Ocracoke’s Historic Island Inn and Commons Project gets a second wind

Ocracoke’s Historic Island Inn and Commons Project gets a second wind

March 25th, 2023

One of Ocracoke’s most famous landmarks is on the edge of a transformation.

In the not-so-distant future, a new Visitors Center will be housed within the first level of the historic Island Inn, while the second level will house the offices of area non-profit organizations.

Island Inn shortly after it was raised in June 2021. [Rory Kelleher photo]
Ocracoke visitors will be able to take a break during a village-wide exploration in a field of wildflowers or at a shaded picnic table that borders flower-covered arbors, and folks will even be able to access new public restrooms that are just a stroll away from the Ocracoke Lighthouse, Howard Street, and one of the village’s eight tram stops.

Preserving and repurposing the Island Inn, (interchangeably known as the Odd Fellows Lodge), has been a longstanding goal of the Ocracoke Preservation Society (OPS). But the project has garnered a second wind in the last few months as new contributors come to the table, and new ideas for the Inn’s funding and future are unveiled.

First, a brief history

The two-story Island Inn is an unmissable site along N.C. Highway 12, and the structure was first constructed in 1901 as a lodge for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, with Ocracoke’s K-12 school operating on the first floor until a new school was built in 1917.

As tourism trickled into the village after World War II, the structure became one of the island’s first hotels – the Silver Lake Inn – and it doubled as a dance hall and a social gathering spot for residents.

The site remained a popular hotel, restaurant, and social hub until the 2000s, but it ran into financial issues and fell into foreclosure until a family member purchased the hotel and surrounding property. By 2015, it was on the market again, and this is where the OPS stepped in.

In 2016-2017, the OPS was presented with a plan by a group of concerned Ocracoke citizens to purchase and preserve the site. The complicated sale, (which involved three separate closings in a day), took a year to piece together, but the renovation itself would prove to be a much bigger challenge.

Situated at ground level for its entire lifespan, the Island Inn had seen untold cycles of flooding over the course of 120 years. By 2018, it had fallen into severe disrepair, with the “new” additions to the property – and namely the wings that were added after World War II – completely unsalvageable.

The OPS subsequently razed and removed these add-ons to the structure, including both wings, the kitchen and apartment portions, and two small outbuildings, leaving the original 1901 structure standing alone.

The OPS had funds in hand to start installing public restrooms and to raise the property, but before these next steps could occur, Dorian hit Ocracoke Island in September 2019, and everything came to a standstill.

“Dorian was just six months of survival,” said Ken DeBarth, President of OPS, in an earlier interview. “We were working on getting those things going, and suddenly there are people that are homeless and living on sofas, and we couldn’t tie up contractors.”

Ocracoke slowly started to come back to life months after Dorian, but then the Coronavirus pandemic hit, and the project was shuffled to the background yet again.

Progress was nevertheless made during the height of the pandemic, however. In April 2021, the OPS completed the repair and replacement of the foundation beams, and also completed lifting the original lodge five feet in the air, protecting it from future flooding damage.

In the past several years, however, restoration work has been more or less piecemeal. Aspects of the renovation have been tackled when the OPS had funds and contractor availability, but the larger plan for the property – which includes parking, restrooms, and a large public greenspace – was a little muddled.

There was a goal line for the Island Inn project to be sure, but the specific moves to get there in terms of volunteers, funding, and all the organizational details in between, were mainly unclear.

Until now.

The multi-pronged effort that’s bringing the Island Inn Project back to life

On Tuesday evening, March 14, the OPS hosted an informal Open House at the Ocracoke Community Center. OPS members and partners associated with the varying aspects of the project were spread out at different stations, with each group tackling a different part of the project: namely, landscaping, funding, restrooms, and construction.

Ocracoke Alive and island students get together to plant fig trees in December 2022. [OPS photo]

It takes a village to complete a project this size, and in the past few months, the village has responded with enthusiasm.

“I think we got past Dorian and COVID, and people kind of got their breath, and the project just sort of sprang to life,” said DeBarth.

The community-wide effort arguably began in December 2022, when Ocracoke Alive and local students planted dozens of heritage fig trees on the property grounds. “Generations of islanders worked together to plant the figs and celebrate the revitalization of this historic site,” stated OPS in a popular social media post. “All of the young trees were rooted from ancestor trees across the island.”

From there, the enthusiasm of the community planting event spread, and a new team of volunteers came to the rescue.

“Last summer, it was sort of slow going. And then the kids got into it in December with the fig trees, and it lit up from there,” said DeBarth. “Energy brings energy, and everything started happening.”

The new wave of interconnecting Island Inn projects is spearheaded by both newcomers and folks who have been involved with the project since the beginning, and there are exciting new developments on all fronts.

From the first seeds of landscaping to an attractive new investment opportunity that will keep the property in OPS hands, there’s arguably more activity on the Island Inn project now than there has been in years.

An overview of the concurrent projects is listed below, and in the end, each piece of the puzzle will eventually connect to bring the Historic Ocracoke Island Inn and Commons – the official title – to fruition.

