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Activity brings in millions to Macomb

By Tim Keenan / Special to The Detroit News, Tuesday, May 6, 2003

HARRISON TOWNSHIP -- Despite water levels on Lake St. Clair that are a foot-and-a-half below average, Macomb County marinas from Harrison Township to St. Clair Shores are doing booming business.

That's because experienced boaters are shrugging off the difficulties they're facing in trying to get to open water.

"The water has been low," said Mike Ufford, a Chesterfield Township banker who keeps his 30-foot Four Winns cabin cruiser at Belle Maer Harbor in Harrison Township. "But it doesn't matter how low the water is. If you have a chart and aren't a moron, you won't have a problem."

Still, the shrinking lake levels could imperil a local boating industry that, when healthy, is worth millions of dollars to the Macomb County economy, from St. Clair Shores to north of Selfridge Air National Guard Base.

The dropped levels forecast by the Great Lakes Research Laboratory and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers come amid other challenges for Macomb boaters, including fluctuating fuel prices and iffy weather.

Overcoming these problems is imperative to keeping Macomb's economy afloat, said Don Morandini, deputy director of Macomb County's Planning and Economic Development Department. His most recent economic analysis shows Macomb County has 30 boat dealers employing 294 people, with an estimated annual payroll of $12 million.

Viewed in a national context, the probability for success is great.

"Boating is on the rise" nationwide, said Nancy Nisselbaum, executive editor of Boating magazine. "It entices people all the time. It's still a strong industry. Americans still love the form of escape and the family time that boating offers."

The numbers prove it: 852,400 boats were sold in 2002, down from 881,800 in 2001, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association. Plus, more than $30.3 billion was spent nationally last year on new boats, used boats, outboard motors, inboard engines, trailers and other boating accessories.

Starting strong
Macomb's boating season is starting strong, based on boat slip rentals. And the potential for continued growth is there, as Michigan continues to rank first nationally in boat registrations. In both 2000 and 2001, the state registered more than 1 million boats.

At Belle Maer Harbor in Harrison Township, 836 boat slips have been rented. That's 92 percent of capacity, owner Eric Foster said.

"We're not really concerned (about the water level)," Foster said. "We dredged three years ago (an $800,000 project), and haven't had a problem."

The water level can help or hurt a boating season, said Cynthia Sallinger, a hydrologist at the Great Lakes Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor. She expects Lake St. Clair to be 17 inches below average through fall.

The main impact of low water levels is people getting in and out of their boat slips, Sallinger said.

"Once they get out, they're OK," she said. "The big freighters are having some problems navigating in these conditions, but not boaters."

Michigan's receding lake levels will eventually mean higher prices for products that travel by freighter, such as salt.

"For every inch of water (the shippers don't have), they have to carry 100 less tons. So if we're down eight, nine, 10 inches, we're looking at 1,000 tons (less)," said Dean Haen, port director of the Port of Green Bay, which gets its salt from Detroit freighters. "That's 7 percent less cargo per ship."

But in Macomb County, things are looking up. Marinas, restaurants and mom-and-pop party stores rely heavily on the boating industry. Things are good right now at places such as the Hideaway Harbor in Harrison Township, which has rented out its 100 boat slips. No surprise, said harbor manager Dawn Velger.

"We sell out every year," she said.

Boca Grande Marina, on the Clinton River in Harrison Township, has rented 44 of its 56 boat slips, said owner Tom Harvey. Water levels aren't worrying his customers.

"There's plenty of water," Harvey said.

Pat O'Connell, 49, a salesman for an automotive supplier from Rochester Hills, spent $3,000 for a slip this season to dock his 33-foot Larson powerboat at Belle Maer. He's optimistic water levels will not affect his boating habits.

"Water levels are supposed to be OK," O'Connell said.

Weather concerns

After low water levels, "the weather is the second-biggest variable" to having a successful boating season in Macomb, said Mike LeFevre, owner of Jack's Waterfront Restaurant in St. Clair Shores. "Last year was a fabulous year because there was only one full weekend of rain."

"Weather dictates everything," said Steve Duffy, owner of Duffy's Landing, a Harrison Township convenience store and fuel station for boaters. "If it's warm and sunny, you're jammed."

Duffy said summer 1998 was awful because it was rainy.

"You couldn't give fuel away," he said. That year, the lake level was 15 inches above average.

This year, "gas prices are coming down," Duffy said. "We'll probably have lower fuel costs than last year, so we expect fuel prices to be an advantage."

Andiamo's Lakefront Bistro in St. Clair Shores doubles its business during boating season. But that business isn't tied to how many boats cruise in from Lake St. Clair.

"We don't have a lot of slip space," said Gina Venta, an Andiamo's manager. "People pretty much come to Andiamo's by car."

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The fellow who said it didn't matter how low water got as long as you have a chart and are not a "moron" is understating things.

There's still plenty of water to have fun on in Lake St. Clair but lower water levels have meant we all need to watch for submerged debris like tree limbs, especially early in the season. And I've seen enough pilings just below the surface, even in the North Channel across from Deckers, that I'm always on the lookout when I'm in water I haven't travelled before.

All that said, this low water isn't so bad and I hope we can all have a safe and happy summer!
 

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QUOTE(Capt'n Mike @ May 6 2003, 03:17 PM)If you have a chart and aren't a moron, you won't have a problem."
I like this quote
 
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