By Jeff Hampton
The Virginian Pilot
Jennette’s Pier was quiet on a recent, sunny Monday afternoon except for two guys chatting as their fishing poles leaned against the wood railing. Fish weren’t biting. Water’s still too cold.
But plenty was happening otherwise at this 1,000-foot pier, the longest of its kind on the Outer Banks.
Jennette’s Pier marks its fifth anniversary this year after reopening as a state-owned facility. It serves as an oceanfront outpost for the North Carolina Aquarium in Manteo, manager Mike Remige said.
The pier has fallen and been rebuilt through calamities like hurricanes and budget shortfalls since it was constructed by businessman Warren Jennette 77 years ago.
“This pier is a symbol of Nags Head, and it has been since it was built in 1939,” Mayor Bob Edwards said.
That Monday, three 90-foot-tall wind turbines churned, generating enough electricity to power all the lights on the property. Sensors measured water temperature in the surf below.
A dozen or so surfers took advantage of wave action over sandbars created by rip currents flowing along the concrete pier pilings.
Researchers carry out oceanography experiments in a wooden shed built on the pier deck. Inside are advanced computers and a trap door where divers can lower themselves to the sea on a steel platform.
An antenna atop the research shed receives wind, wave and current data from a buoy 9 miles offshore. A water treatment plant recycles 87 percent of the facility’s water use.
Inside the two-story, 16,000-square-foot pier house are a gift shop and a lobby featuring an aquarium of live local fish swimming around a replica pier piling. Close by is an interactive screen that, with a touch of a finger, identifies different types of phytoplankton and zooplankton. A conference room upstairs attracts groups from all over the state. Two weeks ago, Duke University officials met for a discussion on cancer research.
“I think educationally we have achieved all the goals we had hoped for,” Remige said.
Last year, the pier hosted nearly 190,000 visitors, 206 programs, including youth fishing camps, and 84 student field trips. Fishing fees and gift shop revenue generate about $1.2 million, enough to cover the pier’s operating budget, Remige said.
The structure was in disrepair and about to be torn down for a development when the North Carolina Aquariums Society stepped in and bought the 5-acre site in 2003. A few months later, Hurricane Isabel tore 500 feet off the wooden pier.
“We continued to operate what we jokingly called Jennette’s Porch for two more years,” Remige said.
That condition was not sustainable. The North Carolina General Assembly agreed to the state taking ownership. In 2009, construction bids came in at nearly twice the $14 million budget. The project was completed in 2011 for $25 million.
The pier deck stands 25 feet above the water, above the storm surge from Hurricane Isabel. Storms don’t push this pier around much, Remige said.
“It’s built like a bridge,” he said.
Two years ago, House lawmakers proposed selling the pier, reasoning that the money could go to other projects and that maintenance on the pier would get more expensive as years passed. The Senate and local elected officials objected, and the pier remained public. Last year, Nags Head passed ordinances making it difficult for anything else to operate there but an educational pier, Edwards said.
“It’s kind of like the people of the Outer Banks,” Edwards said. “We might get knocked down, but we come back better than ever. The pier has done that.”
Jeff Hampton, 252-338-0159, email@example.com