we started seeing growth in tourism. First Pizza Hut and then McDonald’s came. Before those businesses, you could drive up the two-lane bypass on a winter night and not see one car or even a light on.”
The move toward growth evolved slowly. “From the inlet closing in 1983, it wasn’t until 1992 that we got what is now the Tourism Board” and the funding that would sustain it, he said.
R.V. Owens was the chairman of the Chamber board that year, and “he got together the political and business leaders and we met right here upstairs (in the Chamber’s office building) for what seemed like months and just hammered it out.”
The result was the occupancy tax increase that funds the tourism board. Before that, the Chamber and the tourism board split the duties. The tourism board received about $150,000 from the county per year. The only other funds came from the sale of advertising in a joint Chamber/Tourism Board visitor’s guide.
Even with the meager funding, Bone recalls that the two boards began hitting the road to travel conventions as far back as 1983, promoting the Outer Banks as a destination.
The Chamber also adopted a city each year where it would focus efforts on reaching tourists. Washington, D.C. and Pittsburgh were among those early adoptions.
Bone says there was a special relationship between the people of Pittsburgh and the Cape Hatteras National Seashore, so they were well received there. Perhaps this connection explains the many Steeler fans who visit and live on the beach today.
The modern-day Tourism Board isn’t the only successful spin off the Chamber spawned during Bone’s tenure.
Affordable housing is another concern of Bone and the Chamber. “Without a place to live, you can’t have the workers you need to fill the jobs required in our local economy,” he said.
After many meetings and ideas from board members, the Chamber helped form the Outer Banks Community Development Corp. “The CDC, we spun that off and they have become a great organization.”
Bone also believes health care is key to the local economy. The Chamber and others worked hard on getting a hospital here. Once that was accomplished, the first CEO, Kathy Bailey, asked if the Chamber was interested in getting involved in local health care issues.
From those discussions, the Outer Banks became involved in the Healthy Carolinians program, which Amy Montgomery, now at the Outer Banks Hospital, chaired for many years.
From Healthy Carolinians, Dare CASA, which focuses on substance abuse, and the Community Care Clinic’s service to the indigent and uninsured were created.
Politics and the chamber
“We get involved in a lot of political issues that some people think we shouldn’t be involved in.”
Contrary to what many people think, the business community is not a monolith, especially where politics is concerned. It is a major reason why the chamber job is so difficult, and it is where the diplomatic and choreography skills are required.
Every business can be a member of the chamber. Thus, you have national chains as members of the same organization that includes mom and pops and other local concerns.
There are members geared toward commercial fishing while others make their money from recreational anglers. Insurance companies are members and the Chamber has been fighting what they see as unfair rates along the coast for years.
Pick any subject, from beach nourishment to tax increases, and it is doubtful one will find unanimity among the business members.
But the chamber and its board have found ways to take positions on controversial issues.
Tolls on ferries, tolls on the Chesapeake Expressway, beach nourishment, the Oregon Inlet bridge, dredging and jetties, the closing of Hatteras beaches, sky high property insurance rates — the Chamber has been out in front on each of those concerns.
Why get involved? “We have won some, we have lost some, we’ve been handed our heads on others,” Bone said. “But we have to think about what’s best for this community (as he repeatedly taps his desk with some force). If business isn’t successful, we can’t live here.”
The gamefish bill is one example. The bill would designate three species of fish and allow only recreational fishermen the chance to harvest the catch.
“It will benefit a few hook-and-line fishermen, but on the flip side of that, we destroy another resource for our commercial fishermen.”
Bone goes on, “They provide a lot to this community. We wouldn’t be able to go to Kelly’s, Owen’s, wherever you go — you won’t be able to have a rockfish dinner that was caught fresh in the ocean and brought to the table. It would be farm-raised.”
Tapping the desk again for emphasis, Bone continues, “What are we going to sell here? Tilapia? Farm-raised salmon and farm-raised fish of all kinds? We’re helping fishermen in other countries, but we won’t help our own?
