VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — Whether you are standing on the Virginia Beach Boardwalk at 1st Street or 38th Street, there are few constants you’ll see: sand, surf and a view of the Virginia Beach Fishing Pier.
For that reason, Robert “Bobby” Lachman, longtime president of the former fishing pier ownership group, said in the more than 30 years he spent managing the property, he hardly spent any money on advertising.
“The pier is like a magnet,” Lachman said during a recent interview. “My granddad told me when I was just a kid, ‘Don’t spend any money advertising. You don’t need to. Any tourist that comes to that boardwalk. From one side to the other sees the pier.'”
His grandfather, the late Elkan Lachman Sr., would know. He led the effort to build the pier that opened back in 1950.
But this summer, no member of the Lachman family will be calling the shots. In April, the pier was sold for the first time in its 72-year history.
On an unseasonably warm May afternoon at the Virginia Beach Fishing Pier, Lachman, 75, stood just outside the tackle shop that he went to work in nearly every summer day for the last 62 years of his life.
He greeted guests as they paid either their $12 fishing or $3 spectator fee and passed through the gate that opens up to the portion of the pier that juts out into the Atlantic, even explaining to one curious tourist how exactly the pier is constructed.
“There are three pylons every 10 feet that are driven 20 to 22 feet into the ground,” Lachman explained. It rises up to about 40 feet above the water at its easternmost point.
He knows it all by heart because his heart is truly a part of the pier.
“It’s special. It’s special to be able to come to the Oceanfront over the beach for every day of work,” Lachman explained. “So I have really enjoyed it.”
Lachman recollects fondly all the fathers he heard from over the years who found respite in the pier.
“‘I can’t lay on the beach all day long like them kids can,’ they’d say. Or you know ‘My dad brought me out here when I was 4 years old and I caught my first fish’ and they’re bringing their sons,” Lachman said.
Several times during a recent interview, he had to remind himself that it is no longer his.
“It was a real hard decision,” Lachman said of the decision to sell. “Really hard.”
“Pier cost $100,000”
“Pier cost $100,000” was one of the subheadlines included as part of a June 23, 1950, article in the Virginian-Pilot about the pier’s opening.
However, that was actually the estimated cost. Elkan Lachman Sr. actually is cited as saying the real cost to build the pier and pier buildings, which to this day include the tackle shop, Ocean Eddie’s Seafood Restaurant, and Pier Gift Shops, was in excess of $250,000.
Bobby Lachman said the idea to first build the pier, came out of his grandparent’s love of visiting piers in the Outer Banks.
“They enjoyed fishing down there and my grandmother said ‘Why don’t we try to build a pier up in Virginia Beach?'” Lachman said.
But they didn’t go at it alone. Elkan Lachman recruited local attorney and Virginia Beach Town Council member Al Bonney Sr. and L.D. Murden to invest in the project too. The Town of Virginia Beach provided a grant, the amount of which could not be found for this report.
“They bought the land in 1949 and formed a cooperation and built the pier in 1950,” Lachman said.
The land adjacent to where the pier sits — between 14th and 15th streets — is considered by some local historians as the true heart of the resort, as it is where the resort began.
In late 1875, the Virginia General Assembly greenlit the creation of The Norfolk and Princess Anne Narrow-Gauge Railroad Company in order to bring people to the Virginia beaches. By the early 1900s, the Princess Anne Hotel located in the area of modern-day 14th Street and 16th Street was the star attraction.
When it burned to the ground in 1907, it was eventually replaced by what the Virginian-Pilot article called the “Oceans Casino” — an amusement center — that the new Virginia Beach Amusement and Pier Corporation razed upon the construction of the pier.
The pier itself was built by the Elizabeth Dare Construction Company of Elizabeth City, N.C., the length of the pier initially was 1,000 feet.
“The pier was all at this level we’re at right now,” Lachman said.
It was something his family learned they needed to change.
“You look out there now, in three spots we go up. A couple of feet each time. And that’s what saves the pier right now,” Lachman said.
The current pier is 650 feet long. Several storms took a bite out of the pier through the years, including hurricanes Isabel in 2003 and Irene in 2011. Lachman said the worst was the Ash Wednesday storm of 1962.
“Sometimes 50 feet, sometimes 100, as much as 200 feet at times we’ve lost,” Lachman said.
He and the other families always rebuilt with money out of their own pocket.
“It’s expensive and labor-[intensive],” Lachman said.
It’s one of the main reasons he came to the decision it was time to sell.
“Everyone in our families are all getting old. We don’t have any young people in the family. And the property begs for redevelopment,” Lachman said.
In early April, the pier that came with an estimated cost of $100,000 in 1950 was sold with the surrounding land for nearly $19 million.
Sale to Sunsations and the Future
The new owners of the pier are the Sibony family. They own the sprawling Pier Shops retail complex that sits across Atlantic Avenue from the pier property between 14th and 15th streets. They also own 11 Sunsations USA beach department stores at the Oceanfront and more up and down the East Coast.
While the company headquarters is located in mid-Atlantic resort rival Ocean City, Maryland, the family has had a local presence since the ’90s.
The Sibonys were part of a previous city-led effort to redevelop the pier in partnership with several other local Oceanfront business owners, including the Lachman, Bonney and Murden families. However, politics got in the way and the effort died.
Multiple requests for comment from the Sibonys about their plans for the pier were not returned. However, Lachman’s advice? Build a new concrete pier north of the current wooden one.
Then tear the 1950 one down.
“I would hate to see this go. But I understand and I fought with it for years and years … you have the fire threat, the higher storm threat. It makes sense,” Lachman said.
He also believes the current pier parking lot will be home to a new hotel or two.
“[Sibony’s] got the perfect piece of property. To build hotels on this side of the street you need to put parking garages over there and he’s got a vacant parking lot out there that is ideal for building parking garages,” Lachman said.
What is certain is that nothing will happen for at least two years. As part of the sale, all the current tenants of the pier have the option to stay in their lease through the end of the 2023 summer season with no rent increase. Ocean Eddie’s is still owned by Lachman’s cousin, Betty Lachman Tucker.
“Gives them time — Sibony’s — time to think about what they want to plan to do over here. Gives [tenants] time to make arrangements to wind down their businesses unless they come to an agreement with [Sibony’s] to stay,” Lachman said.
Regardless of what happens, Lachman said if he had a lasting wish to leave, it would be this: there always needs to be a pier to go to.
Lachman, who was also involved with the operation of the Lynnhaven Fishing Pier before its closure, feels they are important to have as he has seen a community build itself day after day. When fishermen gather on a pier, he said total strangers have become friends.
Creating friendships is never a bad legacy to leave.
“I guess 72 years you have to leave something, huh?” Lachman said.