Thursday, July 22nd, 2010
Businesses on the hook
Advisories limit lake traffic; sales take a dive
By Janie Southard
Linda Severt bought Duckfoot Bar and Grill on the south side of Grand Lake just. . .
GRAND LAKE - They make their money in the summer and hang on in the winter. But not this summer, not last summer. And this winter looks very long for business owners along Grand Lake.
Linda Severt, co-owner of Duckfoot Bar and Grill, always wanted to own a bar along the lake. She worked at Behm's Restaurant 18 years and six more at Duckfoot before she and her husband finally bought the little eatery between the lake and a channel.
"We no more than closed the deal last year when (the Ohio EPA) issued its restriction on the lake. We held on and got through the winter. Easter weekend this year was beautiful, warm and sunny. We had more boat traffic that weekend than we had the entire 2009 summer," she said earlier this week while at the southside bar. Nearby, the green channel bubbled with something unseen in the water.
Severt is hoping someone will take long-term action.
"We don't need a quick fix that will only last a couple years," she said.
She also thinks the "blame game" needs to stop.
"We're in this together, the farmers, the small business owners, the towns. I can't get a loan and neither can some other lake businesses. No one seems to want to help us," said Severt, who said she is using retirement money to make ends meet.
The Severts have put everything they have into remodeling, including the Duck Dome over an outdoor area reminiscent of scene from a Jimmy Buffet song and a bayou bar.
"I am just so thankful to my locals who've been coming here all winter, all season. They're keeping me afloat. We certainly don't have many out-of-towners anymore," she said.
Local eateries irreplaceable
On the north side of the lake, Wooden Eagle owner John Sheets agrees.
"I guess I'm a newby at this. I've been in this business only three years. The first was OK for a first year. The second was great for a few weeks until Memorial weekend when the lake signs went up. Business was bad last year and it's much worse now," he said from his eatery with a wide lake view and private boat dock.
Sheets said his business is failing through no fault of his own. If the area wants lake businesses to stay around, someone needs to help, he said.
"It's amazing that they can make a decision that there may be a problem and immediately post signs. That leaves us with no customers. The EPA put the big whammy on everyone around the lake," he said.
He believes his business is unique because of its location. He called it a neighborhood bar, a laid back saloon/eatery.
"Yes, I'm drawing from the locals. There are no tourists. But everyone around is drawing from the same base and local people have their own money struggles," he said.
Sheets' restaurant is closed Mondays and now Tuesdays, too.
"You know a lot of these little bars around the lake are grandfathered in (with building codes), and if they fail, they'll just vanish into memories," said Sheets, a former teacher.
Tourism traffic barely there
At the west end of the lake, Bella's Italian Grille owner Julie Fleck said her restaurant is well supported by locals.
"We're also getting people from up to 45 miles away wanting to see what this algae is like. So they sit inside and look at the lake, but really there's not much to see," Fleck said this morning.
The downturn in tourism is disappointing, only one or two boats pass by in a day, she observed.
"And you must wonder why the experts are sampling the algae and not the water. It's certainly a summer unlike any other. We're down, but not significantly," Fleck said.
Nearby on West Bank Road, The Big Bamboo Dockside Grill is doing OK but could always do better, according to owner Dick Cushman.
"It's too bad the state says don't get in the water. I don't think it's any worse than Lake Erie; and the media coverage has hurt. But I guess whatever makes news makes news," Cushman said via cell phone this morning.
Lake-related sales non-existent
At Rustic Haven campground on the south side, owner Greg Gast said his campground is fully leased, but campers aren't coming up for the weekend like they once did. He and his family have maintained the 200-plus unit campground with 38 boat docks and fuel pump for decades.
"Gasoline sales are next to nil. It's mostly local pontoons if anything ... And our small bait house - it's useless to (stock it) anymore; no one's buying," he said.
Gast believes the lake condition will turn around although it will take some time.
"It's been a long time coming. It would have been nice if we had taken advantage of any help we could get before," he said.
The Gast family formerly owned Rustic Haven restaurant, where new owner JoAnn Jennesen oversees daily operations.
"Oh, honey, this season is terrible. Summer business is our livelihood for the year. It's what gets us through the winter. We still have our regulars, but no buses, no boats," she said at the doorway of her establishment where sparkly lights shine in an almost empty room.
Issue becomes political
After last week's Ohio EPA advisory to just plain stay out of the lake, Dan Manning, owner of the Outdoorsman on the east bank, said the only pickup in business this season is trailer sales. Pontoon owners, particularly, are buying trailers to get their boats to clean water.
"This was never a clear pretty lake, but now it's turned green ... it's driving away the tourists and the fishermen," said Manning, who's owned the Outdoorsman with his wife, Brenda, for 19 years.
Like many small business owners, the Mannings' investment in their business represents a large portion of their retirement.
"Any small business owner hopes to either pass it on to the kids or sell the business for retirement. None of that looks feasible at this point," he said.
Manning has cut back everywhere he can. He once had 10 part-time employees; now he has three and they're all working on call.
Manning believes some of the testing results could be politically motivated.
"Why would you take water samples directly out of the (algae) sludge? Why wouldn't you go under the sludge," he wondered.
Grand Lake Bait and Tackle owner Don Sawmiller of St. Marys also leans toward political presence.
"It's "government on top of government, tying each others hands," he said. "I saw in the newspaper they just gave farmers another million dollars and that's well and good. But what about small business owners. What's available for us? The economy here is a disaster. Will we get any kind of tax relief? What's the plan?"
Sawmiller's main business is wholesale bait. He supplies a number of other areas so the St. Marys shop now serves as home base.
"Ten years ago there was always a crowd of fishermen and tourists around here. But now if you want to see a crowd, go to Indian Lake," he said.