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Critics say pier a symbol of misplaced priorities in tough economy

Critics single out the North Carolina Aquarium's Jennette's Pier in Nags Head as a symbol of misplaced priorities in bad budget times.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Built in 1939, Jennette's Pier in Nags Head is the oldest fishing pier on North Carolina's Outer Banks – weathering dozens of storms and hurricanes, until September 2003.

That's when Hurricane Isabel pummeled the platform, knocking off more than 500 feet as the storm battered the coast.

Earlier this year, state lawmakers unanimously approved a $25 million replacement, and in May, Gov. Bev Perdue attended the groundbreaking, touting the economic and educational value of a new structure for the North Carolina Aquarium.

Weeks later, the pier is getting pummeled all over again, as North Carolina faces one of its worst economic recessions, a budget shortfall of more than $4 billion and severe budget cuts to state services, such as health and human services and education.

Months ago, every lawmaker – Republican and Democrat – supported the project. Now, critics single out the pier as a symbol of misplaced priorities in bad budget times.

The Association for Home Care and Hospice of North Carolina has put out advertisements attacking one of the pier's backers, Sen. Doug Berger, D-Franklin, who voted to cut personal home-care services.

"Sen. Berger has proposed cutting our program, and I think we wanted to show some of the mismatched priorities and let people judge for themselves," said Tim Rogers, executive vice president for the association, a trade group that represents the interests of such organizations.

Berger claims the group is trying to divert attention away from rampant Medicaid fraud in home care.

Teachers groups have also cited the pier as a source of frustration, as educators face pay cuts and possible layoffs.

Senate Minority Leader Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said Tuesday that it was a mistake to vote for the pier. He now wants to change that.

"A lot of things that may have looked like a good thing a month ago, two months ago or a year ago, may not be such a good idea now," he said.

Those who still stand by the pier argue that it has unfairly labeled as waste.

"It's not coming from the general fund. It's coming from receipts from the sea aquariums," said Sen. A.B. Swindell, D-Nash. "This is an extension of the sea aquariums, and it's going to be a wonderful facility."

For now, though, the pier is political fodder in the heated debate over budget priorities.

Reversing the pier vote appears highly unlikely. The project is moving forward, and supporters argue it will prove to be a vital economic resource on the coast.


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