While some might expect the growth spurt in the town of Carolina Beach to cause major growing pains, town officials say the challenges posed are actually “good problems to have.”
“Generally speaking, growth is good so long as it is balanced,” said Mayor Joe Benson.
Having been in office for a little over a year, Benson is still focused on why he ran for office in the first place.
“It’s not so much about politics so much as it is giving back some of my time and energy to the town,” he said.
And most of that energy has gone to a new land use plan voted into place Feb. 6 to help guide solutions to the problems of parking and infrastructure.
“We are not straight up and down like Wrightsville Beach, and we’re not Sleepy Hollow like Kure, so we’re keeping in line with what residents were drawn to visually and what they sensed coming here,” Benson said. “Character isn’t something you can see; it is something you discover.”
A “purposely designed” committee of various voices created the updated land use plan following a process of input to design an ideal zoning plan, he said.
It has been 11 years since the last update, and Benson is confident the new plan will provide “the outcome of a strong desire to maintain Carolina Beach’s uniqueness.”
One goal is to create a town that is more bike and pedestrian friendly. Infrastructure is one challenge Benson indicates that comes with growth, but can facilitate updated town designs.
“Updating decrepit water, sewer and stormwater is inconvenient but necessary,” Benson said. “But, along the way, digging up the roads to fix the three allows the town a chance to streetscape, consider multiuse paths, new sidewalks, etc.”
Greg Reynolds, president of the Pleasure Island Chamber of Commerce, agrees that the recent growth is good for the town. He highlights such new development as Towne Place, which is set to contain the second location of the downtown Wilmington favorite Fork n Cork within a 12-unit condominium complex.
“Developments such as these with commercial on the first floor like the restaurant and residential upstairs are really nice,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds calls the current changes on the island, “different but dynamic with year-round activity, which is really important.”
Benson gives an example of a distillery whose application was recently approved for the highway business district on U.S. 421 and reveals the town’s desire to bring in more destinations, such as breweries and wineries.
“Destinations are on the rise,” Reynolds said.
Right now, Good Hops Brewing is the only brewery in Carolina Beach, but Benson says there’s room for three more.
“With four breweries, there could be an island brewery tour. These businesses compete with each other, but they also like each other,” he said.
“There really is a market for yearround with that,” Reynolds added.
Publix is expected to open this summer in the Federal Point Shopping Center with five additional retail shops within the complex that will provide opportunities for small businesses.
“Publix works from flash to bang,” Benson said. “They move quick. They intend to have it ready for customers for the Fourth of July.”
Restaurant businesses are booming also with staying power that they haven’t had previously.
“The quality of the food has expanded. People who live here expect that,” Benson said.
Benson attributes much of the growth to the “explosion of growth across the bridge.” Communities such as RiverLights, with hundreds of new residents, provide many new visitors to the beach. As a result, the greatest concern is parking.
Reynolds regrets that no parking decks were built in the town years ago, saying, “I said, ‘Build it now; we’ll need to later.’” But he said he thinks that going forward town officials will have no other choice than to build a parking deck.
“Parking is the most acute challenge we have,” Benson said. Because of this need, Benson thinks the deck is inevitable, especially since “the town owns the property where the deck is proposed.”
The main tourist draw remains the boardwalk, where Reynolds proudly reveals there are no business vacancies at the moment and many restaurants there are moving outdoors. Restaurants such as the Carolina Smokehouse use their decks for additional seating and to provide the coveted view of the ocean.
“It’s beautiful and not a scratch during Flo,” Benson said.
Reynolds said, “I get calls at least once a day asking if we are back and ready after the storm and I say, ‘We were ready two weeks later.’”
The town’s fund balance has received some scrutiny of late, but Benson said there is no need for concern and any money spent will soon be replaced through reimbursements.
“Despite some of the hyperbole, the town is not in financial jeopardy, not by a long shot,” Benson said.
“We made strategic decisions on the town marina, the island greenway and the multiuse path with grants that required upfront costs to the town, but reimbursements are coming back, which in turn will increase the fund balance.”
Additionally, he said, reimbursements are expected from FEMA for Hurricane Florence-related damage.
Since Town Manager Michael Cramer was relieved of his duties at the end of September, longtime town employee Ed Parvin has been filling in as interim town manager, but that will change when Lucky Narain takes the reigns Feb. 25.
According to Benson, Wilmington and Beaches Convention and Visitors Bureau data shows an increase in visitors to the town for 2017-18, despite the hurricane.
“We are unique and affordable to live here and for a middle-income family to spend a week here and not get fleeced,” Benson said. “As far as parking is concerned, those are good problems to have; we just have to solve them without spending a bunch of money or grabbing up land.”