Business Rises as Water Levels Fall To Normal

WATERTOWN DAILY TIMES FILE PHOTO A tourist boat approaches Boldt Castle in Alexandria Bay.

BY: Doug Buchanan
The summer of 2017 will long be remembered as one of the worst for tourism along the St. Lawrence River due to pounding spring rains and subsequent extremely high water levels. This year, though, is a different story – and business owners along the river from Alexandria Bay all the way up to Massena are hoping for a flood of tourists to make up for last year’s losses.

    While the summer of 2017 was in many ways a story of destruction and loss, it was in even more ways a story of resilience and determination. While the high water in the St. Lawrence wreaked havoc on docks, breakwaters and marinas – both public and private – businesses and communities up and down the shore worked together to turn what could have been an economic nightmare into, in most cases, a fairly respectable season.

    “When the water was up four or five feet, it hurt the tourism. For a month or so we were down,” said John Bondellio, owner of The Ship Gift Shop and The Gift Zone on James Street in Alexandria Bay. “And we were down a little bit for the year. Plus, we had some bad weather, too.”

    Bondellio, like many other businesspeople in the tourism industry, is at the mercy of Mother Nature. Bad weather means fewer tourists willing to make the trek to Alexandria Bay or any shore points in Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties. But warmer weather and less rain during daytime hours bring out the visitors in droves.

    Anchoring the tourist trade in the Alex Bay region, of course, is the historical and architectural marvel that is Boldt Castle. There, in the summer of 2017, staff worked together, in some cases putting renovation projects on hold, to ensure that the castle, and Heart Island itself, was open for business. For upwards of four decades, the island and the castle have been owned by the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority, whose goal has always been to create a first-rate attraction, according to facilities director Shane Sanford.

    “In 2015, the Thousand Islands Bridge Authority had an economic impact study done which recognized that Boldt Castle had an economic impact of nearly $45 million to the region annually,” said Sanford. “Thus, the importance of keeping the facility running.”

    With the river well above the existing docks early in the 2017 season, Sanford and his staff got straight to business.

    “We immediately worked to overcome the challenges, which included our main docks being underwater,” he said. “So our crew started building docks on top of docks, mainly for tour vessels. We did it quite swiftly so that our visitors would be received in a safe and secure manner and our employees would be working in a safe environment as well.”

    The key, he said, was to keep operating, not only for the sake of the castle, but for the sake of the many businesses that derive their income from the visitors that the island attracts to the area. Bondellio, for example, closes his gift shops for the season as soon as Uncle Sam Boat Tours – which ferry guests to and from Heart Island and throughout the 1000 Islands all summer – stop operating for the season.

    “We are one of the major attractions and we recognize that,” said Sanford, “and we know it’s very important to keep those facilities up and running. Our whole workforce was committed to getting it open and remaining open.”

    Sanford is well aware of the dependence of other businesses and he was proud of his staff for making sure things kept running despite the challenging, and potentially dangerous, conditions.

    “We had to relocate some of our operations and reroute electrical feeds to different buildings,” he said, “but we were able to continue to operate. We never canceled anything. We had 60 or so weddings last summer.”

    The fact remains, however, that the summer of 2017 was a tough one for the tourism industry. According to a survey conducted by the 1000 Islands International Tourism Council, 82 percent of respondents noted some degree of negative impact as a result of the high water levels. Here is a sampling of some of their comments:

  • “I was unable to operate my business for the first two months of my season. My net loss was 60 percent.”
  • “Floating docks needed planking and fixed docks were submerged for many weeks.”
  • “We bought this business 25 years ago and have never had such a terrible season. I do think the news coverage and the boom of social media affects this area also.”

    Tourism Council Director Gary DeYoung acknowledges that media reports may have scared away some potential visitors, but much of that had to do with negative press concerning the southern shore of Lake Ontario.

    “Visitors can’t see current conditions. They can only rely on what they’re hearing in the media or social media. On one hand, there were marinas not operating or campsites under water, but most of that was adapted for early,” DeYoung said. “But because it was reported, a lot of people had the impression that places weren’t open. We got painted with the same brush as the southern shore of Lake Ontario, where a lot of our customers come from.”

    DeYoung is optimistic about the upcoming tourist season – and he sees the same optimism in business owners he’s dealt with so far this season.

    “I think people are pretty positive,” he said. “In talking with operators, everybody’s pretty upbeat. We did a brochure exchange last week and had about 70 businesses at Wellesley Island State Park. And that’s generally been the attitude we’ve been hearing.”

    While it’s easy to remember the brutal summer of 2017, it may be easy to forget that just a year earlier – the summer of 2016 – was one of the best tourist seasons on record.

    “If you look at 2016, it was our best year in about 20 years,” said DeYoung, “One of worst years in 20 years in 2017. But the fundamentals were there.”

