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Partnership boosts appreciation of natural areas.

By Marion Blackburn

WASHINGTON, N.C. — A multimillion-dollar restoration of the historic Mattamuskeet Lodge in Hyde County could be within reach.

The Partnership for the Sounds operates the lodge, part of the Matamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge, and for years has sought funding to reopen the landmark.

Though still uncertain, improvement funds may go to the U.S. Department of the Interior, which owns the lodge, to complete critical structural repairs.

“We think the money for repairs will be put back into the budget in the near future,” says Jackie Peoples Woolard, executive director of the partnership, which operates the site and other attractions in the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula.

The partnership was founded in 1993 by leaders in Bertie, Beaufort, Hyde and Tyrell counties to bring attention to the area’s natural beauty. They hoped their combined efforts would lead to more funding, planning and use of resources.

“We realized that what we have in common is land and water,” Woolard says. “So we worked on ways to utilize the natural resources, to make them into learning experiences that could become tourist destinations.

“We were looking for a long-term stewardship opportunity for our environment that could become an economic vehicle.”

The partnership operates several centers celebrating eastern North Carolina’s distinctive ecology.

At environmental education centers in Columbia, Washington, Windsor and Englehard, visitors learn about the swamps, waterways, hardwood forests and wetlands known as pocosins.

With federal, state and local funding, grants, private contributions, membership dues and proceeds from several gift shops, the organization has an annual budget of about $900,000.

It is staffed by 14 full-time and several part-time employees and volunteers.

Its most visible attraction, with about 15,000 visits each year, is the North Carolina Estuarium in Washington, a sunny center on the Pamlico River where visitors learn about tidal marshlands and wind along a waterfront boardwalk.

Its other accomplishments include supporting the Cashie River Walk in Windsor, restoring the downtown Columbia Theater and Cultural Resources Center, and opening the Walter B. Jones Sr. Center for the Sounds in Columbia and the Roanoke-Cashie River Center in Windsor.

The group also operates the 1850s-era Octagon House in Hyde County, an information center.

“There are a lot of things to see and learn about,” says Tom Stroud, deputy director for programs who is based at the estuarium. “If we can merge the natural resources in this area with creating an economic niche in a way that helps businesses and sets us apart as a tourist destination, that’s good for the area.”

Mattamuskeet Lodge, built in 1915 as a pumping station and converted to a hunters resort in the 1930s, could be a jewel in the crown for the area.

The partnership successfully restored the lodge’s interior and, from 1999 to 2000, operated it as a centerpiece of Hyde County, with its ballroom hosting business meetings, receptions and dances.

An on-site inspection found hidden structural problems and the lodge closed in 2000.

Since then, the partnership, working with others, has sought the $3.5 million needed to rehabilitate its support columns.

Federal funds budgeted for the lodge were instead used for wildfire control last summer but the outlook is good for funding in the future, Woolard says.

“It’s our ambition to restore the lodge to its glory,” she says. “It’s a very beloved place, a legacy for the country.”

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