As the COVID-19 pandemic makes its way to the rearview mirror, Onslow County residents are more ready than ever to get back to traveling; however, new obstacles have arrived.
Inflation alongside rising gas prices.
According to AAA, North Carolina gas prices have risen nearly two full dollars since this time last year. AAA is reporting a North Carolina average of $ 4.63 per gallon as of June 17, up from last year’s average of $ 2.88. Jacksonville’s current average is $ 4.54, with a year ago sitting at $ 2.80.
The rising gas prices are keeping many residents from traveling, as just the cost of getting to and from daily destinations is nearly twice what it was last summer.
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“A lot of people are doing, kind of more staycations, is what we call them,” said Onslow County Tourism Manager Salem Clarke. “So, they’re traveling within their community or somewhere close by. So, if you think of it from our area perspective, they are probably doing more local things like going to our beaches, going to Swansboro, shopping within kind of a relatively close distance and trying out more local things. “
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Jacksonville Station has finally opened after 11 years of planning, which included two years of construction, and Jacksonville Director of Transportation Services Anthony Prinz said the station is modeled after a 1940s train depot.
“We invested a lot in the aesthetics where we’re going to have people visiting, where we wanted them to feel comfortable and have a sense of place,” Prinz said.
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He said the purpose of Jacksonville Station is to get as much transportation activity located in one place as possible, increase mobility across the board.
He said while Jacksonville had the service, people and things to do, they did not have anywhere to do them, and were basically operating off the street. He said whether getting into a taxi, getting dropped off by family, or getting on Amtrak, you’ll be able to come to this one location and have your choice of whatever you want to use.
“This is what we call the welcome mat of the community, because for a lot of folks, this is going to be their introduction to Jacksonville,” Prinz said.
“The main goal of the facility is to bring as many public transportation options as we can to one location, and we feel like we’ve done that because we have Jacksonville Transit, Onslow United Transit, Amtrak and Greyhound all in this one facility. The benefit to the community is, of course, it’s more convenient for them to interchange between those modes of transportation, and it greatly expands their traveling. ”
Prinz said that while the Amtrak thruway service has been in Jacksonville for quite some time, having it here at Jacksonville Station offers a touch of hospitality that the city’s been looking for.
Amtrak first started serving Jacksonville Station on June 1, and Prinz said the station has been gradually ramping up operations.
“Rather than picking and dropping off of a curb downtown, we have a great air conditioned facility for people to come in and wait on the bus, be in a comfortable environment with public restrooms, and customer service folks to answer questions, things of that nature, “Prinz said.
The station even has a feature called the Bulldog Lounge, specifically for military members to have a place to call their own while waiting for travel. Prinz also said the station came $ 2 million under budget, leaving room to strengthen the building to sustain hurricane force winds. He said it can now be used for city and county personnel to operate during storms.
Most importantly, though, is the fact the facility is generating more interest, and will make travel more accessible for many.
“It also really ramps up the convenience when you have things like long-term parking for people when they want to go onto Amtrak, Greyhound, you have an air conditioned space with a ticketing desk, so, the facility itself is going to generate more activity, “Prinz said. “We’re expecting to see more travel just in total, and that’s even more reason to have a facility like this so we can make it more efficient and convenient for the passenger.”
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Tourism manager Salem Clarke specializes in pointing visitors and residents to things to do through advertising avenues such as digital, print and guides.
With gas prices rising, Clarke has a long list of local, inexpensive activities for visitors and residents on their staycations.
Clarke said the beach is, of course, always a nice option, adding there are three free Onslow County public parking accesses. She also said there are a lot of places that offer live music for people to enjoy, which are listed on the Onslow Tourism website, in their music blog.
These include places like Surf City Line at North Topsail Beach, and The Boro in Swansboro.
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Residents and visitors alike can check out Onslow Tourism’s event calendar to keep up to date with events and festivals going on, but in the meantime, she added that places like Roller City of Jacksonville and Altitude Trampoline Park offer specials on certain days. The Lime Light in Jacksonville also has some concerts coming up.
“Hammocks Beach State Park is always a good place to go to, they offer a lot of different programs throughout the week, and of course, it’s inexpensive to go over to Bear Island and explore that way,” Clarke said.
She also said for those old enough, Walton’s Distillery holds free tours and tastings, and Huffman Vineyards out towards Richlands also holds paid tastings, including other activities and events. She added Mike’s Farm also offers free music on Saturdays.
Clarke said Onslow Tourism targets Raleigh with a lot of their advertising, and tends to see people visit from there, adding that this area is close enough to other cities for those interested in experiencing one of those.
“I think gas prices are starting to affect it,” Clarke said. “During COVID, we actually had a lot more people driving, and that was throughout North Carolina. We were actually seeing a lot of driving market and a lot of driving market from out of state too, but I know that our local airport was one of the first ones to bounce back pretty quickly. So, they’ve actually been doing really well. ”
She said Onslow also has a lot of great parks for people to get out and enjoy, an increase they saw especially during COVID. She said she thinks a lot more people are getting outside and experiencing those types of activities.
Another new, popular attraction, which is not necessarily inexpensive, but local, is the oyster farm tours in North Topsail Beach.
From a different perspective, Clarke said they’ve been seeing local hotels holding more small events such as birthday parties and weddings, so more people have been staying overnight.
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For many Onslow residents, though, they are ready to get out of the area, and experience a different place. Jacksonville resident and school teacher Madison Mobley is planning to visit Tennessee with her husband this summer.
“Tennessee is one of our favorite places to visit so that definitely impacted our decision, but it is also an easy and reasonable distance to drive,” Mobley said. “Our trip was planned well before inflation and gas prices began to rise, but we are thankful that we will not be driving too far for our trip as gas prices are very high.”
She encourages families who are planning vacations on tight budgets to research online for festivals or fairs that have free or low cost admission as an alternative to amusement parks.
“Local fairs and festivals are great ways to support local businesses while also being budget friendly,” Mobley said. “Additionally, national parks are great places to visit and create lasting memories with family.”
Reporter Morgan Starling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org