UNCW student researchers lead statewide beach access survey

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UNCW researchers are conducting a survey of visitors to the state's regional public beach accesses, like this one in Wrightsville Beach. Photo by Hannah Leyva.
UNCW researchers are conducting a survey of visitors to the state’s regional public beach accesses, like this one in Wrightsville Beach. Photo by Hannah Leyva.

This summer, if you’re approached by someone in a matching shirt and hat while lounging at a North Carolina beach, don’t worry. They’re not trying to sell you something.

Instead, they are student researchers from the University of North Carolina – Wilmington, collecting answers for a survey to assess a state-run beach access program.

According to Jim Herstine, a professor and program coordinator in the Recreation, Sport Leadership and Tourism Management Program in the School of Health and Applied Human Sciences at UNCW, the survey is the first of its kind.

“The Public Beach and Coastal Waterfront Access Program has never been evaluated before,” said Herstine, who first came up with the idea to do the survey in the early 2000s. “The money wasn’t there before to pay for the study, but a couple of years ago I was approached by the Division of Coastal Management saying they were ready to do the survey, so here we are.”

Project Manager Alexandria Vreugdenhil, a graduate student working to earn her master’s in public administration, said the data collected from the survey will be sent to the state to show what parts of the program have worked and what parts need more support.

“The goal of the project is to decipher the success of the allocation of funds to coastal counties,” Vreugdenhil said. “We’re targeting all the regional access sites in all 20 coastal counties and asking users what they think of the amenities at each site.”

Vreugdenhil is overseeing about 80 undergraduate and graduate students who have been out on the state’s many beaches since the beginning of June, passing out questionnaires. Herstine said there are three different versions of the survey that are being distributed evenly in order to get all their questions answered without taking too much leisure time away from beach visitors.

“They all have common questions, which are demographic questions such as age, gender, ethnicity and zip code,” said Herstine, who noted the surveys do not ask for names and will be destroyed once the data collection is complete. “One version focuses more on economic issues related to beach accesses, another focuses on handicap accessibility, and the other is more general and asks about parking, accessibility, beach websites and signage.”

Herstine said that demographic information will also be useful in a state that relies heavily on tourism.

“You want to know what demographic is responding to certain questions to see what trends are emerging,” Herstine said. “You’re asking not just if they’re there, but what they’re doing while they’re there.”

Though neither of them have personally been out on the beaches asking questions, both Herstine and Vreugdenhil said most people who’ve been asked to take the survey have done so.

“From what I’ve heard from the people that are out there, it’s been a really positive response so far,” said Vreugdenhil.

“They’re not running into a bunch of sour people,” Herstine said. “People are really interested and more than willing to take the time to answer [the questions]. These are really important issues to them.”

Vreugdenhil said the goal is to get 5,000 complete surveys. Herstine said they started with lower expectations, but could surpass that if they continue at the rate they’re going.

“At the beginning of this, we were going to be really happy with 3,000,” said Herstine. “I’ve already seen 1,200 surveys come across my desk, and we’re only a month in, so I think we’re doing very well. The more numbers we have, the better data we have.”

Researchers will be out on the beaches until Labor Day Weekend, which marks the end of the summer tourist season. Though it’s early in the study and he hasn’t had a chance to look at the responses, Herstine anticipates a generally positive reaction to the access program, but also expects to see certain issues come up often.

“I think issues that will come up are parking. I think that will be a problem,” Herstine said, noting that is always an issue in beach towns across the country during the summer. “I think they’ll talk about amenities and accessibility. But I also think that if people had major gripes about the program, they’d be jumping all over [our researchers] with their complaints.”

After the data is collected and analyzed by Herstine, Vreugdenhil and other faculty members working on the project, it will be combined with information collected from the first portion of the study, which was conducted last year. That part involved Herstine and his staff interviewing local officials and business owners/leaders in the 20 coastal counties to get their perspective on how the Public Beach and Coastal Waterfront Access Program is working (or not) for them. A presentation of the findings will then be made to the state’s Coastal Resources Commission in either March or April of next year.

“We’ll show them the data we’ve collected and give them recommendations based on that,” said Herstine. “If the state is spending money, it just makes sense to have some guidelines to help decide which areas to give the funds to and for what amenities.”

Once the data is presented at a CRC meeting, the report will become public record. The information will then be used to better allocate grant funds for that program starting in the 2017 -2018 fiscal year.