The state of North Carolina has spent millions and may spend more on a remote Hyde County building, which then may have its operations transferred to a private partner to run as a for-profit enterprise.
In late January, the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission issued a 53-page report laying out plans to restore the state-owned Lake Mattamuskeet Lodge. The idea is fraught with problems, not the least of which is a method for disposing of waste generated by visitors and guests at the lodge. Turning the lodge over to a private operator is problematic, as the “legal and financial structures required to achieve such a partnership are still being developed.”
The lodge would compete with private businesses as well.
Details and specific revenue projections in the report, much like the lodge itself, aren’t easy to find.
The report is filled with statistics about visitors to Hyde County but fails to estimate the actual economic impact a lodge restoration would have on visitation to the area. The state has spent $6 million on the project, and the report estimates it will take another $8.3 million to complete it.
A private partner hasn’t been named, at least officially. But an architect associated with the project has said the partner is Hyde County businessman Benjamin Simmons Jr., described by the architect as “a local big-time farmer” and “a good businessman.” Simmons, who also goes by the first name Jamin, is involved in several business ventures and in December co-hosted Donald Trump Jr. on a hunting trip in Hyde County.
To make operation of the lodge economically viable, Wildlife Resources and Hyde County would develop a Mattamuskeet Lodge brand to generate revenue.
“Mattamuskeet Lodge has authentic intangible qualities that can be marketed and applied not only to the facility itself but also licensed to related local supporting businesses such as hunting guides, outfitters, local hotels and restaurants, seafood markets, and artists,” the report says.
“It is proposed that local businesses meeting certain quality control standards can enter into a contract to become an ‘affiliate’ of the lodge. Affiliates will be included in marketing opportunities, advertising campaigns, and lodge booking services. They will also be able to use the Mattamuskeet Lodge brand to promote their businesses.”
The report did not estimate how much a local business would pay to use the brand. Nor did it contain interviews with local businesses about the feasibility of such an arrangement.
The plan simply won’t work, Hyde County motel owner Mark Carawan told Carolina Journal.
“I cannot think of any Hyde County business that would pay money to use a branding scheme developed and managed by the state.”
Carawan supports plans to restore the lodge as an education and community center, but, he said, “This plan appears to be at odds with the federal legislation that gave the building to the state.”
He’s referring to the Lake Mattamuskeet Restoration Act, which Congress passed in 2006. The federal government agreed to transfer the lodge to the state of North Carolina so long as the state restored and maintained it and “use[d] the property as a public facility dedicated to the conservation of the natural and cultural resources of North Carolina.”
The law says if the secretary of the U.S Department of Interior at any time determines the real property conveyed isn’t being used for the stated purpose, the secretary can revert the property back to the U.S. government.
The proposed concept also may run afoul of the Umstead Act, a state law prohibiting government agencies from operating facilities that will compete with private businesses. WRC, as a means of circumnavigating the law, proposes setting up an independent board to manage the lodge operations contract, even though WRC would appoint a majority of that board’s members.
WRC contracted with Brian Dabson of the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to write a portion of the current report. Dabson’s study is called “Economic Development Impact of Renovating Mattamuskeet Lodge.”
“It is important to note at the outset that the actual impact of renovation will be determined by a host of policy, operational, and individual choices. As such there can be no definitive quantifiable return on public investment,” he wrote.
The report included many statistics of past visitors to the Hyde County area but no projections of the lodge’s potential impact.
“There have been no forecasts of the additional visitation levels over and above the current levels estimated to be between 32,750 and 58,000 refuge visitors that might be generated by a refurbished lodge,” Dabson states.
His top conclusion? “The historical and cultural importance of Mattamuskeet Lodge to the state of North Carolina may be justification in of itself for completing the renovation.”
The restoration plan calls for “14 simple but refined guest rooms, a farm-and-sea-to table dining room, and ample common areas for visitors and guests to connect with the rich natural and cultural identity of the region.”
The 23,000-square-foot lodge building, which sits on the south side of the lake, originally housed massive pumps used to drain water from the lake bed so the land could be diverted for farming. The smokestack was for the exhaust from the coal-fired steam boilers.
As for the private partner, several events point to Simmons having the inside track.
During Hyde County’s Swan Days on Dec. 10, Raleigh architect Mark Williard held a public presentation about the status of the lodge restoration project. Williard, who has worked for WRC for several years as part of the lodge design team, said Hyde County Manager Bill Rich identified Simmons as someone who was willing to operate the facility. Williard said Simmons already was working with the design team on ideas for renovation. His son, Benjamin Simmons III, has been a Hyde County commissioner since 2014.
Williard said Simmons is “a local big-time farmer. He owns the Berkley Manor in Ocracoke. He does outdoor event hunting tours and all kinds of things. He’s a good businessman,” said Williard. Simmons purchased the Berkley Manor in 2012 and operates it as a wedding and special-event facility.
