The Year on the Lake

Our annual lighthearted look at business on Lake Champlain

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

It’s mid-March as I write this; ski areas that two weeks ago were concerned about how long they could remain open are bouncing with skiers and glee — some with over 5 feet of new snow, making, somebody said, for “the best skiing in the East.” “If winter won’t end,” said another skiing enthusiast, “we might as well make the most of it.”

Sailboat photoAlex Brett

Meanwhile, on Lake Champlain, summer planning is in full gear. Sure, the bays are still solid, much of the broad lake is frozen, and shrink-wrapped boats fill marina yards, but things are hopping behind the scenes, with most aiming for a May opening.

Emily Clark, who own Ladd’s Landing in Grand Isle with her husband, Dan, says they never fully closed down this winter. That’s because the Clarks have bought Northland Boat Shop in North Hero, a longtime partner with them for boat repairs, and have built a 12,800-square-foot pole barn for indoor boat storage on-site.

saba marine sailboate in the marinaSaba Marine

“We kept Northland open all year for the first time to do service work and maintenance,” says Clark. “From a customer standpoint, it completes the offer, having on-site Mercury-certified service. And it gives us the opportunity to grow things like our valet business for Northland customers.” Valet customers are those with boats on trailers that are stored at the marina and, with a couple of hours’ notice, can be pulled out by marina personnel and waiting at the dock.

“We also wanted to commit to the employees that we were going to make this year-round,” Clark says. “It’s quieter in the winter, and we took the opportunity for safety training for the guys. So we’re open, and people will start showing up when the lake opens up.”

“A few weeks ago, we thought we would be open fairly early,” says Mark Saba, the owner of Bay Harbor Marina and Saba Marine, both in Malletts Bay. “But now that winter has set in again, the goal is to be open by May 1. We’re hoping it could be as early as April 15. We’re going to try.”

Both Clark and Saba say that last summer was a great season. It started off a bit slow due to rain in May and June, but, says Saba, “once July 4 hit, it was unbelievable all the way into October. We picked up an extra month that we lost at the beginning.”

Saba Marine had “a record boat show [in Essex Junction], so people are out buying boats,” he says, adding that it bodes well for the lake.

map of Malletts bay and the inland seaMallett's Bay and the Inland Sea

Dennis Fox, the owner of Fox Marine in Colchester, also had a great boat show. “Closed on a boat this morning,” he says. “You always hope for a good season, but it’s in the good Lord’s hands. The weather has a lot to do with it; the economy’s doing pretty well; the shows are all looking really positive.”

What makes a boat show great, adds Fox, is not the number of people who go, but the quality of people who go — “the people out shopping; prospective buyers.” The activity at this year’s boat show was good in this respect.

The rising age of boaters has been a subject of concern in some quarters. The majority of Fox’s boaters are 40-ish and up, he says, adding, “I think boating in general, if you take a group of five [buyers], three out of those would be families, and the other two would be a couple (husband and wife) or just a single guy or girl.”

Saba’s buyers range in age from their mid-20s to retirement age, “people in their mid-70s. We have a lot of young families who have been buying boats. I think they realize it’s a great family time — lifestyle — and keeps the kids close to home.”

map of the main section of lake champlainLake Champlain

Another boat dealer, Mike Turner of Turner Marine Group in Burlington, is the North American distributor for an Italian manufacturer of mahogany and fiberglass runabouts. He doesn’t have a local showroom, although he lives and works from his home in South Burlington and has a storage and workshop/maintenance shop on Lakeview Terrace. “Generally my customer is the male who’s involved in either the automobile business, finance, or is retired, and grew up with wood boats and likes the classic style. He’s young — at the age when people are starting to find financial success — late 30s, or with people in technology, younger.”

Because his market is so specialized, Turner does not depend on Lake Champlain for his customers, although he lives in Vermont by choice, within view of the lake, and says he’s aiming to host some events to help build a Vermont clientele.

Customers for Saba’s boat and marine businesses come mainly from Chittenden County, although some come up from New York or Boston for the summer.

sailboats in the mist by fox marineFox Marine

Clark says the vast majority of her customers at Ladd’s Landing come from Vermont — “either people with summer places on the Islands or even people year-round on the Islands with a boat big enough that they keep it at a marina.” With smaller boats, there’s usually enough movement that we can offer valet service, but there’s usually a waiting list for boats 30 feet and over.

“Last year was a great year for our boat rentals,” she continues, “so we’re expanding our boat rental fleet. We’ve installed a couple of older, classic Boston Whalers, so hopefully, you’ll see those zooming around on the Inland Sea.”

“We get some New Yorkers,” says Fox, “but not many Canadians because of the dollar exchange. I would say probably out of 10 customers, eight would be in Vermont, and the other two either from New York (Plattsburgh) or New Hampshire.”

There appears to be no slacking of interest in lake recreation. Private developers are working on Burlington Harbor Marina, a 160-slip facility located between the fishing pier and the U.S. Coast Guard station. And opening soon is St. Albans Bay Marina on Georgia Shore Road, a privately funded development with space for 152 boats and a parking lot for 80 cars.

sailboats at ladd's landingLadd's Landing

Of the possible competition, Clark says Ladd’s Landing may feel some impact from the St. Albans one, “but it’s a bit farther away for people to get to.” She thinks Malletts Bay businesses might feel a greater impact from the new marinas.

It’s too soon to know the effect that all this snow will have on the lake at the end of April. A lot, says Clark, depends on how much rain follows it.

“The water level has come up,” Saba says — I think it’s like 97.14 feet today, a bit up from where we normally would be.” He recalls the spring of 2011 and the record high level.

Clark, too, mentions the 2011 record. “That was amazing! There were people launching boats in their parking lots! But all of our property was above water level. So unless we get a tremendous amount of rain ...”

Ladd’s Landing is “probably” on target for a May 15 opening, says Clark. “We’ve had periods of melt this year, but as long as it doesn’t happen all at once, it seems to level off. We’ll certainly get a couple of feet of rise, but it probably won’t be extreme.” She adds that her husband is the one who constantly monitors the level, “because he’s concerned about our docks. They’re attached to chains, and we’ve got approximately 8 inches to a foot in play.” •