Saving the Tar Heel and See Sea: What’s old is new again

By on July 11, 2018

The pool area of the See Sea.

It’s possible to have your cake and eat it too, especially for advocates of adding more motel rooms to the Outer Banks inventory without the prospect of Virginia Beach-style high-rise eyesores.

On June 13, a small celebration at the Tar Heel Hotel in Nags Head may have heralded a turning point for those who want more options for visitors who eschew, for whatever reasons, weekly rentals in mammoth houses.

The reason for the celebration was the renovation and re-christening of the Tar Heel, one of the few remaining old-school accommodations that once dominated N.C. 12 from Duck to Hatteras village.

For the past two decades, these small “mom and pop” motels have been disappearing at a rate that many found alarming.

With each loss of one of these icons, memorable pieces of the Outer Banks many came to know and love also disappeared.

But thanks to a group of investors who wanted to preserve both the past and options for visitors who want something other than a vacation rental home, those losses may be slowing down or even reversing.

The Outer Banks Hotel Group came together, according to member Scott Midgette, as a result of a conversation he had with developer David Maso, concerning the loss of hotel and motel rooms along the oceanfront.

“Listening to the conversation in the community about the lack of and disappearance of old-school motels on the Outer Banks, we thought it would be a great concept try to put a group together and buy a hotel or two, renovate them and put travelers in them,” he said.

They talked to others who felt the same way and by February, a group had formed and they had made offers on two such icons: the Tar Heel in Nags Head and the See Sea in Kill Devils Hills.

Miraculously, the deals closed within a month, and 70 days later both had undergone a major facelift that brought the rooms, furnishings and exteriors into the 21st century while preserving the nostalgic retro look.

Once the properties went under contract, local social media swung into action, spreading misinformation and making assumptions that the properties would be torn down and converted to rental homes.

Take a tour of the See Sea

Photos by Roy Edlund

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Midgette had to get the word out that the group had no intention of tearing down the motels while keeping the planned improvements and renovations under wraps for what he hoped was a pleasantly surprising public unveiling.

The Outer Banks Hotel Group’s decision to save the motels runs counter to the predominant development patterns along the Outer Banks over the past two decades.

According to Midgette, under current zoning, the property occupied by the two motels could have been subdivided into seven or eight residential lots.

Economically, that decision path is very enticing.

Rental homes along N.C. 12 are still in demand while commanding premium prices.

A builder can turn a quick profit and an above-average return on investment building and selling rental houses while the buyer takes the long-term risk of recouping that investment.

Motels are a different story.

In this case, the builders are also the owner-operators and therefore will realize their profits and ROI over a much longer time period. And longer ROI times increase the risks for such investments.

“We wanted to save these motels and preserve a piece of the past. We feel there is a market for these motels and to our group, this just feels like the right thing to do.” Midgette said,

The renovations were made by Outer Banks Construction and Renovations, while the interior design, furnishings and local art were conceptualized by Sunny Berle, Allison Howell and Jordan Gutshall and supplied by Exotic Home Coastal Outlet in Kill Devil Hills.

OBRC is owned by Midgette, his father and Phillip Meggs. Meggs was the general contractor who oversaw the renovations.

The results were stunning.

The Tar Heel from above. Below, a flash from the past.

The Tar Heel is designed to appeal to its traditional clientele, anglers and vacationers who prefer the Nags Head area of the Outer Banks.

It’s close to Pirate’s Cove and the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center and the motel has always been a destination for shoulder season anglers who surf fish Nags Head beaches all the way south to Pea Island.

The Tar Heel is set up like a traditional exterior corridor motel, with an additional building on the south side of the property, forming a small courtyard.  The south building has eight king rooms, each offering a wet bar with granite countertops as well as a dining table and chairs.

The wet bar is equipped with an under-counter fridge, Keurig coffee maker, microwave and convection toaster oven, offering all the comforts of a full kitchen in a compact size.

The king rooms are all named for the fish you might hope to catch on an off-shore charter, including the King Mackerel, Mahi Mahi and of course Blue and White Marlins.

Four of the king rooms are pet-friendly. The rooms in the main building all feature two queen beds so that four adults can stay comfortably.

Rooms on the courtyard side feature a similar wet bar and dining set and are also named after fish, including Sheepshead and Spot.

