Supplied photo courtesy of New Hanover County
The Carolina Beach Inlet Association has commissioned a study to estimate the amount of money the inlet generates for local residents, businesses and governments in New Hanover County.
For Robert Schoonmaker, a Carolina Beach charter boat captain, the nearby inlet that takes its name from the beach town is worth its weight in gold.
But, he said, the benefits are not limited to his business, or to Carolina Beach.
“If we lose the tax revenue generated by this inlet, it’s going to affect every municipality within New Hanover County and the county itself,” Schoonmaker said in a Feb. 6 interview. “I hate for people to think that we’re asking them to give money. We’re asking them to invest money on something they’re already getting a return on.”
Historically, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has routinely dredged the inlet to maintain navigability. But during the past decade, the federal government has cut funding in its budget for keeping shallow-draft inlets open, including Carolina Beach, Shallotte River and Oregon inlets. In response, the General Assembly raised boat registration fees in its 2013 session to create a dedicated funding source to help cover the cost.
Armed with a memorandum of agreement with the corps, the state will pay up to 50 percent of the cost of dredging the inlets, provided local stakeholders put up the rest.
But as evidenced during the last two meetings of the county’s ports, waterways and beaches commission, deciding who pays what amount has been far from a simple task.
That is one reason why the Carolina Beach Inlet Association, the organization over which Schoonmaker presides, is financing a study to estimate the amount of money the inlet generates for local residents, businesses and governments in New Hanover County.
It has hired Dr. Chris Dumas, a natural resource economist and professor of economics at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Due by the end of March, the $7,700 study will provide a snapshot of who is using the inlet, how they are using it and where they are spending their money.
“One of the arguments has been that a lot of the benefits of keeping these inlets open accrue to local governments,” Dumas said. “But the other argument is another large portion of the benefits accrue to nonlocals, people from inland and out of state that use the inlets.”
The valuation study will use existing data from state and federal government agencies, including commercial and recreational fishing landings, license sales and related expenditures, as well as nonfishing, private boating trips.
A longer-term study for which the inlet association is still trying to raise money would span an entire summer season and involve student interns and trained surveyors talking to boaters, marina owners and boat sellers to find out who is using the inlet, when and how they are using it, and where they are staying and spending their money.
Dumas explained that once these surveys are processed, he will use data modeling to generate estimates of economic impacts, including multiplier effects, or measures of how money spent locally ripples through the economy and creates additional economic impacts beyond the initial expenditures.
Carolina Beach Town Councilman Steve Shuttleworth said Feb. 7 he believes the results of the studies will make chipping in on the local share an easier pill to swallow for local governments.
“We’re anticipating that all the municipalities in the county will have a better justification and level of confidence in coming to a cost-sharing plan,” Shuttleworth said. “We’d like to come back with something more in-depth to enter into a long-term [memorandum of agreement], similar to what the state has with the corps so we don’t have to keep revisiting this every year.”
For Schoonmaker, relief can’t come soon enough.
“Right now that inlet is in terrible shape,” he said. “People don’t miss it until it’s gone.”