SOUTHPORT — It was an issue that the folks at SavetheCape.org thought they had put to rest, and it was a little like stumbling into someone walking ahead of you when they stop short, suddenly.
Two weeks before Christmas, they read in a newspaper article that the N.C. State Ports Authority had posted record profits for fiscal year 2012-2013 and that its plan for a “large scale, deep-water facility” in Brunswick County was very much alive, though still long-term in nature. As recently as last July, George Rountree, an authority board member, had told Save the Cape that the authority was “very sympathetic” to the proposal that the land set aside for that proposed international container port be turned into a national seashore or state park.
|Mike Rice and Toby Bronstein keep plugging away on plans to create a new park on the Cape Fear River. Photo: Judy Royal|
Save the Cape was already devising very specific plans for those 600 acres along the Cape Fear River and had used the $4,000 proceeds from two art auctions held in September and December to commission conceptual drawings that would accompany those park plans.
The Ports Authority’s December assessment, then, caught Save the Cape off guard. “To have (these plans) reappear at this time is frightening,” Mike Rice, one of the group’s founders and directors, told the newspaper at the time. “So we have to be very concerned and go back and revisit the whole issue as we did several years ago.”
“It was a very disappointing surprise,” Toby Bronstein, the other founder and director, remembers.
As an organization, Save the Cape grew out of public opposition to the authority’s plans for the new port. The idea of buying the land tabbed for the port came later, after the authority shelved the plans in 2012.
“I think we’ll always be in stop-the-port mode until there’s disposition of that land,” Bronstein told a newspaper reporter two years ago. “We don’t believe it’s dead. We believe (the disposition of that land) is simmering on the back burner. We don’t believe it’s as threatening today as it was a year ago, but we don’t believe it’s dead.”
But that’s not stopping Save the Cape from moving ahead with its alternate vision of what the land could become. It has joined with the Sea Biscuit Wildlife Center on Oak Island on a proposed bird and wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center on the land. Mary Ellen Rogers, the center’s founder and director, and Greg Schue, an architect, have toured the site.
“We see a state-of-the-art bird and wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center that will be the anchor; the crown jewel of the state park idea,” said Bronstein. “Nothing like it exists in North Carolina.”
Bronstein spent a year as a volunteer with the center when she arrived in North Carolina in 2007. She hopes that the collaboration between the two organizations will impart a sense of momentum to Save the Cape’s plans.
The inclusion of a specific park plan, with the Sea Biscuit Wildlife Center as its anchor, also opens the door to new, federal funding sources, Rice said.
|The N.C. State Ports Authority still owns the land but may be softening on the idea of a state park.|
“There is a bureaucratic ladder to climb,” he said, “and over the next nine months, we’ll be preparing a much more extensive prospectus.”
A biological survey of the tract’s natural communities is planned, Rice said. So is an analysis of a park’s potential regional economic effects.
Typically, center’s like Sea Biscuit are on or adjoin park land, he added. “What would happen here is that the park itself would be a landlord, with the Sea Biscuit Wildlife Center as a magnet attraction, something very special that would add to the appeal of the park,” Rice said.
The N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation would have to eventually be brought into the mix, he said. “They have a procedure,” he said. “They have criteria and they develop a plan. We are going to do as much as we can to do that work for them and give them a package that they can adopt, or not.”
There are, according to Rice, some subtle signs that the Ports Authority is warming to the idea of a new park. Every year, Audubon North Carolina conducts its annual Christmas Bird Count. For the first time, the authority allowed the birders access to the property for this year’s count.
“This signals to us a new spirit of cooperation,” said Rice.
“It’s a much more cooperative Ports Authority,” Bronstein agreed. “There’s a real spirit of cooperation, for which we are very grateful.”
But Save the Cape isn’t letting its guard down, Rice said. “We are not,” he said, “putting our weapons away yet.”