Tourist season better but seen as still lagging

A year after spring flooding and a depressed economy put a damper on summer tourism, local business owners say this year has been slightly better.

Despite a warm and dry start to the summer and what local officials are describing as an enthusiastic response to the return of electrical services along the mooring wall on the Champlain Canal, most local business owners are characterizing this year’s boating season as tepid at best.

“It’s been better than last year, but not all that great in my opinion,” said JoAnne Case, owner of Tan N’ Style and a coin laundry on Main Street.

LeAnne Ingalls, who manages Dagon’s Den Smokehouse at the Whitehall Marina at Lock 12, said the number of boaters passing through Whitehall has been a disappointment at this point in the season.

Because the marina is under new ownership, she couldn’t compare the number of patrons this year to previous years, but did say it was below expectations.

“The boat traffic has been slow. We’ve had a few Canadians and a few pleasure boaters from the local area but overall there haven’t been as many as one would think,” Ingalls said.

The lockmaster at Lock 12 said he hasn’t tallied up the exact numbers of boaters passing through the southern end of Lake Champlain, but believes it’s at least comparable if not higher than the number of boaters at the same time last year.

“It started out slow but it seems to be getting busier,” he said.

According to NYS Canal Corporation figures, the number of pleasure boats that have passed through the Champlain Canal as of July 15 is 4,699, compared to 3,871 at the same time last year when the season was shortened by flooding. But this years numbers fall short of the 5,784 boats that passed through the canal as of July 15 in 2010.

 

After the deluge

Last year’s boating season was marred by a sluggish economy and six weeks of historic flooding in April and May that delayed the opening of the Champlain Canal. The flooding hampered the operations of both marinas into the summer and caused many tourists to change their travel arrangements.

And while flooding has not been an issue this year, Ingalls believes the economy may still be playing a part.

“I haven’t really had a chance to speak with boaters but the economy is down and money is tight,” she said.

One factor that may actually be helping business owners is the return of electrical services along the mooring wall on the canal.

A few local officials and several business owners mused that the town’s decision in 2010 to turn off electrical services engendered a negative and unfriendly perception of Whitehall among boaters. Some even believed that boaters who would otherwise stop in Whitehall were passing through on their way to other communities. But that perception seems to have changed.

The town clerk, Julie Millett, interacts with boaters using the Canal Corp. Visitors Center on an almost daily basis, said the decision to turn power back on has been well-received.

“We’ve seen an increase. People said they’ve been spreading the word up and down the canal that power is back on. They seem very appreciative of it.,” Millett said.

Linda Lemnotis, owner of City, Steak and Seafood and Green Mountain Produce, said having the power on makes a difference.

“I feel it does bring business into the community. These people go to the drugstore, they go to the restaurants and the Laundromat. Boaters have come in and said they donate some money because of the facilities here. They’re really enjoying them.

“Turning the power back on has been a very good decision.”

And that decision may not cost the town any money. As of the beginning of last week, the town had received nearly $200 in donations from boaters who use the facilities, about a quarter of the approximately $800 it costs the town to provide the electricity.

Marge Mohn, a village trustee who is also on the board of directors of the Washington County Tourism Association said the canal is only one way to access Whitehall.

“There are a number of ways to come to Whitehall, by car, by train, and by boat,” she said. “We have to really work on the other ends of it. There is a lot of potential in Whitehall. It’s located in the dead center of the northeast.”

The next few weeks should go a long way in determining the success or lack thereof this summer will be. Traditionally, tourism picks up at the end of July as Lake Champlain and New York’s canal system experience a surge of visitors from Canada, leaving local business owners optimistic.

“When they’re here, we get them,” said Case.

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