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Dec. 11, 2017
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Lake economy mixed

By Jane Harrison

As Lake Lanier brimmed at its highest summer level ever, one might expect a booming lake economy buoyed by high waters. But, many lake area businesses report the rain that raised the lake above full pool since early spring has plummeted their bottom line for the season. Some business owners even assert that they do better during drought-ridden summers enriched with golden sunshine, a rare sight during this peak season when many a weekend lake outing got rained out.

A major bright spot in an otherwise dreary 2013 summer emerged with a rise in lake home sales. The rainfall that filled coves and floated docks created a gorgeous lakescape that lit up home sales around the lake. And folks who enjoy looking out on the blue view from their dry living rooms are getting set to hit the water when the sun comes out. Businesses that build and repair docks report a record year that hints that even though people may not be getting out on the lake, they’re thinking about it. That could form the silver lining to this cloud-filled summer for years to come.

Businesses that rely on recreation seekers for income were hit hard, especially in July. “The Fourth of July is like Christmas for us,” said Missy Burgess, spokesperson for Lake Lanier Islands Resort. “The July Fourth weekend was the absolute worst we’ve ever had. It rained every day, all day.” People don’t go to the LanierWorld beach and water park when it rains. Nor do they mingle at Sunset Cove, rent boats at Harbor Landing, play golf or ride horses. “The rain in July really impacted our recreational business,” Burgess said. But, it did not impact the hotel, where group and business bookings, as well as weddings, kept guests coming in. Burgess expected hotel reservations this fall, plus the resort’s concert series and popular Magical Nights of Lights holiday tour offer a “good chance to recover” from the slow summer.

Smaller recreation outfitters, like Hammonds Fishing Center, are also looking to off-season and non-traditional sales to help out. “Thank God I put hunting in. If not for that we would be struggling,” said Tim Hawkins, manager of the family owned store. He hoped hunting supplies, school apparel, and the store’s staple, fishing gear, will even out flat sales of float tubes and water toys, which dipped to half of normal.

Seth Wolcott, district manager of West Marine, said that sales of a non-traditional item, stand up paddle boards, have helped balance the season. He said purchases of the popular flatwater surf boards show that “people are trying hard to get in the water” during a summer that left many a boat tied to the dock.

Area marinas report that boat slip and dry stack occupancy has been stable or up a little over previous years. Gainesville Marina President Philip Burton gave Summer 2013 a “mixed review.”
He calculated sales are off 10 to 20 percent in some departments, while others remained steady. “Gas sales are struggling to stay at par (with past years),” he said and boat repair service is lagging. “Quite frankly, people are not using their boats as much … so they don’t have the tendency to break” or need fuel. Boat sales, though, are about three to five percent higher statewide, said Burton, an officer of the Marine Trade Association of Metropolitan Atlanta. He speculated that if not for the heavy rain, boat sales might have risen to double digits this summer. He added that since his marina’s rental boat fleet is small, his business did not suffer as much as others.

Brent Pearson, Operations Manager of Traina Enterprises, which owns Port Royale, said that although slip and stack occupancy is up a little at the Cumming marina, small boat and personal watercraft rental is off about 20 percent from last year. “It’s definitely because of rainy weekends,” he said. Boat sales and service remained about the same.

Pearson and Burton share views about lake level and sunshine. “We would much prefer to have sun shining and dry summer months, even if it means lower water levels, for our business. People use their boats a lot more when it’s dry and hot, even with low water, “ Pearson said. “In fact the water level has really been too high this year for some of our boaters, such as houseboats. The beaches are underwater and islands/shoreline less accessible.” Burton concurred. “We’ve seen a lake level so high it’s hurt more than helped. The water has covered beaches on islands where boaters like to pop in, explore and throw their beach towels out, he said. “Island hopping is down to a minimum.”

“It’s been a terrible year … it’s rained at least one day every weekend,” said William Archer, vice-president of Paradise Rental Boats at Port Royale. “Revenue is definitely down for the year,” he said in late August just before a weekend with a 30 percent chance of Saturday rain. Referring to a past plagued with low water, he added, “With all we’ve been through on Lake Lanier, it’s hard to complain about the rain. But, it got worthy of complaining about a month ago … hopefully we’ll make up ground in the next two weeks.”

Such was the hope of other businesses looking for a dry, warm autumn to make up for lost revenue. “We’re hoping for better weather. We’re keeping positive … the lake is fuller than ever, we’re hoping that will allow boaters to come out more in the fall,” said Janet Bennett, who runs Aqualand Marina’s Dockside Grill with husband, Chris. She estimated about 80 percent of their diners come by boat and their number rises and falls with the sun. “We either have a tremendous drop” when the rain comes down, or “record days” when the sun comes out, she said. “We’re balancing out.”