    The fundamentals of a good tourist season, according to DeYoung, include a strong economy, good weather overall, meaning a good number of sunny days over the course of the summer, and reasonable gas prices. These factors are all in place going into the summer of 2018, so the groundwork is there for a great upcoming season. While it’s true that gas prices are above $3 per gallon, and will probably rise a bit more as the season continues, DeYoung believes those prices aren’t so exorbitant as to keep people from traveling for vacations.

    Weather and economic factors notwithstanding, the true make-or-break factor at the heart of any tourist area is what it has to offer – this is what industry insiders typically refer to as the “product.”

    “We’ve got a lot of new product,” DeYoung said. “Boldt Castle is freshening up, wineries and distilleries are opening up all the time. Our product is improving all the time. That’s good news. We really are in a good position to take advantage of good weather, should we get it.”

    DeYoung admits that a rainy, somewhat chilly spring has put a slight damper on things so far, though.

    “Looking at our numbers here in terms of early interest, in April and first part of May,” he said, “inquiry rates (to the Tourism Council) were a little soft. We have some catching up to do in terms of getting people to ‘think summer.’”

    Businesses throughout the region are preparing for the best, though. With hundreds of new flowers and plants going into the grounds around Boldt Castle, things should be getting very colorful soon.

    “It takes a couple weekends, but by mid-June the castle grounds have a lot of color,” said Sanford. “We attract some people just for the flower gardens and plants.”

    Sanford said that for Boldt Castle, a good season means more than 200,000 visitors over the course of the 163 days the island is open for visitors.

    “We did over 200,000 in 2016,” said Sanford, who hopes to hit those numbers again this summer.

    While it may be true in the Thousand Islands area that ‘as goes Boldt Castle, so goes the region,’ things are a bit different as one moves down the St. Lawrence, northward toward Morristown, Ogdensburg, Waddington and Massena.

    Brooke Rouse, the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce executive director, points to the variety of attractions and facilities that are coming together to bring more and more visitors to that region year after year. While there is some fallout remaining from the high water problems in 2017 – including repairs still needed at the breakwater in Ogdensburg – she noted that business owners are already preparing for a great season.

    “The Thousand Islands has always been a tourist destination,” she said, “but now St. Lawrence County communities are doing more along those lines.”

    Rouse noted that nearly every community features a summer concert series at municipal parks, the Gateway Museum in Morristown is launching a big display highlighting fishing on the St. Lawrence, the Bassmasters Elite tournament is returning to Waddington this summer, the North Country Children’s Museum in Potsdam is a “tremendous asset” that will draw families to the area, and communities all along the river – and inland – are building facilities that will bring more visitors. But the key is to get the word out about all this.

    “We got a grant to do promotion and that’s starting to roll out,” Rouse said, noting that the goal is to promote the county’s assets along the river. “We’re hoping to attract new people and people who didn’t come back last year.”

    The majority of the promotion efforts, she explained, center around social media across multiple apps and platforms, including Facebook.

    “We’re capturing fresh new footage and doing some work to bring in travel writers and internet ‘influencers,’” she said, adding that the chamber will be setting up tours to showcase what the county has to offer.

    “We want people to come and we want people to stay longer than they might have otherwise,” she said. “The economic impact is with overnight stays. So having all these built and natural attractions help people think about spending more time here.”

    St. Lawrence County, Rouse said, can be enjoyed at one’s own pace, whether it’s on the miles of ATV trails, the beautiful waterfall hikes, or at nature centers and state parks.

    “The message is that we’re kind of ‘light adventure,’” she said. “We’re not the High Peaks, but here you can experience the outdoors without all the gear and all the training. We’ve always had the natural assets, but having the built facilities where people can eat and shop and stay has made a difference.”

    For Rouse – and the businesses and facilities hoping to host visitors from near and far this summer – the key is quality of life; that is, enjoying your stay on your own terms and at your own pace.

    “We launched a new destination brand at the end of last year,” she explained. “Our new tagline is ‘Life Undiscovered” and so we’re really just promoting the quality of life – hopefully to get people to relocate, too – and to showcase how much there is to discover here, even for locals.”

    The chamber’s new website – visitstlc.com – is a clearing house of resources for anyone interested in checking out St. Lawrence River communities that have a flavor and style a bit different from the busier locations closer to the Thousand Islands region.

                No matter where you go, whether it’s a hike up Mount Arab, a tour of a maritime museum, a boat tour to Boldt Castle and around the Thousand Islands, or a fishing trip to reel in a mighty muskie or a tasty walleye, one thing is certain: Businesses and facilities are ready and waiting to entertain, to enthrall, and to provide visitors with an experience along the glorious St. Lawrence River that promises to provide memories that will last a lifetime.