HARKERS ISLAND, NC – Cape Lookout National Seashore and the National Park Service announced Thursday it will close the Beaufort Visitor Center in December. It also said the suspension of the ferry transportation from Beaufort to Cape Lookout National Seashore “will likely follow sometime thereafter.”

A media release issued Thursday stated the reason behind the decisions stems from a 10-year agreement with the Town of Beaufort that is expiring on Jan. 1, 2024. The release reads in part:

“That agreement allowed for use of a portion of space in the historic Beaufort Post Office Building on Front Street as a National Park visitor center, as well as the use of a dock area on Front Street to provide ferry transportation, and a portion of Grayden Paul Park to provide orientation signage for visitors headed to Cape Lookout National Seashore. This combination of a visitor center and transportation hub effectively turned the Town of Beaufort into what the National Park Service refers to as a “‘Gateway Community’.”

In the agreement between Beaufort and the National Park Service, “space for the visitor center and the ferry service was provided by the Town of Beaufort to the National Park Service without any compensation for the town. At the time of that initial agreement, town leader’s expectations were that if Beaufort was a National Park Gateway Community, it would create a direct and substantial economic benefit to businesses in town. This would have a secondary effect of bringing money back to the town by increasing the town’s tax revenue base and improving employment opportunities. Beaufort has long embraced tourism as their primary economic driver and have worked to increase visitation by promoting the town as a destination location with a great visitor experience.”

Officials also said that when the Town of Beaufort expressed a need for space to expand its services and expressed using the visitor center for that, issues were raised. That included a lack f parking for staff and visitors, the park service said.

“The town suggested the NPS pay ‘fair market value’ to continue use of the portion of the building currently housing the visitor center. Unfortunately, there are no federally allocated funds to pay for this change.

“Contract requirements with the ferry service mandated an agreement be concluded prior to issuance of a prospectus for ferry service before the end of the existing contract on December 31, 2023. With no agreement in place between the town and the National Park Service, there is no way the NPS can require a ferry service to operate out of Beaufort.

“The current agreement would allow for the National Park Service to execute an optional three-year extension and retain the visitor center through the end of 2026. However, there is no viable reason to execute this extension for the visitor center beyond the end of the current ferry service contract. Cape Lookout National Seashore intends to close the visitor center at the end of the season in 2023 to provide the town with the office space they have requested.

“Without the agreement in place, providing ferry service out of Beaufort can no longer be a ‘mandatory’ component of the new contract and must be an ‘optional’ component. This change opens the door for the ferry service to choose another location, negotiate with the town independently, or discontinue the service completely.”

Park Superintendent Jeff West said in the media release efforts were made to resolve the issue.

“Over the last two years, I attended and spoke publicly at several Waterways Committee meetings,” West said. “During that time, I attempted to speak publicly with the town commissioners when there was still time to adjust course but was unsuccessful until recently. I was finally able to speak with them during their meeting on August 28, 2023.

“At that meeting, they confirmed that without direct financial compensation, they were not interested in retaining a National Park Service presence in Beaufort. I think a lot of Beaufort and believed it was the right place for a Gateway Community – great for the community economically, and great for visitors to experience such a wonderful place. I am greatly disappointed that we were not able to reach any kind of viable agreement with the town.”

Click here to read the full press release with additional information and comments.