As the 2017 tourist season begins in earnest along the Carolina coast, the bustling enclave of Southport – population about 3,200 – shows few signs of wearing out its welcome.
On a recent Wednesday along Moore Street in the heart of the city’s central business district, out-of-towners window-gazed, locals walked their dogs and piped-in music offered up a calypso rendition of Don’t Worry, Be Happy – an appropriate theme for the 225-year-old community named Happiest Seaside Town in 2015 by Coastal Living magazine.
Known as the backdrop for 25 film and television productions, especially the Nicholas Sparks romance-thriller Safe Haven, the economy of the 3.8-square-mile city now feeds off tourism, not the 90 shrimp boats that once plied the waters where the Cape Fear River, Atlantic Ocean and Intracoastal Waterway converge.
On average, about 50,000 visitors have come to Southport each year since 2012, according to Randy Jones, the city’s tourism director.
He estimates that beach season brings in 60 percent of Southport’s visitors, with the balance visiting because of the buzz the city receives in the media. The majority of high-season visitors arrive on the Fort Fisher ferry, he added.
Jones, who in shorts and a nautical-themed shirt looks like a tourism promoter from central casting, is acutely aware that preserving Southport’s must-see reputation requires it to stay one step ahead of the crowds.
That means continuing to provide enough parking spaces downtown as well as ample overnight accommodations, especially during large-scale events like the N.C. Fourth of July Festival, which attracts an average of 40,000 visitors.
To keep tourists happy, Jones draws the line on paid parking. “No meters, and none in the future,” he declared, adding “We have a lot of secondary street parking.”
On accommodations, the tourism director said the approximately one dozen bed and breakfasts, inns and brand-name hotels in or near town, along with beach rentals, ensure an adequate supply of lodging for the near term. The newest hotel, the 70-unit River Hotel of Southport, is still expected to break ground later this year as capital continues to be raised, said developer John Sutton.
An example of when the growing hospitality activity can run counter to residential neighborhoods, some residents spoke out against the new hotel’s proposal last year, citing concerns about potential impacts of additional traffic and noise.
Increased demand for infrastructure seems inevitable as civic and business leaders collaborate on creating a growing number of public attractions.
In addition to the Fourth of July event, the city hosts the weekly Southport Waterfront Market, featuring more than four dozen tents and tables offering fresh produce, jewelry, ceramics, baked goods and other items.
Margaret Hardin, who was busy selling jams and pickles one recent Wednesday, said the event has quadrupled in size since its founding more than 10 years ago.
“More vendors, larger crowds and people keep coming back,” she said.
To help keep Southport on the map, the city will be introducing free Wi-Fi service, designed to end spotty coverage.
Decals will be placed in merchants’ windows alerting visitors to the upgraded service, funded with a $40,000 matching grant from ElectriCities, the public power cooperative.
Properties Change Hands
As more people discover Southport, some longtime residents have opted to leave, presenting fresh opportunities for commercial developers and homebuyers.
Oliver Landis, who with his wife co-owns Landis Lands LLC and opened Oliver’s on the Cape Fear just over a year ago, sees a market on the rise.
Business at Oliver’s, “absolutely exceeded our expectations” since opening on Super Bowl Sunday in 2016, Landis said.
Now the couple is preparing to add two enterprises on Moore Street, an oyster bar and a sweets shop.
Scheduled to open on Labor Day, the Southport Oyster Bar will feature a more limited menu than Oliver’s, a long coppertop bar and original 100-year-old brick walls at the site of The Pharmacy Restaurant, whose owners moved to Charleston.
The sweets shop, to be located in a renovated antiques shop directly across the street, will offer fudge, pralines, taffy and other confections.
“It seemed to us that our beautiful community was right in front of a tidal wave of popularity,” Landis, a former resident of Key West, said in explaining his decision to diversify.
That’s good news to Bill and Joanne Burns, visitors from the North who have returned to Southport more than a dozen times over the past 25 years.
“I like it. I like it when things build up,” Joanne Burns said.
As business locations change hands, so too are residences, and there are plenty of buyers waiting in the wings.
“You can see the license plates all over town,” said Jim Goodman, vice president for sales at Margaret Rudd and Associates.
Goodman says that while bidding wars among homebuyers are not yet commonplace in Southport, the average sales price spiked 20.8 percent, from $227,826 to $275,103 in April compared to a year earlier.
Steve Gainey, a Southport native who left town but decided to come back for good, acknowledged that some downtown residents have simply decided to cash in and move farther out in the county.
“A lot of it has been the opportunity to sell their property,” he said. “I’m not troubled by the changes thus far. The visual piece of what Southport has to offer is pretty much unchanged.”
But, he said, he misses the sights and sounds of the fishing industry of yesteryear.
“The character of the town changed from a small coastal fishing village to a tourist destination,” he said.
Despite such change, Gainey has launched a new walking-tour business, Blue Tarp Tours, which takes visitors on a 1.3-mile, 90-minute stroll that combines personal anecdotes with perspective on the city’s history and current ecological issues. The walks depart from the visitors center six days a week.
With the addition of Blue Tarp Tours, newcomers to Southport can now be introduced to the city by foot, bike, horse and buggy and golf cart.
Daniel Guetschow, the operator of Southport Fun Tours, sailed into town on his yacht, dropped anchor and now darts his cart around town, sharing a wealth of local knowledge and droll humor with his passengers.
On a recent jaunt, the former rock musician pointed out everything from the front porch where Andy Griffith kicked back in Matlock to the large white ibis population on a spit of land off Bay Street to the local site of the Underground Railroad.
Sitting behind Guetschow, visitors from Raleigh and Wyoming snapped photos and took it all in.
Said Landis, whose business fortunes rest largely on out-of-towners, “We have been discovered, and the thundering herd is coming."