Rooms on the pool side are named after bodies of water around the Outer Banks, including the Labrador Current room, which is pet-friendly.

The décor in each pays homage to fishing days past, mostly in the 50s and 60s. Classic photos from the Outer Banks History center and vintage postcards show enormous marlins at the weigh station, as well as girls in bikinis holding fish, showing not much has changed after all.

The See Sea will appeal to a slightly different market. It’s centrally located to numerous Kill Devil Hills restaurants and nightspots.

“You can stay here and never use your car,” Midgette says, noting that the beach, restaurants and nightspots such as Mama Kwan’s, American Pie, Miller’s, Dare Devil Pizza, Food Dudes and the Bonzer Shack are within walking and biking distance.

“We’re even thinking of placing racks that guests can use to rent bikes with the swipe of a card to visit these businesses instead of piling into a car,” Midgette said.

The See Sea theme is geared toward surfers and a younger, hipper crowd. In addition to the traditional motel rooms, there are also three small apartments.

Here the rooms are clustered around the pool, more like a little village than a traditional motel.

Each room is distinct from the others, with several different floor plans to choose from.

Some rooms offer views of the pool and ocean, while others have a front porch or stoop for gathering with friends old and new.

All are named with surfing in mind, from the single Queen room with an ocean view called Swells to a two-bedroom suite named The Big Kahuna.

The artwork in the rooms features dolphins, waves and the iconic Cape Hatteras lighthouse in its original location, which is, of course, a classic surf spot.

The rooms have all the amenities that the Tar Heel offers: the mini-fridge, microwave, Keurig and convection toaster oven, while the suites offer more of a full kitchen, some with full-sized fridges.

Both motels have newly remodeled pool areas and the new owners have provided gas grills, corn-hole boards and other games and amenities to encourage guests to mingle.

“For many, these motels were the places visitors came to year after year and they often met other families on their first visits and those families became friends. Often they would all come back the same week each year and long-term relationships were formed,” Maslin Seal, director of marketing for Village Realty.

In fact, Village Realty’s role in this venture adds another interesting and appealing aspect to the project.

“Our original intent was to self-manage like most motels,” Midgette told us. “But then we started talking with Village Realty. We met with Laik Lepera and his team and this is what they do best — putting heads in beds. They excel at that. The showed us a great deal on the management package, which allowed us to focus on the what we do best — the renovations and construction required to bring these hotels back.”

Lepera, who is Village Realty’s property services manager, and Seal, noted that Village Realty has always been a diverse property management company, with commercial, condo and other association management properties, residential and other motel experience as clients, including other old school/preservation properties such as the First Colony Inn in Nags Head.

“We’ve always wanted to expand our hotel room rental business,” Seal noted, adding that “it fills numerous niches for us from short-term vacationers to those who want to rent a room a day early or stay a day late to avoid the weekend traffic issues on changeover days.”

When asked how they plan to market the motels, Seal wasn’t going to give away that strategy.

But she did allow, “These places are so cool they almost rent themselves. When our web designers in Colorado were looking at the pictures, they were telling us they wanted to come and stay. You don’t often get that reaction for rental homes.”

While the See Sea’s three apartment-style rooms require a two-night minimum, the standard hotel rooms at each hotel can be rented for as short a period as one night, even on weekends, bucking the three-day weekend minimum other motels offer.

In a time when many visitors and locals feel a sense of loss each time an iconic motel, restaurant or local business is replaced by a large rental home or a chain store, the Outer Banks Hotel Group and Village Realty’s efforts to not only stop the clock, but turn back the time just a bit and preserve a bit of the old Outer Banks comes as a welcome relief.

Now it’s time to see if our visitors will agree and fill these rooms up.

On the web:
Tar Heel Motel »
See Sea Motel »

Take a tour of the See Sea during their open house on Wednesday:

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  • Beachcotton

    This is great news! Not only from a preservation point of view, but providing a balance I felt we were missing. Great job ✔️

    Wednesday, Jul 11 @ 8:47 am
  • surf123

    Thanks for saving two icons from the past from conversion into more rental homes. The insides are well-done. I went to Wildwood NJ a few years ago for a long weekend. We intentionally stayed in one of their 50’s era hotels. The facade and interior were period though everything was sparkling clean. After being there a day I noticed that we were interlopers as most everyone new other people and many told us this was “their week” for vacation. All were welcoming and it was a great short vacation. I highly recommend visiting these type of motels anywhere you travel. It’s a better experience and you won’t be staying in a room that resembles a hospital room.

