During federal shutdown, visitors improvise at aviation memorial
Despite the federal government shutdown that has halted visitor services here, the locked gates to the U.S. 158 entrance of the Wright Brothers National Memorial have done little to stop visitors from parking along the highway and walking onto the grounds of the famous National Park Service (NPS) site in Kill Devil Hills.
But even as vehicles have lined the highway and crowded the entrance outside the gates, the shutdown has frustrated some visitors interviewed by the Sentinel who were disappointed to find a less than fully functioning site when they arrived.
“Of course I was kind of upset,” said Jay Hwang of Richmond, Va. as he stood outside the locked gate navigating the best place to park on Dec. 27. “We planned to visit specifically for the Wright Brothers. It was our first time.”
The federal shutdown — the second to affect the Outer Banks NPS sites in the last year — comes at a time when visitors to the Outer Banks are often seeking out the area’s attractions and rich history rather than its summer weather, crowded beaches and warm ocean temperatures. The closure also comes on the heels of the October grand re-opening of the Wright Brothers visitor center, which underwent renovations for roughly two years.
The Kill Devil Hills memorial is among three NPS sites affected by the latest shutdown, along with Fort Raleigh National Historic Site on Roanoke Island and Cape Hatteras National Seashore. While grounds at those sites are open, visitor services have ceased. Pea Island and Alligator River National Wildlife Refuges on the Outer Banks are also closed to visitors.
According to an Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce report on visitation to key sites on the Outer Banks, the National Park Service sites enjoy a steady stream of visitors at this time of year. In December of 2017, the report estimated that 78,316 people visited the Cape Hatteras National Seashore. During that same period, 10,319 visited Fort Raleigh Historic Site and 10,512 visited the Wright Brothers National Memorial.
Barbara and David Reulxemia, a couple from Orange County, CA, parked along U.S 158 to get a chance to walk the grounds. They said they were disappointed to find that visitor services were closed. They had made the journey to the Outer Banks from Norfolk, Va., where they were visiting family for the holidays.
“We’ve had to hunt and peck to find places that were open,” said Barbara, who noted that she and her husband visited the North Carolina portion of the Dismal Swamp earlier in the week because it was state-run, and that they also toured Virginia’s Jamestown settlement.
But as the couple walked across the grassy expanse in front of the Wright Brothers Visitors Center, she said of the closure: “It’s very sad. I have a doctoral degree in air and space law, so this is hallowed ground. But still, I’m disappointed there is not gift store open, or someone here to share the history.”
Others walking the grounds voiced a similar sentiment.
Han Kreitner and Michaela Enrentraud of Austria said they flew in from Charlotte and were planning to travel to Florida after visiting the Outer Banks. “It was good to see the outside [of the site], but we were disappointed the visitors center was not [open],” Enrentraud said, as they concluded their self-guided tour of the grounds. “My husband is very interested in flight and airplanes.”
Lee Nettles, executive director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, said that as of Dec. 27, his group hadn’t fielded too many questions regarding the NPS closures. He noted, however, that could change if the shutdown lasts into 2019.
Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce President Karen Brown also said her office hasn’t received many calls regarding the shutdown either, but anticipated it may change after the holidays. “I’m amazed at how many people have been parking out front [of the entrance],” she noted of the steady line of cars parked along U.S. 158 near the entrance.
“That place is really special, there are always people there,” she said. “At this time of year, people are not looking to lay on the beach, they are looking to do other things, and with the remodeling [completed], they want to see it.”
As for Mike Tarrant of Durham, N.C., he was walking the grounds with extended family from Pittsburgh, Pa. on Christmas week. “Obviously, we are disappointed,” said Tarrant, adding that a family member was furloughed due to the shutdown. But it hadn’t registered with them that the Kill Devil Hills site would be closed during their trip.
“The shop is closed, and the folk aren’t here who can tell the story…and see how far we had to walk,” noted Tarrant smiling, pointing to his car along the highway. “This is not the full experience.”