Picture This, September 2012 — Pier into the future

Pier into the future

On the edge of the deep blue is a green modern marvel preserving the past.
The cobia are still scrappy, the spots still good eating. Otherwise, Warren Jennette might not recognize the Nags Head fishing pier that bears his name. Where the Elizabeth City fruit and produce wholesaler built his of untreated wood in 1939, a steel-reinforced concrete wonder, featuring wind power and geothermal heating, stretches 1,000 feet into the ocean. The new pier preserves a pastime the old one, and those like it, nurtured. “As recently as the mid-1990s, North Carolina had 36 — a quarter of piers from the tip of Maine to south Texas,” General Manager Mike Remige says. “By the early 2000s, that had dropped to 18. The culture is disappearing.” Reopened in May 2011, Jennette’s Pier helps hold the line as soaring real-estate values and vicious storms claim others.
Developers were on the verge of building luxury condos here, too. “There was a local public outcry,” Remige says, “to preserve what was seen as a vanished part of the culture.” The North Carolina Aquarium Society, the nonprofit arm of the aquariums division of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources, wrangled a $4.6 million grant from the state to buy it in 2003. That September, Hurricane Isabel clobbered the coast, knocking out more than 500 feet of the pier. It closed two seasons later, but the Aquarium Society had a plan: rebuild the pier for educational, as well as recreational, use. Construction began in 2009 and cost $25 million. Perched on concrete pilings, some as long as 80 feet, it’s designed to withstand a Category 3 hurricane’s 135 mph winds.
The state picked up the tab and the deed. The aquariums division employs Remige and eight others to run the pier, which attracted more than a half-million visitors in the fiscal year ended June 30. Though it’s supposed to be self-supporting, startup costs caused revenue to fall just shy of covering the nearly $1 million operating budget. It should break even this year, Remige says. The tight budget pinched, at least temporarily, plans for state-owned piers at Emerald Isle and Carolina Beach.
To placate private pier operators, who complained about having to compete with the state, Jennette’s fee for adult anglers is $12 a day, $2 more than most piers charge. Kids fish for half that. Sightseers are asked to pay a $2 donation. Like the Roanoke Island, Pine Knoll Shores and Fort Fisher state aquariums, the pier has exhibits on aquatic and shore life — though it focuses on the habitats and inhabitants directly below it. Green here refers to more than the hue of coastal water. Three wind turbines generate enough electricity to power seven houses, and fresh water is reclaimed to use in its toilets. At the end of the pier, scientists research how waves and tides might generate power. “No matter what,” Remige says, “wooden piers are going to sooner or later disappear because of storms or because owners realize their land value is so much greater for other things.” But Jennette’s Pier, he says, is here to stay.
— Edward Martin