Boaters will once again be able to access electrical services along the Champlain Canal mooring wall after the town board approved a motion to return power to the pedestals behind the Skenesborough Museum and Whitehall Volunteer Fire House.
The resolution received the support of Supervisor George Armstrong and trustees David Hollister and Stephanie Safka. Trustees Farrell Prefountaine and Richard LaChapelle were absent and did not vote.
The electricity was turned on two weeks ago to accommodate presentations aboard the Urger, a historic tugboat owned by the state that has been transformed into a floating museum, and officials decided last Wednesday to leave the power on permanently.
Officials will ask boaters to make a small donation to offset the costs of electrical services and will establish a drop box inside the town hall where money can be deposited. They plan to erect a sign notifying boaters the power is on and asking for donations.
“I think we can solicit money from some of the boaters,” Armstrong said. “It’s something we can work on and it can evolve as to how we charge for it.”
It’s been estimated the cost of electrical services is between $800 and $900 per year.
In making the decision, officials weighed the potential benefits to the community against the potential consequences it could have on local marinas.
“It’s a double-edged sword either way you cut it,” Hollister said. “People on both sides of the coin are going to holler.”
Bethe Reynolds, president of the Whitehall Chamber of Commerce, said some businesses could benefit and others may not.
“We certainly want to be supportive of all the businesses in town, so we recognize some businesses will benefit from that where the marinas may not. The marinas are major stakeholders for the tax base and as employers so we would we hope something could be worked out to make this beneficial for everyone,” Reynolds said.
When the visitors’ center was constructed in 2000, pedestals were installed along the wall behind the facility and boaters could use them to access free electricity.
But those services drew the ire of local marina owners who claimed they hurt their businesses and put them in direct competition with the town.
To appease the struggling businesses, the town board voted in October 2010 to stop providing electricity behind the wall and the services were shut off before the boating season began last spring.
But Armstrong said he believes turning off the power caused the boating community to look negatively upon Whitehall.
“I’ve had discussions with boaters and people at the farmers’ market and people didn’t like it,” he said. “If Whitehall is deemed unfriendly, the whole community will get a black eye.”
Mike Decsi, who is managing Champlain Harbor Marina and RV Park, said he doesn’t believe the decision to turn power on will hurt the marina.
“The fact they turned on the power is not going to affect, nor do I believe it ever has, affected the marina business. It’s an insignificant detriment,” Decsi said. “Anybody who makes a decision to stay where there is no water, no facilities, no Wi-Fi, no cable television, for $4 or $5 of free electricity per night is not typically one of our customers.”
He said if it attracts some additional commerce for other businesses and benefits the community it could be a good thing.
“This decision is not going to hurt a full-service marina that has its stuff together,” Decsi said.
Odd town out
Representatives from the New York State Canal Corp. told town officials last month that Whitehall was the only community along the entire canal system that have access to electrical hook-ups, but doesn’t provide electricity — free or charged — to boaters.
Safka said she spoke with a lock operator who told her when the power was turned off, the number of boaters that passed through Whitehall without stopping increased, and when the power was on boaters were more likely to stop.
Officials said if the services cause more boaters to stop in Whitehall, then restaurants and other businesses in the community stand to benefit.
“All the businesses and restaurants will profit from this,” said Jack Hoagland, Rec. Center leader.
Hollister said one of the greatest resources the community has are the number of good restaurants and providing electricity could potentially benefit those businesses.
And Safka said they are only supplying electricity and not other services, like fuel, boat maintenance, and a comfortable place to sleep.
“If people want amenities they’ll still go where they can get amenities,” Safka said.
The board also discussed the possibility of installing informative kiosks that indicate services and businesses, and their locations, to boaters. But those discussions were preliminary and there are no immediate plans to have them put in.