Despite Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River reaching record water levels and inundating shoreline communities last summer, most businesses in the Thousand Islands that participated in a recent survey believe they fared better than the previous time they faced record-breaking water levels in 2017.
The 1000 Islands International Tourism Council on Tuesday released its annual business confidence survey, which poses questions about how entrepreneurs felt about the previous season and their future outlook. Out of 211 respondents, 73 percent, or 154, claimed to be either satisfied, pleased or very pleased with the business they received last spring and fall. More respondents claimed to be satisfied or pleased with their season in the 2019 survey than in the 2017 survey, in which only 63 percent of respondents claimed to be either pleased or satisfied.
Corey C. Fram, executive director of the tourism council, said he feels the survey indicates that although the lake and river climbed above normal levels, submerged docks and flooded some campsites, several businesses in the region adapted to keep open. For example, Boldt Castle raised its main dockage with platforms saved from 2017, which Mr. Fram said prevented any closure in the past season. Mr. Fram also said other businesses elevated their docks to continue accommodating boaters. The tourism council also bolstered its marketing efforts to ensure travelers knew businesses stayed open despite the water levels, Mr. Fram said.
After facing two years of inundation, Mr. Fram said he believes for several businesses, “expectations have tempered a bit.”
“The loss of business performance was not quite as bad,” Mr. Fram said. “Even though the water was higher, people typically had a better outlook,” than in 2017.
Harbor Marina welcomed more customers who needed dockage last summer than in 2017 after building a new boathouse with higher slips, said general manager Edwin D. Glaser. The ability to sell Mercury and MerCruiser boats and parts as the only dealer in the area, as well as provide engine repair, also helped buoy the marina last summer, Mr. Glaser said.
“We did a lot better than other” Henderson businesses, he said.
The results of the survey contradict another, the 2019 high water impact survey released in October, in which many entrepreneurs felt they suffered worse consequences from the high waters last year than in 2017.
Mr. Fram, however, said the business confidence survey encompasses more factors than water levels that influence the regional tourism industry. Most respondents reported feeling that the summer weather, economy and marketing efforts for the region had either a positive or very positive effect, while gas prices, the exchange rate between both countries’ dollars and ease of border crossing had no effect on the majority of participants.
“With the exception of the high waters, a lot of things have aligned for us,” Mr. Fram said.
Most businesses that participated in the survey, 67 percent, or 141 respondents, still reported viewing the water levels in a negative or very negative light.
Doreen Garrett, who co-owns St. Lawrence Spirts Distillery and Chauteau, Clayton, said sales and foot traffic had slightly decreased from 2018, but lower lake and river levels and better conditions in August and September prevented them from dropping further. Mrs. Garrett, however, said she questions how much more business her downtown Clayton spirits store and chateau on Route 12E, which includes the distillery, a farm-to-table restaurant and boutique hotel, would have received if not for the inundation experienced last summer.
“It wasn’t down as much as it could have been,” she said. “I think a lot of people with downtown (Clayton) retail stores did good because people were not on the water.”
Satisfaction and pleasure levels for the 2019 tourism season fell short of 2018, the survey for which garnered a 95 percent positive response rate. More businesses, 29 percent, or 61 respondents, claimed they fared worse than in 2019 than respondents who reported faring better, which amounted to 23 percent, or 49 participants.
Mr. Fram said clear, sunny weather and a strong economy in 2018 provided local businesses a strong season.
“People just left with a really good feeling at the end of 2018,” he said.
Service requests for boats have dropped 20 percent since 2018 at Harbor Marina. Mr. Glaser said he partially attributes the decline to fewer fishing trips in the area last summer. He also said he believes news reports about the high waters, which he claimed have “blown it out of the water,” deterred anglers and boaters.
“Obviously they weren’t using their boats as much, and they weren’t breaking as much,” he said.
Despite widespread flooding and high water levels, most respondents, 59 percent, or 125, reported that they believe the local tourism industry will improve slightly or significantly. Most respondents, 68 percent, or 143, claimed they believe their own enterprises will improve either slightly or significantly in five years.
Mr. Glaser said whether the local tourism industry improves depends on the height of the lake and river, state investment in resiliency against flooding and reports on weather and local businesses. Mrs. Garrett said she hopes to improve St. Lawrence Spirits Distillery and Chateau in five years, adding that national recognition of her business and positive publicity of Clayton should help her and the whole tourism industry.
“All of that will help build momentum and get people here,” she said.
The state awarded $120,000 in December so the tourism council, St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce and Oswego County Promotion and Tourism Office could help the region rebound from the 2019 high waters through digital and social media marketing. Mr. Fram said the $160,000 effort, which would include $40,000 invested from the local agencies, would include the hiring of travel writers, bloggers and social media influencers to write stories and promote the area.
Mr. Fram also said they would ensure that travelers knew that most, if not all, businesses can keep their doors open and welcome customers despite the height of the lake and river.