Colin Campbell, NCInsider.com
A century-old hunting lodge on Lake Mattamuskeet will get some much-needed repairs in this year’s state budget, but it’s still unclear when the facility might reopen to the public.
Located in a remote area of coastal Hyde County, the Mattamuskeet Lodge first opened as a pumping station in 1914 in an attempt to drain the lake and replace it with farmland and a town called New Holland. The federal government ended that experiment when it bought the property in the 1930s, and the building was converted to a hunting lodge, with an observation tower that resembles a lighthouse. Ownership was eventually transferred to the state, and the facility was popular for weddings and events until it was closed in 2010 when engineers found structural damage so severe that the second-floor ballroom could collapse under the weight of an event.
A two-sentence provision tucked into this year’s budget directs the Wildlife Resources Commission, which oversees the facility, to “repair the roof and stabilize the tower … no later than June 30, 2018.” The budget doesn’t allocate any money for the project but tells the commission to use “funds available to it.”
Gordon Myers, executive director of the Wildlife Resources Commission, said this week that he doesn’t yet have an estimate on how much the repairs will cost, and the agency is working with a design firm to figure out how much work is needed.
“It will certainly shift our priorities in terms of our capital dollars,” Myers said of the budget provision. “I’m not sure what will be deferred. … We feel pretty confident that we can meet the schedule given to us.”
Myers said the building is currently “an empty shell” following other repairs designed to keep it structurally sound. The roof still has major problems, but the observation tower is “pretty stable,” although more work could be done.
The repairs, Myers says, will “leave the facility in very good condition to allow enough time to sort out the details of what is the best long-term management strategy.”
Legislators didn’t address that issue this session, adjourning without discussing a January report by the Wildlife Resources Commission that recommends a public-private partnership to fully renovate the building. The report says the facility should include 14 hotel rooms, a large ballroom and meeting spaces, a restaurant, gift shop, free tours and museum-style exhibits for tourists.
The state has spent about $5.7 million on building repairs since 2007, and the report estimates that an additional $8.3 million is needed to complete the renovation and reopen the lodge. A previous study had looked at the option of the state running the facility but determined that “the annual cost to operate the lodge would exceed income, in part because “a sophisticated and targeted marketing effort and business operation would be essential.”
In the public-private partnership model, the Wildlife Resources Commission expects the operator could generate extra revenue by serving as a tourism hub for the region, partnering with outdoor adventure outfitters and other local businesses to lead marketing efforts.
Any renovations beyond the repairs called for in this year’s budget remain on hold until state and local leaders decide on the lodge’s long-term future. “We can certainly move forward with planning, but we would want to do that in concert with the legislature, the (governor’s) administration and Hyde County,” Myers said.
Hyde County leaders are hopeful a renovated and reopened Mattamuskeet Lodge can drive tourism to the county’s sparsely populated mainland. Much of Hyde’s tourism currently centers on Ocracoke Island, but leaders hope to better market the nature attractions of the lake, the Mattamuskeet Wildlife Refuge and the Swan Quarter National Wildlife Refuge.
“Hyde County mainland has such numerous and unique natural assets, and the lodge represents a potential hub to utilize those assets through outdoor play and recreation,” assistant county manager Kris Noble said in an email. “Hyde County mainland is super rural with gas stations and directional signs being few and far between and can often be challenging to visiting tourists. Mattamuskeet Lodge is the perfect backdrop to showcase world-renowned migratory bird populations, some of the largest black bears in the state in unbelievable numbers, freshwater and saltwater fishing, crabbing.”
Noble said the lodge served as that tourism and event hub when it was open, and locals and visitors have fond memories of the facility. She says the “economic stimulus is needed in our area and all of northeast North Carolina, and the investment to make that happen is long overdue.” But some are skeptical of the public-private partnership approach. The Carolina Journal, a publication of the conservative John Locke Foundation, wrote in January that “the idea is fraught with problems, not the least of which is a method for disposing of waste generated by visitors and guests at the lodge.”
“Turning the lodge over to a private operator is problematic, as the ‘legal and financial structures required to achieve such a partnership are still being developed,'” the Journal wrote, citing the January report.
The legislative committees that oversee the Wildlife Resources Commission could review the options and take action during next year’s session.
Colin Campbell is editor of the Insider State Government News Service. Follow him at NCInsider.com or @RaleighReporter. Write to him at [email protected]