Swansboro commissioners have agreed to seek a state grant that would link the Dock Walk at Bicentennial Park with the town’s public dock at Moore Street.

If approved, the grant would pay for building a 12-foot-wide wooden walkway from the park’s concrete walk, downriver 150 feet, according to information from Chris Seaberg, town manager.

Part of a decades-old idea known as the Dock Walk, the project under consideration is a partnership between the town and Randy Swanson, owner of the property that the proposed Dock Walk would cross.

Years ago, the town officials proposed building a walkway from the former Swansboro school building, now a multi-family housing complex, downriver past Casper’s Marina and all the way to Ward Shore Park. At the time, Casper’s was the only site in town open for overnight docking.

The project foundered though because owners of residential property, primarily, were reluctant to allow a public “sidewalk” to pass between the edge of their property and the river. Over time, the area known as the Swansboro Historic District, was rezoned to include commercial. In the area now zoned Business-1 Historic District Overlay, residences are allowed only if they are secondary to a business. The idea behind the change was that with a business as the primary function of a property, the public sidewalk on the water would be welcome.

Swanson, owner of Icehouse Waterfront Restaurant, which is in the process of being rebuilt following destruction during 2018’s Hurricane Florence, and The Boro Restaurant, is keen on the idea of a public walkway linking his businesses to Bicentennial Park.

The restaurants are on the river at Moore Street. Fortunately, Swanson also owns the property between Moore Street and Bicentennial Park. That property, the historic Mattocks House, is in use by Pogie’s Fishing Center.

Swanson said he considers extending the Dock Walk to Moore Street as a step.

“We hold the possibility and benefit of a Swansboro waterfront walk and public boater access as a goal not a hope,” he explained. “We are hopeful the community shares our passion.”

It is not the first time Swanson has partnered with the town on a public access project.

Every town street that ends on the water is open for the public to use to access the river. However, the streets are only 30 feet wide which restricts construction of any kind, without the cooperation of the adjacent property owners.

Swanson partnered with the town several years ago in building a public day docking facility off Moore Street. Similarly, David Pinsky and Hal Silver, owners of Through the Looking Glass at the foot of Church Street, downriver from Moore Street, partnered with the town in order to build an overnight dock for larger vessels.

But cooperation of this type has been slow in coming.

In April 2019, Gene Heath, owner of the White Oak River Bistro offered to partner with the town to allow the Dock Walk on his property on N.C. 24. Heath wanted to be able to cross Water Street with a bulkhead in order to extend the Dock Walk between Elm Street, the property’s western boundary, and his restaurant’s parking lot east of Water Street.

But there is more. There is a single lot between Elm Street and the existing Dock Walk’s western terminus that runs just offshore at Riverview Park. And to the east, between Heath’s parking lot and Bicentennial Park, there is one property. There was hope that with those property owners and Heath in agreement, the upriver portion of the Dock Walk could be complete.

Heath’s offer came at a time when the town was between full-time managers and it has not been fully explored, according to Seaberg.

“I am aware of the proposal, but I do not think much has come of it,” Seaberg said. “I will say that it is something I would like to look into further before writing it off though.”

At the July 22 meeting town commissioners agreed to allow Seaberg to seek an N.C. Public Beach and Coastal Waterfront Access Grant for the Bicentennial Park Boardwalk Extension with Public Day Docks.

Commissioner Laurent Meilleur asked if the Dock Walk could reach Main Street. In reply, Seaberg said, “We have not had discussions regarding extending this with other grant opportunities at this time. We intend to do so though as we continue to work on implementing action items listed in the Swansboro Waterfront Access and Development Plan along with other planning documents.”

When the matter came up for discussion at the Aug. 23 board of commissioners meeting, Commissioner Larry Philpott also had a question.

Philpott worries that the N.C. White Oak River Bridge underpass which upriver Bicentennial Park with downriver Bicentennial Park, is being compromised during times of extreme-high tides.

“Do we have any type of information or any record of how often that sidewalk is underwater?” Philpott asked Seaberg.

The manager said that information is not available. But he added, “That is something we can keep up with.”

“I don’t know whether there is an answer to that.” Philpott said.

As for the project itself, “The total … cost is $158,350 with the grant, if received, funding $142,350 of that cost,” Seaberg states in a memo to the commissioners. Of the required $16,000 town match, $7,000 will be for in-kind.

In addition to the 150 feet of Dock Walk, the improvements will include a floating dock, 6 feet by 130 feet, that will connect to the western end of the Moore Street Dock.

“There will be four boat slips to accommodate day visitors in small boats,” the memo states. “The existing, privately owned, kayak launch will remain.”

The N.C. Division of Coastal Management is the granting agency.

“Mr. Swanson is working with the town to try to make this project come to fruition.” Seaberg said.

In fact, Swanson wants to see the Dock Walk not only across his property but also across other properties along the waterfront.

“What if the Bicentennial Park could connect with the Moore Street Dock?” he asks. “What the Moore Street Dock could connect to the Main Street Dock?”

His answer to those questions can be found in the reasons behind his establishing his business in Swansboro.

“Our vision for the Swansboro waterfront walk was one of the biggest influences that made the acquisition of the historic Mattocks House property a priority a few years back,” Swanson said in an email. “We were very fortunate that local good friends helped make this possible. This vision drives our intention to give an easement to Swansboro for the rights to build a walkway connecting Bicentennial Park and the Moore Street Dock.”

Swanson acknowledged he supports the idea of the additional public boat slips at the Moore Street Dock.

“Why?” he asks, “First, maybe it’s corny, but, we love our community, where we live, and the sincere friendships we have developed. Second, Swansboro has the curb-appeal on its door without a street sign pointing to the water!” In other words, the town’s waterfront is clearly visible to not only passing vessels along the Atlantic Intracoacatal Waterway, but also to every motor vehicle passing through town on N.C. 24. “Heck you have to know where to turn to get to the waterfront in Morehead, New Bern, Beaufort or even Wilmington!”

To drive that point home, Swanson quotes W.T. Casper, owner of Casper’s Marina, “It is all about the water.”

Swanson is confident that given the proper incentives, the owners of waterfront property would be agreeable to allow construction of the Dock Walk.

“I strongly believe there are solutions with those property owners, and that a mutual agreement would be more talk than anything else,” he said.

As a business owner, Swanson has chosen to be involved in extending the Dock Walk. He said he hopes others, including property owners and town officials, choose to prioritize waterfront enhancements that encourage public use.

“Urban waterfront development can be done right so it provides an asset fitting to our Friendly City by the Sea congruent with the personality and character of Swansboro,” Swanson said. “Swansboro waterfront walk must remain a dedicated goal through completion.”

Email Jimmy Williams at jimmy@tidelandnews.com.

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