“That isn’t what we are, as a tourist industry. Do you know how many people buy homes here just to enjoy the local, fresh seafood? How many tourists look forward to the same?”
Every time I go online, I think of John Bone, the Chamber, and a banker — Ron Bennett.
In 1993, the Internet was still the domain of hackers and government. But there were early online “services” such as CompuServ and America Online that I had been using in Atlanta for e-mail and discussion boards.
While Bone readily concedes he knew little about the Internet from a technical perspective, “I knew it was something that was good for the area.”
And so the Chamber churned out letters to AOL, CompuServ and GEnie, asking for a local number or even “1-800” access for business and residents.
All of them passed, mainly because they looked only at the population of Kill Devil Hills, which was the Chamber’s return address and based their assessment on that town’s small population.
But, in a stroke of serendipity, the phone company, Sprint, which has always been a “huge chamber supporter in all its incarnations” informed Bone it were going to put fiber optic cable on the beach.
“I didn’t know what fiber was.” But he followed his gut and jumped in.
To demonstrate the potential of the Internet, a live conference with Raleigh was arranged at the Ramada Inn using the state’s “information highway.”
At that conference, a representative of Interpath, a division of Capitol Broadcasting in Raleigh approached Bone and offered to install a POP (Point of Presence with local phone numbers) if the Chamber would guarantee payment for 50 customers a month.
Bone thought for a moment, “There is no way the Chamber can pay that bill” while simultaneously telling the Interpath representative “We’ll do it.”
Chamber board members, including Ron Bennett from then-Wachovia Bank made calls and many signed up. For a long time, the POP was located in the Chamber’s offices and provided a steady source of income for the organization.
From there, “the real estate companies just took off” with the internet, Bone said, and the region was soon far ahead of much larger resort towns in the area of online rentals and advertising.
The Chamber also got on board early, working with J.B. Ruffin from Ahoskie in setting up one of the first chamber web sites in the state.
Bone is very proud of the Chamber’s role in bringing the Internet to the region and the fact that the Chamber has constantly improved and expanded its Internet presence.
Today, members can access economic data on the region every month, visitors can find links to businesses and vacation properties and business members can manage much of their own presence on the Chamber site, including news and press releases, job posting and networking.
And Bone still has some of that original fiber used at the Ramada demonstration, which he keeps in his top desk drawer.
End of an era
When asked what are the most important issues still facing the business community, Bone has a hard time choosing just one. “Oregon Inlet bridge is vital. Hatteras comprises 25% of our business revenues in Dare County, so it’s important to the entire county.”
The mid-county bridge in Currituck County would provide significant relief to Southern Shores and Duck on summer weekends. Commercial fishing is still a concern to Bone, as is a recovery in real estate.
Bone talks about the real estate crisis with some obvious emotional conflict. “I hate it for the people who have lost their houses during the crisis. It affected many citizens. But the real estate market here is like a big old snake trying to swallow a big rat–somehow we’ve got to get the inventory down so we can move up again.”
The beach closures now affecting the Cape Hatteras National Seashore also worry Bone. “The closures have and will continue to have a severe effect on the economy along Hatteras Island.”
When asked how he succeeded in helping the Chamber and region become the economic engine it is today, he demurs again and gives credit to others.
“I attribute it to having the pleasure, comfort and plain good fortune to have around me some really, really good people. Great leaders, chairmen, board members, a good staff. People who were business leaders but also cared about the community. People who were not here by day and gone by night. I think this has just been my good fortune to have had this tremendous, tremendous support.”
Bone also credits the strong political support the Chamber received from former state Sen. Mark Basnight, commissioners Bobby Owens and Warren Judge, and politically active members such as R.V. Owens.
Any advice for his successor?
One final time his finger attacks the desk and he states emphatically, “You have to love this place. You absolutely have to love this place.”
John Bone talks about some of his souvenirs.
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