Defying A Wet 2017: Businesses look bravely toward 2018

Boldt Castle in Alexandria Bay opened in early spring despite high waters covering the docks, as seen from the air.

BY: Nicole Caldwell
High water levels last summer put a damper on many area businesses, creating a devastating storm of drowning profits and skyrocketing repair costs.

But when the going gets tough, the tough get resourceful. The adaptiveness of north country businesses meant many bounced back to make up for early season losses. Those adaptations—repairs, improvements and strategizing—have poised inns, marinas, restaurants and shops for whatever Mother Nature brings in 2018.

Record water levels kept tourism at bay through mid-summer.

Eighty percent of businesses in the Thousand Islands region were negatively affected by the season’s unusually high water and rain levels, according to a survey by the 1000 Islands Tourism Council. Revenue losses averaged 29 percent in the 2017 summer season—a shock, considering the stabilized gas prices and exchange rates between Canada and the United States, and an increase in disposable consumer income.

Water levels, which swelled throughout the early spring, peaked in May. Lake Ontario set records since levels were first tracked 100 years ago, at 248.8 feet according to the International Joint Commission—almost two feet over flood levels—while the St. Lawrence River reached 242 feet above the dam in Massena.

At Henchen Marina in Henderson, revenue dipped by 30 percent and the business was hit with $75,000 in damages to buildings and docks. Restaurants such as The Blue Heron in Chaumont and Sackets Harbor Brewing Company suffered a steep decline in diners, as cottage owners and seasonal guests were deterred from visiting by flooded houses and unusable docks. These stories, along with many others reported by the Watertown Daily Times in November, have echoes all along the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario.

The state responded by making $5 million available to businesses affected in grants of up to $20,000 for repairs.

Social networks, news exacerbated the issue.

Seventy-five percent of business owners in the 1000 Islands Tourism Council survey said social media and news reports contributed to diminished business.

Mike Stock is the owner of Riverbay Adventure Inn, which is a multi generational family business in Chippewa Bay.

Michael C. Stock, owner of Riverbay Adventure Inn in Chippewa Bay, called the season “kind of a weird situation for a lot of reasons,” and said social media and the news affected his business “a great deal” by misleading visitors.

“What I’m finding is people can know the conditions even before I do and I’m here. There was a lot of concern. People started showing pictures of a dock on a dock and people saw that and started emailing us asking about safety… just the amount of time and energy that went into answering questions. I can’t say this for certain, but it didn’t feel like a lot of local media or chambers stood up. I acknowledge there was a [flooding] problem, but we also have to protect each other.”

At the end of the day, Stock chalks last season up to a learning experience in preparedness.

“We had a lot of damage to our docks,” he said. “I made a big investment into putting in floating docks. I learned that way you’re not dependent on what the water does. I’m trying to be proactive—anything I redo or fix, I think, ‘How can I do it so I am truly prepared for anything?’”

One of those ways is to diversify. Stock—along with many entrepreneurs along the river—noticed that if people didn’t spend money in one place, they spent it in another. Case in point: Tourists who did show up last season often came without their own boats, driving rentals up. That helped make up for reduced kayak rentals, he said.

In spite of last season, businesses are optimistic for 2018.

Boldt Castle, which is responsible for an estimated $40 million of the Thousand Islands region’s economy, saw a marked downturn in visitors last year. The castle in 2017 welcomed 186,600 visitors—down from 204,094 in 2016, according to Shane Sanford, Boldt Castle’s facilities director. Based on standard entrance fees to Boldt, that’s a combined loss of around $166,193 in ticket sales alone.

Flooded docks made it impossible for tour boats to unload visitors on Heart Island. To fix this, Sanford said secondary docks were built on top of existing docks. That costly work meant shutting down Heart Island for the entire second week of May—right around the time the castle should have been opening.

“We met challenges every day,” Sanford said.

The Boldt Yacht House, an attraction in and of itself, couldn’t open until Aug. 5 because of ongoing repairs throughout the summer to undo water damage. “We [also] had to relocate US customs operations on the island. Some of our buildings dockside were submerged. The water also had an effect on other buildings, where Heart Island’s Power House was inundated with water and we were never able to open that all summer.”

The power house’s interior was flooded with 17 inches of water. Those repairs were still being made as of this writing. Overall, Sanford estimated the repair costs to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for Aster Tower, Boldt Yacht House, Power House, and temporary dock alterations.

Still, Boldt Castle—along with Singer Castle in Chippewa Bay—enjoyed an uptick in attendance during the second half of the summer while temperatures climbed and water receded. Overall, the tourist attraction enjoyed its ninth-best season since 1977, and hosted 65 weddings.

“When water finally started to recede we had a beautiful fall,” Sanford said. “We were blessed with some terrific seasonal weather.”

Boldt Castle is slated to open May 12 of this year—an opening Sanford said the whole region is anticipating optimistically.

“We are always looking forward to getting open again and the season starting,” he said. “I really think the Thousand Islands is starting to be recognized for the great destination that it is.”

Some businesses treated unpredictable weather as business as usual.

Not every business in the tri-county region has decades of books to look back on to chart what accounts for a good or bad year.

Emilie Cardinaux owner of the Golden Cleat specializes in unique jewelry and products themed to the Thousand Islands on Friday in Clayton.

The Golden Cleat, a jewelry line founded by Emilie Cardinaux in 2014, opened its first brick-and-mortar shop in a riverfront building in downtown Clayton during some of the worst flooding recorded in the last half-century.

“I have nothing to compare this to,” Cardinaux said of how the high water and wet season may have affected business. Unlike other shops, flooding didn’t affect her inventory. But back at Cardinaux’s home, a flooded basement threatened to ruin her musical equipment. But instead of simply finding another place to store her gear, the entrepreneur came up with a new plan.

“We took all the music equipment out and brought it into the store, which turned into a concert series,” Cardinaux said. “That was really cool and fun and special and was sort of serendipitous, I guess.” Ticket sales from the concert series at The Golden Cleat were donated to the Antique Boat Museum, while also bringing in more foot traffic to Cardinaux’s store.

“Overall, the store did better than I ever expected in a retail location and [opening a storefont] was probably the best business decision I ever made,” she said.

“June was less than September in terms of retail, but our July was double our June and our August was even far exceeding that. It’s really hard to say how it would have been different with weather. Overall, people just didn’t make the trips up in June that they otherwise would have. But I think people who were here were eating out and shopping more because they weren’t out on their docks.”