For some Carolina Beach businesses, Florence isn't over

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Town says at least 10 properties are vacant after the hurricane

CAROLINA BEACH — When the phone rang Tuesday in The Savannah Inn’s office, manager Brittany Francis let it ring. With the hotel’s 22 rooms still scarred by storm damage, she won’t be taking reservations any time soon.

“It’s a lot of spam calls lately, that’s all I get,” Francis said.

Before Hurricane Florence hit in September, Francis and owner Susan Riggs boarded the windows at the 1950s-era inn. That didn’t stop the storm from ripping the roof off, as Francis said, “like a Band-Aid,” and dropping it into the pool.

“Devastating is about one-10th of what I felt,” Riggs said. “I physically shut down for two or three days.”

“I don’t even think there’s really a word for it,” Francis said.

Five months later, the women have yet to a check from the hotel’s insurer. A contractor estimated the cost of repairs at about a quarter of the buildings’ value, just under $600,000, according to New Hanover County property records.

Riggs said she’s been with the same insurer for six years, never missing a payment. Like some of her fellow Carolina Beach business owners, until that insurer pays up, she’s stuck in limbo.

“I get it, that they’ve been hit with hurricane after hurricane after hurricane, mudslides, California wildfires,” she said. “But that’s what it is there for, that’s what the pot’s there for.”

“It’s kind of like a slap in the face.”

Empty properties

The Savannah Inn sits oceanfront on Carolina Beach Avenue, just north of the Boardwalk. It’s one of several buildings right in a row still closed after Hurricane Florence, including the Surfside Lodge hotel and motorlodge.

Since the storm, town officials have identified 10 vacant commercial buildings in the central business district.

In an email forwarded by Carolina Beach Councilwoman LeAnn Pierce, interim Town Manager Ed Parvin wrote that town officials are working to notify the property owners and give them the option to repair or demolish.

“Once we start this process it could lead to the town demolishing the property and placing a lien on the land,” he wrote.

And that does not include a handful of other businesses that are closed but working on repairs, like Celtic Creamery and Seaside Shenanigans gift shop, and the former Gibby’s Dock and Dine space, where a restaurant called Stoked is planned. There’s also the Cabana De Mar condo building, where damage displaced permanent residents and took several rental properties offline.

Pierce, who herself owns the Drifter’s Reef motel, said the loss of several dozen hotel rooms and rental properties is being felt by other businesses. But she expected many properties to come back online by summer, and hoped vacationers would come support them.

“That’s how you can give back to Carolina Beach, is by spending your tourism dollars here, eating in our restaurants, staying in our hotels, shopping in our retail spaces,” she said.

Change ahead?

One place The Savannah Inn is getting support is from its customers. Francis said the hotel gets messages almost daily on Facebook, including one from a couple who had their honeymoon there in the 1970s.

By June, Riggs hopes to have 13 of the inn’s rooms open, as well as the pool, grounds, decks and walkway to the beach repaired. Hopefully, that will mean rehiring some of the staff that had to be laid off.

But it’s unclear what will happen with her neighbors. After the storm, Francis said realtors approached them about buying the Savannah Inn, and she knows others have been looking at storm-damaged buildings on the street.

“It’s very possible that there could be some changeover in that area,” Pierce said. “Someone could buy the Surfside and build another chain hotel like the Hampton or a Marriot or something like that.”

Francis said she worries about the area losing its mom-and-pop feel if developers swoop in.

But the Savannah has no plans of changing. For three years Francis has worked nearly every job there, starting as a housekeeper and even handling some renovations.

“I have a lot of blood, sweat and tears in this place,” she said.

Reporter Cammie Bellamy can be reached at