Public records show Simmons is an owner or partner in about 20 companies and owns or co-owns several tracts in Hyde County. The largest totals more than 10,000 acres. He and his wife, Pam, own Dare to Hyde Outdoor Adventures and are affiliated with a county-based nonprofit, Cross Trail Outfitters, described as a Christian-based charity that mentors young men.
“Dare to Hyde Outdoor Adventures and Cross Trail Outfitters were pleased to co-host Donald Trump Jr. this past week,” Jamin Simmons posted to Facebook on Dec. 23. The Facebook posts included photos of Jamin and Pam posing with Trump Jr., who was wearing a Cross Trail Outfitters hat.
On Jan. 6-7, WRC hosted an event in Hyde County for state legislators. The flier said: “The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission invites you to attend Hyde County Economic Development Summit 2017 ‘Restoring Mattamuskeet Lodge.’” The event was held at Dare to Hyde Adventures Outpost, an old motel Simmons purchased in 2015. A WRC official told CJ that all members of the N.C. House and Senate received invitations.
(See illustrated timeline here.)
Interest in draining the shallow lake goes back to 1773, because farmers wanted access to the fertile soil at the bottom of the lake. The Provincial Congress authorized building a canal to drain the lake into the Pamlico Sound. The average depth of the lake is two to three feet, depending on the season. In 1911 the state sold the lake and surrounding land to a private company that planned to drain it and convert it to farmland. The company planned a new city, to be named New Holland.
In 1916 the company completed the pump house and began trying to drain the lake. Because the bottom of the lake is below sea level, efforts to keep it drained were unsuccessful. The private owners abandoned the project in 1932 and sold the lake and surrounding land to the federal government in 1934.
The federal government designated the 50,000-acre refuge Lake Mattamuskeet Wildlife Refuge, managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The centerpiece is the 40,000-acre lake, about 18 miles long by seven miles wide and the largest freshwater body in North Carolina. The region is a popular destination for bird watching, as well as duck and bear hunting.
In 1935 the Civilian Conservation Corps began renovating the building for a lodge, and the smokestack became an observation tower. In 1937 the facility opened as a lodge and operated that way until 1974, when Fish and Wildlife closed it because of operating losses. In 1981 a group of Hyde County residents was successful in placing the building on the National Register of Historic Places.
Through the efforts of former state Senate leader Marc Basnight, a Dare County Democrat, the federal government transferred the building and six acres to North Carolina in 2006.
In 1988 the General Assembly funded a study to evaluate the possibility of reopening the building. “The Regional Development Institute of East Carolina University coordinated the study and declared the building structurally sound and worth saving,” according to Lake Mattamuskeet, New Holland, and Hyde County, a 1999 book by Lewis Forrest.
In 2008 the WRC released a plan for the facility calling for it to become “operationally more like a bed and breakfast,” instead of the primitive facility it had been for years. CJ reported on that study in 2009. WRC failed to follow through on that plan.
On March 16, 2016, a group of renovation advocates held a presentation for the House Select Committee on Wildlife Resources. The group included WRC Executive Director Gordon Myers, Hyde County’s Rich, and Jamin Simmons, who was listed as being from Mattamuskeet Ventures. According to the meeting minutes, Simmons “presented about the Mattamuskeet Lodge Restoration Project and the public-private partnership to restore the lodge.” Simmons “stated that the ability to brand the lodge was the most important factor in making the venture profitable.”
Later, a provision in the 2016 budget bill ordered WRC to undertake advanced planning for the completion of renovations, and “explore opportunities for a public-private partnership for the future operation of the lodge and to optimize the sustainability and benefit of the lodge to the community.” The General Assembly also authorized WRC to spend up to $200,000 of its General Fund appropriation to conduct those activities. The provision required the WRC to report its findings to the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Agriculture and Natural and Economic Resources no later than Jan. 15, 2017.
About the WRC
The Wildlife Resources Commission, created by the General Assembly in 1947, is a state agency responsible for managing, conserving, and regulating North Carolina’s wildlife resources. The commission, according to current law, has 19 members. Each shall be “an experienced hunter, fisherman, farmer, or biologist, who shall be generally informed on wildlife conservation and restoration problems.”
The General Assembly appoints eight commission members, four each from the House and Senate. Those appointments are for two-year terms. The governor appoints the remaining 11 members, one from each of nine WRC districts serving staggered six-year terms, and two at-large members serving four-year terms.
The commission’s annual budget for fiscal year 2015 was about $80 million, with $25 million coming from the federal government, $20.5 million from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, and $11 million from the state’s General Fund. John Litton Clark of Clinton is chairman of the commission, which has about 600 full-time employees led by executive director Myers.