The funding opportunity that also makes money for donors

Before OPS Treasurer Charlie Ralston moved full-time to Ocracoke Island six years ago, the longtime accountant launched a unique but ingenious way to raise money for his local church in Indiana.

“He’s a very smart guy, and one of his comments to me was ‘Let’s say you walk in the front door of the bank and put down $1,000 and they pay you 2% interest on it. Then I walk into the bank and borrow $1,000 and I pay 8% interest on it,” said DeBarth. “But what if we met on the sidewalk?’”

Currently, the Island Inn has a five-year mortgage with $528,050.78 principal remaining, which is due in May 2023.

Island Inn shortly after it was raised in June 2021. [Rory Kelleher photo]

In order to make that payment, the OPS is offering promissory notes to investors, who will effectively serve as the new mortgagers or lienholders of the property until it is paid off in a 10-year timeframe.

In return for the investment, investors will receive 5% interest per year for the next 10 years.

“The original concept is that if you have IRA money, then you can direct some of those IRA monies into an investment in these notes, with no money out of pocket for you,” said Ralston. “So you would just say to the trustee of your IRA, ‘look, I want my IRA to invest in these notes with OPS.’ Just like you might say, ‘I want you to buy 1,000 shares of GM stock.’”

“Then we would issue a note in your name… and then this is solidified, and you’re a noteholder on an investment in OPS property. Then, you’re going to get 5% on that note, until the note is paid off in 10 years. So if it’s a 25,000 note, you’ll get $1,250 a year in interest, and at the end of 10 years, you’ll get your $25,000 back.”

“Basically, you’re acting as the bank. It’s no more difficult than that.”

It’s unusual for a nonprofit organization to offer a funding plan that actually makes money for people who donate, but the reason why it works for the Island Inn project is because of collateral.

“When you look at it, you might say ‘gosh, you’re going to have $525,000 worth of debt’ – which we do – but we have a million-dollar piece of property here,” said Ralston. “If we had to liquidate this property, we’d still be able to pay off all of the notes, and that’s the worst-case scenario.”

“There are only two downsides that I see here,” said DeBarth. “One is liquidity, should you ever need that 20,000 before the end of 10 years. The other is that maybe if you were a day trader, and you watch the financial channel every day, you might make better than a 5% [return.]”

OPS is asking for a minimum $20,000 investment, and anyone who has funds available through their regular investment account, cash, or retirement account can invest.

The 5% interest will be paid at the end of each year, and the note includes a security deed to the Island Inn property as collateral. At the end of 10 years from the note date, the principal will become due and payable to the note holder.

“What’s nice about it, I think, is that we’re not asking for a handout or a contribution. We’re asking for an investment,” said Ralston. “And that puts a whole different [spin] on the fundraising concept.”

For more information and to invest:

  • Contact Charlie Ralston at 812-580-8048
  • Call Ken DeBarth at 252-475-0869

The commons landscaping project that is springing to life

Debbie Wells is planting the seeds of the multi-faceted landscaping project that will transform the surrounding property of the Island Inn into a local landmark in its own right.

“I actually had this in mind for well over a year,” said Wells. “It slid into the background, but I kept thinking about it, and my good friend in Chapel Hill who’s a landscape designer said ‘I can help you with it, and get your plants for wholesale,’ and that’s exactly what I was waiting for somebody to say.”

Wells was impacted hard by Dorian, like everyone on Ocracoke Island.

“I was flooded out. Most everyone was flooded out. If you lived in town, and you had an older house, you were flooded,” she said. “But all’s well that ends well. It’s three years later, and I have some extra energy, so I thought ‘I’ll shift it to something different, and something positive.’”

Wells presented her plan to the OPS, which is divvied into multiple phases, and she received a rave response and permission to move forward.

The property is currently being cleared for the ensuing work, and Wells and her team will start by concentrating on an initial, one-third portion of the grounds. This section consists of the end of the property that borders N.C. Highway 12, rounding the corner to Lighthouse Road, which measures about 75 x 95 feet in area.

Once this portion has been graded, the soil will be turned over and enhanced, and the area will rest for the summer until the fall rolls around, which is an ideal time for planting the cedars, live oaks, red myrtles, yaupons, and grasses that will distinguish this part of the landscape.

In the meantime, the busy summer months will be dedicated to fundraising, with donors having the opportunity to leave their mark on Ocracoke Island.

“The way we plan to fundraise is kind of a two-pronged effort,” said Wells. “We’ll have a general fund through OPS landscaping, but then we’re also going to sell sponsorships for the oak trees, cedar trees, benches, and tables, so once we’ve established the prices of these pieces – hopefully by Memorial Day – we’ll be out in the community, face-to-face, trying to sell each of these items to individuals to dedicate or memorialize.”

In short, the public will be able to sponsor one of the commons’ key components, and a plaque and/or dedication panel will be added, with the name of the donor or loved one they want to honor.

This initial part project will hopefully be established by the end of the year. But while the scope of the entire endeavor entails a 5-year time frame or longer, Wells is forming an intricate plan for every corner of the expansive grounds.

