While the national economy has struggled this summer, boat dealers and marinas along Lake Wylie say they're coping with the downturn.
Despite record-high fuel prices, lighter traffic on certain days and boat sales lagging in some places, most businesses report a profitable summer to date.
“We're happy with the year so far,” said Chip Krell, owner of Pier 88, a gas dock at River Hills Marina that opened this spring with gas pumps on the water, food and pontoon rentals. “During the week, it's very slow. But we had a great Memorial Day, a great Fourth of July and most weekends have been good.”
Krell estimates traffic on the lake is about 25 percent below previous years. But he said boat rentals have exceeded his expectations. And he's done enough business to survive his first year.
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Many merchants attribute the summer success to the price of travel. Instead of traveling to the beach, more boaters are staying home this summer. And while gas is expensive – more than $4.75 a gallon on the water – a tank of fuel for a day on the lake is cheaper than many other activities.
“It's a bargain compared to taking the whole family to Carowinds,” said Tony Allen, a salesman at Lake Wylie Marina. “You can buy a tank of gas, and entertain the whole family, even the teenagers. You're still cool if you have a boat.” This summer has been a welcome improvement from last fall, when drought drained lake levels to record lows and closed most public boat ramps.
“We're actually pretty happy with how things are going compared to last year,” said Terry Gregory, owner of Gregory's Marine & RV off Mount Gallant Road in Rock Hill.
She said the worst of the drought nearly ran her service bays out of business.
This year, boaters aren't spending big bucks, but they are back on the water, meaning the demand for boat maintenance has increased.
Local boat sales also are surprisingly strong, considering economic conditions have scuttled watercraft sales in other parts of the country.
At Gregory's, where used watercraft are sold on a consignment basis, customers are choosy, but they're still spending, Gregory said.
“We're selling more of the smaller boats,” she said. “The bigger ones aren't going anywhere.”
At Lake Wylie Marina, Allen said boat sales are on par with previous years.
Some sales of boat models aimed at first-time buyers have dipped as consumers on tight budgets have scaled back, he said. But longtime boaters, especially the ones with deeper pockets, have continued to buy.
“People who boat aren't going to stop,” Allen said. “They may back off the throttle a little, but they're still on the water.”