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oil industry or a string of beachfront skyscrapers. (In fact, surveys show both secondhome owners and visitors rank “conserving the environment,” “preserving the culture” and “friendliness of the people” among their most important issues — in some cases even more adamantly than the year-round population.) But the debate here goes far beyond local posturing or academic BS. And it’s more than just preserving cute accents or curb appeal. It’s about good business. Sure, offering more retail options and big-name outlets may look impressive in terms of immediate gains like land sales, job stats and tax revenue. Pumping sand and building jetties may make us even feel like we’re staying competitive with other beach towns. But trying to be more like the outside world ignores the most important rule of successful marketing: “Differentiate or die.” The whole reason people connect so powerfully with the Outer Banks is it’s literally like no place on earth. Every change away from our uniquely rustic brand identity, whether convenient (more drive-thrus) or maddening (more traffic) is another reason for consumers — aka “tourists” — to choose another product — aka “vacation destination.” In other words, nobody’s gonna drive from Toronto or Tuscaloosa — or even Tidewater — for a place as congested, chintzy or machine-fabricated as their own backyard. And what if they do? Well, that’s an even scarier proposition. Because once the Outer Banks becomes just a skinnier version of Myrtle Beach or Atlantic City, the next wave of transplants won’t be anything like the ones that slowly influenced its character over the past century. And that could be the beginning of the end of our community’s, uniquely quirky and tightknit culture, as people see less and less of what drew them here to begin with. Or, as one New Jersey transplant noted during last November’s hotel debate: “I didn’t move here eight years ago for high rises.”

Now, surely, someone reading this is thinking: “typical anti-growth NIMBYism.” But my argument isn’t that our community should never grow. (On the contrary, it has to.) My argument is simply that it should grow wisely. That when we tally up the jobs some incoming business promises, we also tally how many it simultaneously threatens. (As well as consider the difference between running a hardware store and running it’s floorwaxer.) That when we seek to make anything bigger (be it beach, road or building) or smaller (be they school budgets, lot sizes or permit fees) that we examine not just the physical and financial numbers but it’s psychological impact on the quality of life. And that when we rush to max-out the number of visitors from May to September, we recognize those who live here January to January will also feel the effects — both positive and negative. And they will react accordingly. As Rentfrow notes: “If you’re quite similar with the people in the area you live, our research shows you’ll be quite content. Otherwise, it may be sufficient reason to move elsewhere.” 34,296 people -- that was the 2009 census. The most recent put us at 33,920. Whether that 376-person difference is a tiny blip in the long-term uptick or the beginning of a population and personality shift we’ll have to see. In the meantime, I’ll be the one at the bar — and the town hall. Armed with an opinion and the belief that my stake in this town as an individual resident is just as great as any other interest no matter how big, rich or powerful. There was a time when every person who lived on this ribbon of sand believed that. The question is: has that time already passed? — Matt Walker

Thanks to “Uncle Jack’s Baltimore Blog” for the C.H. Wiley quote from, Roanoke: or Where is Utopia, as well as ECU’s 2010 Dare Co. Tourism Study Executive Summary and the Outer Banks Chamber of Commerce 2009 Dare Survey. The views of the author do not necessarily reflect those of the photo subjects, who were all selected and shot at random. (So please don’t shoot them again.) milepost 21

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Stuck here on purpose

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Stuck here on purpose

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