    Wednesday, Jul 11 @ 10:42 am
  • surf123

    Website addresses would be nice and would complete the article.

    Wednesday, Jul 11 @ 10:45 am
  • Sam Walker


    Wednesday, Jul 11 @ 3:38 pm
  • local yokel

    Been watching the renovations from the exterior at both of these motels and was real impressed with what has transpired. I think they will both be very popular with visitors. There is practically no place I would what to stay at here if I was coming here to visit but the rooms in these two motels seem quite appealing. Particularly like the no driving while you are here concept.

    We have been traveling a lot the last few years to destinations in NC where you do not have to drive at all upon arrival and throughout the stay. Hopefully, we will see more thoughtful development in the future, but I doubt it.

    And what is up with that horrible looking renovation to the old Trading Post (the before Wings wings style store and head shop) on the beach road? The old version was tacky enough but it was anciently tacky. The new faux, looking for an adjective here, beachy cr*p(?) look is straight out of a touristy nightmare.

    Wednesday, Jul 11 @ 11:04 am
  • Windy Bill

    This proves that you can’t stop progress. This also proves that it is up to people who really care about the Outer Banks to set the direction of that progress!

    Wednesday, Jul 11 @ 1:05 pm
  • Randolph Thomas

    This is a wonderful effort to preserve the accommodations that gave the Outer Banks the appeal that attracted so many in the first place. Now if only they could resurrect those little econo-boxes on stilts at the White Marlin Motor Court.

    Wednesday, Jul 11 @ 1:22 pm
  • Shellie Anne

    Well done! When I stayed the only amenity was a fly swatter. So glad to see these renovated and the owners given a way out.

    Congratulations, they are lovely. Tell the fisherman to leave he blood guts and scales outside.

    Wednesday, Jul 11 @ 4:46 pm
  • Gina Marie

    You’ve done a great job remodeling these motels. We recently visited Atlantic Beach, NC and stayed at The Island Inn. It had been a 50’s motel, but has been completely renovated and is lovely. It’s only five minutes from the ocean, and is on the ocean side. It’s nice to know people are preserving, rather than tearing down to build a huge beach home or hotel.

    Wednesday, Jul 11 @ 7:00 pm
  • Nick

    Well done indeed, so much better than the McMansions that blight the beach!

    Wednesday, Jul 11 @ 7:21 pm
  • Luminous

    Thank You! to these devoted mom ‘n’ pop motel owners who continue to put money into improving their properties. Local town officials *say* they want to encourage the survival of these historic properties but then give breaks to multistory chain hotels and *especially* to rental palaces, which undermines the ability of mom ‘n’ pops to compete. Thank You, mom ‘n’ poppers, for fighting the good fight, and may the Force be with you.

    Wednesday, Jul 11 @ 7:41 pm
  • Kelly

    My husband and I just stayed at the Tar Heel. My husband was a little hesitant to stay, as he grew up on the OBX and was worried about what it had become. The Tar Heel more than surpassed our expectations! What a wonderful place! The staff was amazing and so helpful. The room was gorgeous with everything though about. We loved the hooks outside our door to hang out wet beach towels. The pool area was lovely. We will definitely stay at the Tar Heel again, though now I want to check out the See Sea, too!

    Thursday, Jul 12 @ 7:51 am
  • Mike

    Love that someone is trying to save these little motels and hotels in the banks. We have always been hesitant to stay at some of them when we visit because of the age. While the Tar Heel looks amazing, the cost of a 7 day stay is 90% of the price we pay for a full house literally on the beach. I understand that the investors have to get their return asap but the price point seems a little high comparatively. That being said, good for them if that’s what the market bears.

    Thursday, Jul 12 @ 10:35 am
  • Allen Bradley

    I love this. Year after year I drive by these places on Beach road. Good to see them renovated. I’ll for sure look into booking for one of my yearly trips.

    Friday, Jul 13 @ 11:41 am