Drought, economy can't scuttle boating business

Published online: Apr 23, 2009 News Sara Higgins
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When Dave Sieniawski drives home from work on RM 620, he often catches a glimpse of the sun reflecting off Lake Travis. At that point, he says, he feels the tension of the day evaporate.

"It's like coming home to vacation every day," said Sieniawski, who enjoys boating on the weekends in his 26-foot Stingray powerboat that he has kept at Marshall Ford Marina on Lake Travis for the past two years.

On a recent evening, Sieniawski looked out from a bar stool at Carlos 'n Charlie's restaurant on Lake Travis and pointed out how far the venue stood above the waterline. The water levels of Lake Travis' deep, narrow reservoir are dropping because of the drought. The Lower Colorado River Authority recorded Lake Travis' water level Wednesday at 653.83 feet, compared with the average of 671.07 feet for April.

But despite troubles with the drought, coupled with the weak economy, marina managers on Lake Travis and Lake Austin said they expect a pretty good boating season this year. Most said they anticipate full or near-full occupancy by Memorial Day weekend. Meanwhile, boat rental shop operators said they are seeing a heightened level of business.

Nationally, the recreational boating situation looks similar.

Wendy Larimer, the national legislative coordinator for the Association of Marina Industries, said most of its 900 members have reported that their marinas also are faring well in this tough economy.

"The marina industry has remained untouched," she said. "People aren't willing to give up their boats."

Instead of traveling, a lot of people are choosing to stay home and spend time on the water with friends and family, Larimer said. In addition, she said, relatively low fuel prices make boating an attractive pastime.

In Austin, Blue Sky Boat Club owner Brandon Owens said that people who love boating are likely to cut out other luxuries before they let go of their aquatic hobbies, even in difficult times.

"People are always going to get on the water," he said. "They'll just find a different way to get there."

Chapman Marine Inc. owner Jim Chapman said that moving docks into low-water configuration has been an added expense for his business. But most marinas consider that possibility when creating a budget, he added, unless water levels fall below 640 feet, which he said is "uncharted territory."

"Lake Travis is a dynamic world," Chapman said. "We're constantly dealing with fluctuations. I know it's having some impact on our business. It's a little slower than a normal year, but it's still not catastrophic."

Marshall Ford Marina manager Todd Kahler said his 136-slip marina is close to capacity, but he expects to be full by Memorial Day. "If we don't get rain ever again, it's definitely going to get bad, but this level isn't too uncommon for Lake Travis."

An abundance of visitors during spring break was a reassuring sign for Doug Powell, general manager of Emerald Point Marina on Lake Travis. He said the 300-slip marina's waterfront restaurant and boat rental shop filled with students and families looking for a cheap vacation close to home.

But Powell said Emerald Point Marina has put off hiring summer help for a couple weeks as a preemptive measure in the slow economy.

"We're taking a bit of a wait-and-see attitude, to see if occupancy stays where it is," he said. "If it begins to decline, we might postpone some purchases or improvements."

Powell, who said the marina has 87 percent occupancy, said there is also a lot more movement between marinas.

"What I've seen in the past, and what I think I'm seeing right now, too, is that when the economy declines a little bit, as it did in 2000, what happens is, all the marinas end up with a little bit of vacancy, and that allows people to move around," Powell said. "Someone moves not because of price or they're not happy but there's a more convenient location."

Some marinas, like Emerald Point, have technical services, boat rentals and used boat brokerages.

"The brokerage has been very busy," Powell said. "The brokers are telling me that the people who are buying boats are being very picky; they're looking for a good boat for a good price. But there are still people out there who are buying new, too."

But for people who aren't ready to make a large purchase, Owens said boat clubs and rentals can offer an alternative to spending tens of thousands of dollars on a new boat. His Blue Sky Boat Club rents competition wakeboarding boats, ski boats and pontoon boats. Customers can rent by the day or enter into a club membership, where members can take any of Blue Sky's boats out on the water.

"This has actually been one of our better years to date in the past six to seven years," Owens said. "People are taking more consideration; they aren't just going out on a whim and buying a boat."

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