The same was true at Fish Tales Lakeside Grille at Hideaway Bay Marina. “When the sun is out, we have experienced record crowds,” said owner Dale Ozaki. He added that last year’s drier summer created a “perfect scenario” for a restaurant on Lanier. “Experiencing a drought during the summer allowed us to have great boating weather almost every weekend. Our sales grew drastically,” he said. He indicated that an increase in diners coming from land has off-set a decrease in boat traffic. Business volume is actually up 12 percent, he said, attributed to 60 percent of customers coming by car. Normally, the majority of diners arrive by boat. “We will continue to focus on growing land traffic and know that under prime circumstances, the boaters will come in record numbers,” he said.

Boat business on the full lake, as Burton noted, has been good. “It’s been far better than at low times,” said Brent Danneman, owner of Park Marine. “A full lake makes the boat business, of course I’m a little prejudiced.” He said he’s seen a rise in jet boat sales (“dominating the market”), pontoon and deck boats.

People who are buying the boats are among those buying houses, installing new docks, and spiffing up old ones. Frank Norton, Jr., whose The Norton Agency in Gainesville tracks region real estate trends, reported lake home sales up 12 percent over last year thanks to a better economy and a full lake.  The average price, $480,000, is up five percent. A total of 120 lake homes across all price levels were purchased the first six months. “Of course good water is still the selling feature especially now that buyers can look up property on satellite,” he said. “A full lake has helped the situation pretty substantially and publicity (about the lake being full) has calmed people’s anxiety that the lake won’t always be down 15 feet” as it was during drought times, he said. The summer rain “hasn’t slowed down the looking,” he added, especially by those seeking “a long haul investment.”

“People are enjoying the lake, seeing how beautiful it is brimming to the top,” said Norton, whose perspective comes from 57 years of living on or around Lanier. He added that the estimated 10,000 homes that front Lake Lanier and 20,000 others with lake access contribute substantially to the tax base and economy of surrounding counties.

Lake related businesses directly linked to an up tick in home sales are benefiting, or at least breaking even. “New people are coming in, buying older homes and fixing up their docks,” said Tom Child, owner of Marine Specialties, Inc. He estimated customer demand for new docks and repairs will help balance out a loss in sales for rip rap and shoreline steps, which cannot be installed when the water is up so high. He predicted overall sales would be about the same this year as in a drought year. “It’s very rare the stars align and we have a good economy and average lake level,” he said. “After 26 years of doing it, we roll with the punches.”

Brandon Elliott, in charge of residential services for Browns Bridge Dock, said this has been “the best year ever” for dock repairs. Crews have been busy fixing docks damaged by falling trees and installing new docks. “We sold a bunch in August and orders are still coming in,” he said. This indicates to him people are thinking about getting out on the lake and will launch when the weather’s right.

That’s been Burton’s observation at Gainesville Marina. He said the number of folks who hang out around the marina docks is the same as last year. “There are not as many people getting out on the water …     except when the sun pops out. It can be a cloudy, rainy afternoon and then the sun comes out and you don’t know where they all come from … the boats start rolling in.”

Make hay while the sun shines

Stacey Dickson, President of the Lake Lanier Convention & Visitors Bureau, responded to questions about how a summer of rain affected lake area businesses. Questions and answers in an emailed interview appear below:

Q. The lake is full, but we’ve had rain almost every weekend this summer. Ironically, the rain that filled the lake has also drenched many a lake outing. How has it affected lake-dependent businesses this summer?
A. Revenue is down for the summer overall due mostly to weather related issues. But Lake Lanier is not alone in this plight. Many of our fellow water destinations have had similar weather patterns and have experienced the same downturn in spending due to the limitation of activities. Even major gulf coast beaches have felt the impact – the good news for us is that our target audience (Atlanta) is less that a 1/4 gas tank away. So, when the weather is good, they can come back and visit again where other destinations are six to eight hours drive away and returning during fair weather is not an option.

Q. How does business this summer compare with summers when there was little rainfall, but a low lake level?
A. I’m sure you have heard the (adage) “Make Hay While the Sun is Shining.” That is really true of a resort destination like Lake Lanier. Even when the lake was at its lowest, we still do a lot of business as long as the sun is shining. When the days are long and hot with little to no rain, retail sales of items like ice, food and beverage, boat rental and water toys obviously are higher. Low lake levels have a lower impact on revenue than inclement weather does during the peak summer season.

Q. Is it possible for businesses to recover this fall? If so, how?
A. Depending on the weather and how warm the water temperature stays we may be looking at an extended lake season with visitors enjoying the water longer than usual to make up for the rainy summer. Buzz online in social media groups points to boaters making plans to meet up as long as there is sunshine and warmth – that means well into the fall. With special fall events like Lake Lanier Islands’ Wine Cruises, visitors looking for the changing leaves of autumn and with the season’s many fairs and festivals – we should be able to recoup some of the loss the dreary weather caused this summer. Plans are under way for some exciting holiday activities that will be new to the area, so I’m optimistic about our upcoming Christmas season which is usually not a major revenue generator on the lake.

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