The ongoing progress of the Island Inn & Commons project on Ocracoke Island was celebrated at an outdoor event on Wednesday, October 25, that attracted roughly 100 attendees.
The years-long project, which is spearheaded by the Ocracoke Preservation Society (OPS), is a large undertaking with multiple partners and volunteers who are working to transform the expansive site of the historic 1901 Island Inn, (also known as the Odd Fellows Lodge), into a new visitor center and public greenspace.
The two-story Island Inn is an unmissable site along N.C. Highway 12, and the structure was first constructed in 1901 as a lodge for the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, with Ocracoke’s K-12 school operating on the first floor until a new school was built in 1917.
In the decades that followed, the site was used as a popular hotel, restaurant, and social hub until the 2000s, but it ran into financial issues and eventually fell into foreclosure, as well as disrepair.
In the mid-2010s, the OPS was presented with a plan by a group of concerned Ocracoke citizens to purchase and preserve the building and the surrounding area. Since then, there has been a multi-pronged effort to transform the site, which includes the renovation of the building itself, a new commons and garden area, and a new public restroom which is scheduled to be operational in 2024.
All of these corresponding projects are being tackled by different organizations or volunteers, and all of these interconnecting components have had waves of new developments over the past few months.
“The open house event [on October 25] was a chance to show the community what we have done,” said Ken DeBarth, President of OPS. “Energy generates energy, and we think people are starting to be able to see what we are doing.”
Arguably, the most visible progress has been made to the N.C. Highway 12-facing front of the property, where Debbie Wells and a team of volunteer gardeners have spent the last year literally planting the seeds of a new public park and gathering space.
Starting with a blank canvas and envisioning a landscaping project in three parts, Welles has already completed the first two seasons of planting that will serve as the baseline for the many green changes to come.
In the winter and spring, Welles and her team planted live oaks along the perimeter of the property, installed arbors and benches, and then went to work adding the flowers, vines, and bushes that are growing strong today. Another wave of planting was conducted in the fall, and today, the site attracts countless Ocracoke visitors who pause to admire the new garden-like park that is designed for lingering.
The foundation of the new public restrooms is also now visible, and when construction is complete, the site will have four unisex stalls, with changing tables and sinks, as well as stairs and a handicapped-accessible ramp. There is already $250,000 designated for the restroom project, (thanks to the Tourism Development Authority and a portion of the county’s occupancy tax), and DeBarth expects the restrooms to be in working order by Easter 2024.
Meanwhile, like the landscaping project, the renovations to the 1901 lodge in recent weeks and months have also been clearly visible. The downstairs of the Island Inn was open to attendees at Wednesday evening’s open house, so that newcomers could get a sense of the layout and the footprint of the future visitor center.
“The roof is finished, and all of the soffit is done, and one side of the building towards N.C. Highway 12 is ready for siding,” said DeBarth. “We’re about to do the same thing to the front of the building as well, towards Lighthouse Road, so that will be a noticeable [development] soon.”
Project coordinators hope they can use a large amount of the structure’s original siding to maintain the building’s historic architecture as much as possible, but regardless of whether used or new siding is required, the cost for these materials will add up quickly. “We need about 11,000 linear feet of siding – so, two miles worth,” said DeBarth. “Whether we do this next step of the project in little bits at a time, or all at once, completely depends on cash flow and availability.”
In that vein, the October 25 open house wasn’t just an opportunity for the public to check in on the many new updates at the Island Inn & Commons project. It also served as a fundraising initiative, thanks to assistance from local organization, Ocracoke Alive.
In addition to the new flowers, trees, and sitting areas, 12 pieces of Ocracoke-centric artworks were also added around the perimeter in the spring of 2023, thanks to an OPS partnership with Ocracoke Alive. At the October open house event, the murals that were crafted by local artists were auctioned off to attendees, garnering an estimated $4,500 in donations that will go right back into the project.
“The murals got a lot of attention over the summer, so it may be a project we do again next year,” said DeBarth.
Though the October 25 event was certainly a celebration, there’s still plenty of work to be done.
Paying for the lodge renovation is a continual endeavor that is powered by everything from bake sales to potential grants, and the OPS will continue to solicit and find the funds required to keep the progress going.
But the landscaping and public restroom portions of the far-reaching project are in great shape, and will naturally come to fruition in the months and years to come.
“Only a third of the property has had landscaping so far, and as time goes on and construction equipment is moved, that project is going to grow,” said DeBarth. “The ongoing partnerships with the Ocracoke Tourism Development Authority and Ocracoke Occupancy Tax Board continue to be vital, as is our partnership with the Ocracoke Civic & Business Association and Ocracoke Alive… so it’s safe to say that this has grown into a real community project.”
“Like everything else on Ocracoke, we’re making it up as we go along, and we’re moving forward bit by bit,” said DeBarth. “But we’re definitely moving forward, and we’re glad our community can see everything that we’ve accomplished so far.”
How you can help the OPS and the Island Inn project
Donations are always accepted online and can be made via the OPS website. More information on the OPS, which includes a link to the online gift shop, can be found at https://www.ocracokepreservationsociety.org/shop.
About the OPS
The Ocracoke Preservation Society is a non-profit, community-based organization dedicated to the preservation of Ocracoke Island’s rich historical and cultural heritage. Founded in March 1983, OPS has maintained a free admission museum at the century-old David Williams House since 1992, and has assisted with other landmark projects and events in the Ocracoke community over the past four decades, including the 300th-anniversary event of the death of Edward “Blackbeard” Teach in 2018, and the 2018 purchase and restoration of the Island Inn property.
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