Town determined to move forward on 50,000 sq. ft. site

After concluding a series of public input sessions last week, the Town of Manteo is moving forward with developing a Town Commons at the old Fort Raleigh hotel site that would include parking, green space and other outdoor features.

      Local landscape architect John Robbins will now take the community’s suggestions to the drawing table as he comes up with a design for the 50,000-square-foot site that currently houses the hotel and several other Dare County-owned buildings. The design will then go to the Manteo Planning Board and Board of Commissioners for their consideration.

      The town has entered into a 25-year lease agreement with Dare County to develop and maintain the site, and the two entities would partner to pursue grant funding once a design is on paper. Manteo Town Planner Melissa Dickerson said a price tag couldn’t be put on the project until the design phase was complete.

      Dickerson said that, while grant funding could take some time to identify, the project was a priority among town officials. “We are going to go as quickly as we can because that is the charge that has been delivered to us,” she said during a March 20 public workshop on the project. “Once we have a design, then we will really be able to go after grant dollars and finalize applications.”

      The idea for such a town square has been a priority on Mayor Bobby Owens’ agenda since taking office in 2017, and its backers hope it will play a vital role in the revitalization of downtown Manteo. The town, which recently hired Asheville’s General Services Director James Ayers to replace retiring Town Manager Kermit Skinner, is engaged in a public discussion over its future as it tries to balance its small-town feel with the need to embrace new development.

      Roughly 40 residents brainstormed during the workshop on March 20, the last of three sessions the town sponsored to solicit public input for the parcel nestled between Budleigh and Ananias Dare Streets. Along with parking, participants favored incorporating historic signage, decorative water fountains, adequate lighting, seating, outdoor sculptures and shade trees into the Town Commons design. They also supported the idea of utilizing the parking area for special attractions and events, such as an ice rink, in the off-season.

      “We want the Town Commons to be a special feature that people come to, not just for parking, but just to come sit, to eat their lunch, or wait for someone to shop in downtown,” noted Robbins at the conclusion of the workshop.

      “I think the project invites wayfinding from the highway into town,” Manteo resident Bill Massey also noted during the workshop. “With this project, we will hopefully be directing visitor traffic to come down Budleigh Street and park [in the Town Commons] to visit downtown. Now it’s just a hodgepodge of every kind of sign, well-intentioned, but there is no consistent wayfinding throughout Manteo.”

      As part of the larger conversation, longtime Manteo businessman and political figure Malcolm Fearing addressed the group about the need to restore two-way traffic to Budleigh Street, noting that the shift to a one-way street in 1980 has significantly hurt local businesses.

      Town Planner Dickerson said the county plans to first demolish the old Fort Raleigh Hotel – built in 1931 and the subject of unsuccessful preservation efforts for years – as well as the North Carolina Office of the Public Defender. The Mount Olivet United Methodist Church parking lot is also part of the project and would be utilized when church services were not being held.

      Demolition of what is now the Dare County Youth Center and former county commissioners meeting room, also on the site, would come later.

      “The county plans to include these in the site eventually,” Dickerson told residents at the workshop. “But they have obligations to their tenants at this point, so until they work arrangements…these buildings will remain on the site for now.”

      She later told the Sentinel that the county has an active demolition permit for the hotel and public defender’s office, but that permit is on hold until project plans are in place and grant money is identified in order to avoid an empty parcel in the center of town.

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