The Stream Team

Affordable waterfront property is what the owners of Champlain Bridge Marina say they provide

by Liz Schick

Ray, Francine and Bryan Giroux, with Bear, their golden retriever. In 1987, Ray and Francine Giroux bought a nearly bankrupt marina in West Addison that they named Champlain Bridge Marina. With their son, Bryan, they provide all the amenities for a summer getaway experience for boat owners on Lake Champlain. Bear is the official greeter.

"Just think, Francine,” Raymond Giroux told his wife in 1987 as they considered buying a run-down, nearly bankrupt marina in West Addison, “We’ll only have to work three months out of the year.”

Francine laughs as she relives the moment. “I believed him,” she says, “and I think he half believed it himself.”

So it was, that on Memorial Day weekend in 1987, Giroux, Francine, and his father, Ernest, then owner of Giroux Building Supply in Hinesburg, became marina owners, changing the name to Champlain Bridge Marina. Twenty years later, it’s known far and wide to boaters as Say Ahoy, its Web name and toll-free 800 number acronym.

One of the major projects they knew they were going to have to tackle was to dredge the silt from the marina area in Hospital Creek, the bay leading to the main lake. Permits were already in place, and they were ready to tackle the job.

“The need to dredge was the main reason why nobody else would buy the property,” Giroux admits. “The permits had two years to run, but we didn’t realize how big a job it was, and had barely started when the permits expired. We had to reapply, and then it took nine years of working with the state, providing ecological studies and reports, before we won the permit renewal.”

According to Dale Robbins, eastern regional sales manager for Rinker Boat Co., the exclusive supplier of the new boats Giroux stocks and sells, “Ray and his son, Bryan, dredged the marina themselves over three winters. When the bay froze they would drive dump trucks out onto the ice, set up their crane, dredge up the silt and cart it away.”

That was the turning point for the business. As soon as it could accommodate large boats, Say Ahoy began to become a destination marina for the southern part of the lake. Now it’s not uncommon to see 45-foot cruisers tied up alongside sailboats and 18-foot runabouts.

While the original building is still used — for the new-boat showroom, offices, the parts department and the service shop — the only thing that’s still original is the roof. This 10,000-square-foot building has been remodeled many times. The second year the Girouxes owned the marina, they realized there wasn’t enough storage, so they bought the old 22,000-square-foot St. Albans skating rink building, disassembled it, carted it to West Addison and reassembled it.

The third building — a 12,000-square-foot former hockey rink the Girouxes found in Ohio — was put up last fall to serve as summer showroom and winter storage. Now the marina can overwinter about 200 boats.

Storage is important to Giroux. “I know most places are going into the shrink-wrapping business,” he says, “but it’s something I don’t really like. I mean, after it’s been used you have to throw the stuff away, and that’s a lot of plastic in the landfill. It seems like a waste, and the cost of doing it almost pays for the inside storage, so we’ve opted to offer inside storage and not shrink-wrapping.”

Deena BrouillardDeena Brouillard, a selfprofessed jack-of-all-trades, is one of seven long-term employees helping the Girouxes with day-to-day operations.

Environmentally sound thinking plays a large role in the Giroux family’s life and business.

“Cleaning up Lake Champlain is always our biggest issue,” Giroux says. When the Girouxes took over the marina, the bay was infested with water chestnuts. This was before the state started its eradication program. “Bryan and I tackled it ourselves,” Giroux says, “pulling them out and trucking them away. Once we got it under control in Hospital Creek, the state started its eradication program.”

Giroux thinks the same kind of program is needed to control Eurasian milfoil. “I believe you have to pull the roots. Although there are a lot of waterfront owners who believe in weed harvesting, that’s really just cutting them down. My common sense tells me that’s like cutting your lawn: The more you cut it, the thicker it grows. But,” he adds, “that’s just my opinion.”

Giroux cites work being done by Lake Champlain Restoration Association, of which Champlain Bridge Marina is a member. “They are getting the legislators to listen and to see the problem firsthand. But there’s no quick fix,” Giroux laments.

“We want this water to be beautiful and clean, and we work hard at doing just that,” says Bryan.

Without question, the Giroux family agrees, their business is selling the water experience. “Affordable waterfront property is what we do,” says Giroux. “No other dealer on the lake is selling large cruisers. People can buy the boat here and keep it here.”

Now 31, Bryan is general manager, freeing up his father to focus on boat sales and expansion issues. With an associate’s degree in business from Champlain College and a bachelor’s degree in economics from UVM, Bryan says he always knew he would be in the family business. “After you watch your parents work as hard as they did for so long, why would you leave them hanging?” he asks.

Finding qualified help is a big challenge, says Bryan. Although the business goes through a number of summer helpers each year, the Girouxes consider the business lucky to have their seven long-term employees helping the three of them run the day-to-day operation.

A photo of the marinaRay Giroux says that Hospital Creek got its name because of a nearby Revolutionary War field hospital.

Bryan has been part of things at the marina since he was an 11-year-old mowing lawns and working on the docks. While in college, he moved to the parts department, graduated to boat sales, and finally to the shop. Now both father and son are certified technicians who can — and do — make boat repairs.

Bryan remembers how he admired nearby Point Bay Marina as a child, and wanted Champlain Bridge Marina to be like it. “Now,” he says, “I’m proud at what we’ve achieved. We’ve not only grown from being able to accommodate only 40 boats to having 158 slips, but we have installed entirely new, environmentally sound floating docks, have a state-of-the-art fuel pump system, and a dredged marina. We have a new boat dealership and offer a brokerage to sell the used boats we take in trade, plus a full parts department, This year, we are even offering Wi-Fi.”

The marina offers a complete shop where they make custom canvas and do canvas repairs. “We are fairly remote, with the nearest marina 15 miles away, so we provide pretty much everything,” says Bryan. The marina’s newest business is selling EZ Docks, the same floating dock system the Girouxes installed at the marina. Future projects include a wave attenuator to reduce the force of the waves coming into Hospital Creek.

The senior Giroux likes to joke that Champlain Bridge Marina is his biggest and longest-lasting construction project. A third-generation Vermonter, he grew up in the construction business, working for his father at Giroux Building Supply and doing summer work for Pizzagalli Construction while he was studying chemical engineering at the University of Vermont.

He married Francine, a native of Hyde Park, in 1974. They had begun several ventures — Barre-Mont Roller Rink, Music Korner in Barre and Morrisville, and 18 apartment buildings, which Francine managed — by 1980, when Giroux started a construction company in Barre, where he landed a contract building Hallmark stores all over New England.

By ’87, tired of the traveling this entailed, he was eager to follow up when a friend showed him a newspaper ad about the marina for sale in West Addison.

Tom Everest and Les Myers In the marina’s service shop, Tom Everest (left), custom canvas maker, and Les Myers, marine mechanic, wrestle with a Merc cruiser engine.

The next year, they bought a house across the bay. Then they bought an adjacent property with seven rental cabins, which they keep available for seasonal or weekly boaters.

That house is one of the things Robbins of Rinker Boats enjoys about his relationship with the Girouxes “For 18 years I’ve been working with Ray, who is one of the most honorable men I know,” he says. “The Girouxes are all down-to-earth people. With many dealerships, I give a PowerPoint presentation about the new Rinker boats, but Ray and Francine just invite me over to the house, where we sit down at the kitchen table and have lunch. Vermont is lucky to have people like them running such a vital resource at this end of the lake.”

What makes it all worthwhile, says Giroux, is “living where we live, in the midst of the wildlife, the birds, the scenery, the sunrises and sunsets. As far as I’m concerned, we live in heaven.” •