“We’ll do some jasmine, and we’re looking at some red honeysuckle, and we’ll need a big, shaded arbor because this area is crying out to be an event space,” she said, surveying the design prototype.

For future phases, members of the committee are already testing plants for the wildflower meadows, or researching plants that will fit in with the setting but are also hardy enough to stand up to the elements.

“It really is a process, and we have a fair number of people on our committee who are really dedicated to gardening,” said Wells “So, we’re hoping that all of our expertise is going to come together really well.”

For more information on the Island Inn Commons and to help:

There are a lot of ways to help the Island Inn Commons Landscaping Project, as the endeavor needs gardening volunteers, tools, plants, and donations.

The public can keep tabs on the project and current needs via the Island Inn Commons Landscaping Project’s Facebook Page. Checks can also be made to the OPS with “landscaping” in the memo line, and the public can donate via the OPS website at https://www.ocracokepreservationsociety.org/.

The much-needed public restrooms

Plan for the public restrooms.

The Island Inn site currently has two port-a-potties that are stationed at the corner of the property, but new and permanent restrooms will be landing on the island soon.

“We have a project underway to place public restrooms on the Island Inn Property,” said Bob Chestnut, Ocracoke Occupancy Tax Board Chairman and longtime OPS partner. “The Ocracoke Civic and Business Association is managing the project, and they’ve got a long-term lease with the OPS for this site.”

There is already $250,000 designated for the restroom project, thanks to the Tourism Development Authority and a portion of the county’s occupancy tax, but the primary hold-up to date has been the actual construction.

“We’ve had the money to basically do this since before Dorian,” said Chestnut. “The first time we put this out for bid, the only bid that came in was from an off-Island outfit for $450,000… And then Dorian happened, and everything started getting pushed back.”

But a solution has already been discovered and is being implemented. A prefabricated restroom is being purchased, which will then be delivered to the site, and placed on pilings to protect it from future flooding.

The restroom will have two unisex bathrooms as well as decking, and although it’s a pre-fabricated structure, it will be designed to match the Island Inn, with a white exterior that fits in with the landscape.

“We’re hoping to get this order in within the next 60 days, and we’re probably six months out from there,” said Chestnut. “I think we’ll be done by the end of the calendar year – that’s the goal.”

The Island Inn renovation, and the heart of the project

The front of the “new” Island Inn

When it comes to the actual renovation of the Island Inn, the schedule is dictated by the funding.

As mentioned, a good chunk of the preliminary renovation work has been accomplished, which includes the demolition of the unsalvageable portions of the Island Inn, as well as the much-needed raising of the property well above ground level.

“When the Ocracoke Preservation Society purchased the property, it was an absolute mess,” said Tom Pahl, project contractor and former Hyde County Commissioner. “It was a total wreck and had been vacant for a long time, and it was in really bad structural condition.”

“So the first thing that OPS did after they bought the property was to tear off all of those [additions], and to start moving the building back to its original [1901] condition, which is what we’re going to restore it to.”

The end result will be a multi-purpose structure that will benefit the community in a number of ways. The first floor will be a spacious visitors center, while the second floor will be transformed into office spaces for local organizations to lease.

Attention to detail is key when it comes to preserving the original elements of the structure.

The interior plans for the Island Inn.

Even the future stairs for the elevated first level have been designed with a historic eye, as the small decorative squares that appeared in the original building will also make an appearance in the restored version of the Island Inn.

The plans are in place, and there’s a clear path forward – the only thing missing is funds. More than $200,000 has been expended so far on the demolition, elevation, and work on the roof, and there will be roughly $750,000 needed for the work moving forward.

“The timeline has more to do with funding than the actual work,” said Pahl. “What we’ve been doing is when OPS gets some money, they hand it off to me and I hand it off to my subcontractors, and we get some work done.”

It’s a slow process that had a long, multiple-year pause after Dorian, but the renovation is steadily progressing nonetheless.

“I’ve got a crew over there working on restoring the soffit and the fascia,” said Pahl. “It’s kind of been one step at a time, where the work has followed the arrival of the money.”

There’s optimism that the project will speed up in the months and years ahead, however, as just like every other aspect of the Island Inn project, there is more time, more funds, and more enthusiasm in the post-Dorian era.

Dorian and Covid – ‘Dovid I’ve heard it called – was such a double whammy for us,” said Pahl. “I think that’s why we’re all here now. We’re finally at that point now where we’re all going “Okay, let’s move forward.”

“And this project is moving forward, for the whole community,” he added. “It’s a great thing, and I’m happy to be a part of it.”

How you can help the OPS and the Island Inn project

Donations are always accepted online and can be made via the OPS website, which also features an online gift shop, a quilt raffle, and more.

About the OPS

The Ocracoke Preservation Society is a non-profit, community-based organization dedicated to the preservation of Ocracoke Island’s rich historical and cultural heritage. Founded in March 1983, OPS has maintained a free admission museum at the century-old David Williams House since 1992, and has assisted with other landmark projects and events in the Ocracoke community over the past four decades, including the 300th-anniversary event of the death of Edward “Blackbeard” Teach in 2018, and the 2018 purchase and restoration of the Island Inn property.

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