ALPENA The 2012 boating season has pretty much been wrapped up and the preliminary numbers from Thunder Bay Shores Marine show a significant drop in the amount of traffic at the harbor in Alpena.
According to Thunder Bay Shores co-owner Tim Connoly, the drop in slip rentals was expected and measures were taken in the marina's budget and marketing to help find ways to offset the potential losses. Connoly said there was a 30 percent drop in transient docking this year compared to 2011 and about the same decline in fuel sales.
"We saw a decline across the board and it was a down year," Connoly said. "We attribute the lack of dock sales to the high cost of gas, because it takes a lot of gas to run many of these boats. We also saw a large increase in the amount of boats being pulled in on trailers and using the launch. We anticipated the number would be down and made adjustments to staffing and marketed on other things like repairs to smaller boats which can be moved by a trailer, because right now people aren't buying new boats, they are fixing their old ones."
Connoly said in terms of dollars the marina was down $10,000 in seasonable docking, $3,000 in transient docking and $70,000 in fuel sales. He said there are several factors in play which will determine if things can rebound next year.
"It was really a survival year for us this year, and next year will depend on a combination of things including how the fishery is doing locally and how high the price of gas is. Right now, without knowing how those two things will be, it is hard to see if we will have a turnaround," he said.
Connoly said there were several areas that he considered positives this boating season. He said retail sales were on par with last year, as was storage. He said the challenges Thunder Bay Shores Marine faces are not unique.
"It is the same story up and down the coast," Connoly said. "I think the only exceptions would be Mackinac Island and maybe the Mackinaw City marinas. It has been pretty much a continuous decline for the last several years."
As with many ports in the state another concern for Connoly is the steady decline of the water levels. He said it has gotten to the point to where certain types of boats will not be able to enter the marina because it is so shallow.
"Any sailboat that draws more than six feet or more just won't be able to get in unless we get a lot of precipitation this winter," Connoly said. "Really six feet might be a stretch. The motor boats will be able to get in but the rudders on the sailboats make it more difficult."
One way to attract boaters is to offer a menu of options for them and make staying in Alpena attractive and affordable. Connoly said for years the Michigan Waterways Commission has set the rate scale for what a marina must charge. He said now the commission is allowing marina operators more flexibility in setting prices.
"It is going to allow us to make adjustments to what we feel we need to fill our slips and for what is best for our community," Connoly said. "Right now we have a set of rates drafted and I have to run them by my partner and the city. Every other marina has been raising prices, but I think here they will either hold where they are or maybe decrease slightly. Like I said. We have to get boats into these slips."
Connoly said some of the other options could include monthly rentals instead of a full season. He said that might help lure people into the harbor for an extended stay in Alpena, where everything they need is close to the boat.
"We really are fortunate to have a harbor with stores, restaurants, laundrymats and things to do close by," Connoly said. "Our association with NOAA has also helped bring people in. If it wasn't for them, things could have maybe been worse."
Steve Schulwitz can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5689.