The week of the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament is always a busy one on the Crystal Coast of North Carolina. This year the 63rd annual running of the world-famous deep-sea fishing tournament with a deep local history is bigger and busier than ever.
A record number of boats (270) and anglers are competing for record-high prize money ($4.7 million); bursting crowds schooling like shad to watch fish hoisted on the scales on the Morehead City waterfront; visitors spending their money at local restaurants and shops, renting hotel rooms or beach houses, and maybe even planting the seed for a future coastal real estate purchase; the booming Big Rock is one high-profile sign of a booming, post-COVID comeback for communities like those in Carteret County and ones like it across North Carolina.
With the passing of pandemic panic and the associated easing of COVID-19 restrictions, consumer demand is back. Those consumers are flocking to places like the Crystal Coast.
Although the tournament was held last year amid COVID conditions, Jim Browder, executive director of Crystal Coast Tourism Development Authority, says the Big Rock is an important beacon for bringing excitement back to the local economy.
“Business is truly booming on the Crystal Coast!” exclaimed Browder to Carolina Journal.
“We are very proud of Big Rock for playing a continued role in the growth of tourism. The tournament was held during the pandemic, in a very respectful manner last year, with strong attendance, but 2021 has been a great surprise with the record participation, energetic crowds, and, of course, full hotels and vacation rentals. The Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament is our first major event in our post-pandemic world and has brought a much-needed excitement level back to our communities, residents, and vacationers following a difficult year.”
To be clear, last year’s tournament, kicking off an anxious approach to the local tourism season, was no slouch. For one, basketball mega-star and N.C. native Michael Jordan and the crew of Catch 23 competed in the tournament and weighed in a 443-pound blue marlin to much fanfare and international headlines.
But, especially within the context of the economy suppressing effects of COVID restrictions, and partly, perhaps, as a consequence of them, Carteret County enjoyed record-breaking occupancy tax revenue over summer 2020. ‘Staycations’ and escapes to less restrictive environs as the most stringent public health orders were lifted resulted in successful summer for the Crystal Coast economy.
This year, though, is different.
Don Kirkman, director of Economic Development for Carteret County, shared with CJ how the focused momentum from last summer never waned. On the contrary, it has turned into an all-out surge this summer, inundating the Crystal Coast with economic activity and all the growing pains that come with it.
“After the stay-at-home orders were lifted we experienced a surge in visitation, with records set each month beginning in July 2020 and continuing every month since,” said Kirkman.
“Many people [and] families migrated to the coast and other resort destinations during COVID, and Carteret County was no exception. Our real estate sales activity, measured by real estate excise tax collections, also reflects the surge in interest in real property ownership in the county. These figures reflect both an increase in transactions and higher values, which have been driven by significantly increased demand … inventory is very low for both purchase and rental properties.”
Here again, the Crystal Coast serves as a microcosm for national patterns shaping the ‘reopening’ economy. The post-COVID reopening features record spending in Washington and easy money policies from the Federal Reserve that fuels a surging demand, but it is juxtaposed with a supply-side world in which pandemic-related supply chain disruptions have contributed to scarcity and driven up prices for everything from lumber to bait and tackle.
For a place like Carteret County, virtually surrounded by saltwater instead of pools of workers, labor and real estate pressures are especially acute, says Kirkman.
“Our 3.6% April unemployment level reflects pre-pandemic unemployment rates [and] our employers are facing a severe workforce challenge,” Kirkman said.
“The causes are many, but coastal destinations face unique challenges because half of what would ordinarily be a labor radius is water. For example, if you lived in Kinston, you would draw a circle around your place of employment from which workers would reasonably be able to commute to your workplace. Along the coast that becomes a semi-circle.”
Ironically, it is the other half of that semi-circle that draws so many visitors. Whether the aim is to reel in a big catch of what’s swimming in it, dig your toes in the sand on the edge of it, or to merely adore a view of it from the “pizer” the family, that big body of crystal blue water creates a bit of a Catch 22, even if it attracts Catch 23.
“The surge in visitation is placing additional demands on many employers, and our population is simply not large enough to service both our permanent residents and our second homeowners and visitors,” lamented Kirkman. “The increasing cost of for-sale real estate and rentals is making it increasingly difficult for hourly and service workers to be able to live here, as well as educators, first responders, health care workers, and local government employees.”
While Big Rock week may represent the single-most concentrated influx of deep-pocketed dingbatters, as locals may say, the overall trend of incoming buyers driving competition for real estate with local residents is as old as the town of Morehead City itself. It is a theme repeated in local economies of in-demand locations across the nation, sharply exacerbated by macroeconomic trends of too many dollars chasing too few goods.
Eye-popping prices for real estate on the watermark the listings in the Morehead City area, and precious waterfront lots — without houses — command $1 million asking prices. Locals complain of having to compete with cash buyers from out of town driving prices out of reach. Increasingly, those interested in relocating to Carteret County are advised by the peanut gallery to not waste their time searching for low and middle-income options on the Crystal Coast.
“It’s crazy,” says Morehead City resident Timothy Brothers. “You can’t find anything unless you want to pay with an arm and a leg.”
Even the renting process was a bit of a gamble, he attests, reinforcing points made by Kirkman.
“The scarcity of places to put multi-purpose units is near total, unless you go to Newport or fight for rezoning, which costs money and takes time,” Brothers asserted in an interview.
Brothers, a local contractor, recently sold a home he built and lived in with his wife, complete with water views, in Morehead City. The plan was to build and relocate locally to another house, but now they are renting, indefinitely, because options are so limited. He watches local real estate listings, like a first mate searching for a grass line offshore, for signs of an opportunity.
Opportunity is exactly what local officials focus on to dull the pain points that come along with a booming local economy like that of the Crystal Coast in 2021. Local officials will have to manage both into the horizon; plans for the completion of new Interstate 42 stand to increase numbers of visitors and residents to Carter County exponentially in coming years.
Meanwhile, opportunity abounds for aspiring Big Rock champions fishing this week for a chance to reel in millions in prize money. So far, two blue marlin have landed on the leaderboard. One of those fish automatically wins the Fabulous Fisherman prize of $828,750 for being the first fish over 500 pounds.
Jordan himself briefly held the top spot in the Gamefish Dolphin category.
Over the remaining days of tournament fishing on the Big Rock offshore of the Bogue Banks, “The Big Rock Store” will sell hundreds of thousands of dollars in apparel to tourists, restaurants will somehow manage to serve the throngs, even under staffing pressures, hotel and vacation rentals will remain full to the brim, and family dreams of a house on the Crystal Coast will spark.
The post-COVID economy of Carteret County is on a tear, highlighted by what promises to be another banner year for the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament. Locals may be mommicked by the unrelenting pace of activity since reopening trends began in earnest last summer, but it is a far better outcome than the ‘worst case’ projections that local North Carolina economies faced amid the pandemic panic just 15 months ago.