YOUNGSTOWN – It seems Mike Fox is everywhere you look these days, but he’ll be the first to tell you he’s always most comfortable on the water.
He launched Niagara Jet Adventures with partner Chris Bohnenkamp of Boise, Idaho, earlier this summer. He opened Fox Boyz Marina at 555 Water St. last year, in anticipation of starting the jet boat ride. He briefly owned Brennan’s Restaurant on Main Street this spring – until he turned it over to old friends. And, of course, his name is well known all over Western New York due to his business, Fox Fence.
His cellphone rings nonstop, and people politely interrupt him to ask his advice or opinion on the many tasks that must be completed for his new business, and yet he maintains an even demeanor.
He impressed Cheryl Butera, president of the Youngstown Business and Professional Association, on many levels during their first meeting.
“When we first heard about the marina and the idea of the jet boats, we got Mike’s phone number and called him, and he came right to our store and sat down with us and joined the business association immediately,” Butera recalled. “He’s very aware of what needs to be done to be part of the community and very easy to work with. He knows it’s best for everyone to work together. And when he sees you, he always remembers you. He’s a good guy.”
But Butera said it’s also important to note that, “As a mom and just someone who pays attention, I have to say, I also admire Mike because he’s got a little boy who is just a huge part of his life. Everywhere he goes, that little boy is with him, and he’s the sweetest, most polite little boy. That’s a huge part of his story.”
Fox has also impressed Youngstown Mayor Raleigh Reynolds, who added, “I sincerely wish him well. I hope his business is a success. If he’s successful, he will bring more business to the Village of Youngstown, and the businesses will all benefit.”
Fox recently took time to chat about his new business ventures and his interest in boosting his hometown – while sitting on one of his new jet boats docked in the river, of course.
Were you raised near the water?
I have always been boating. I have to be on the water. I live right on the water – my house is near the Stella Niagara chapel. I can’t be away from it. In fact, even when I go on vacation, I have to have a room on the water.
Are you from Youngstown?
Yes. My mailing address is still Youngstown, but I live in the Town of Lewiston, right on the border.
When did you start Fox Fence?
I started the fence business in the mid-1970s (in Niagara Falls). My father had taught me how to build fences. My brother, Mark, was in college, and he started to work with me, as kind of a partner, but I had ownership. He’s six years younger than me. What can I say? He’s my everything. I kind of got out of the fence business. I had lung cancer in 2008, and my brother stepped up and took over.
How did you get into this new Niagara Jet Adventures business?
It was about 18 months ago, and I was looking for a boat to take me up into the lower Niagara River to go fishing. I found Chris on the Internet when I Googled white-water boats. I went out there to Idaho a few times to see him. Chris said, “Why don’t we build a boat and start a tour?” I said, “Why not?” He’s one of the best white-water pilots in the world. He lends white-water expertise to this whole operation.
He took a boat through the whirlpools and rapids to the base of the falls on a 26-footer (in April 2013), and then he went back to the drawing board to design these 33-footers for us. He still builds boats in Idaho, but he’ll be here if I need him. He goes back and forth.
What makes your boat ride different from the Whirlpool Jet Boat ride?
We’re a dry ride. They have one enclosed, but all three of our white-water boats are enclosed and climate-controlled, so we have air-conditioning and heating. We went out this spring, and it was 5 degrees out, and we were perfectly comfortable.
We had a meeting with Whirlpool Jet Boats, and we discussed protocol, and I think it’s working really well.
It’s important people know we’re open for businesses right now with our white-water boats. There’s been some confusion. We also have two new “spin boats.” They’ll be able to go in the lake, the river and up to the whirlpool, if we want. And the golden nugget will be the 50-passenger, 45-foot boats that are due to be delivered next April 1, which will take our passengers right to the base of the falls.
We’ve taken our boats many times to the falls on test runs, and we’re allowed to do this if we don’t carry any passengers. The new boats will be approved by the Coast Guard before we take passengers to the falls next year.
So who are the “Boyz” in Fox Boyz Marina?
It’s me and my 10-year-old son, Jesse. He’s a little river rat. He’s my little buddy. He came up with the “z” in Boyz. I’m bringing him up so he’s involved in everything.
My nephew, Billy Fox, has been a big help, too. He has his captain’s license, so he’s working for us, and he works for Fox Fence, too.
What do you offer at the marina, beside the new jet boat ride?
We have 28 slips and a little bit of transient docking. We’re looking at ways to utilize the mooring area here.
Do you see these new businesses as a needed boost for Youngstown?
People are excited, the businesses, in particular. This could mean a lot. We might even get a hardware store back in Youngstown. I really want to promote Youngstown. I even bought a restaurant, Brennan’s, this spring.
I went to the auction and bid, and when I was walking out I found out I had been bidding against a friend, but I didn’t even see her. It was Claudia Tower, who’s married to Dr. Jerry Andres. I still call her Claudia Tower because I grew up with her. She and her husband are both musicians, so they’ll have a lot of music involved in this new restaurant (the soon-to-open Mug and Musket Tavern), and I can’t think of anything better. I just backed out of the purchase. I got out of the middle of it and let them take over.
I wanted to buy the restaurant because I didn’t want it chopped up and lost. I come from Youngstown. We need another restaurant to help support everything we have planned here.
What else do you have in mind?
We want to have sunset cruises. We want to work with the Niagara Wine Trail. We don’t know where this is going to go. We want to just get started and branch out.
You’re 60 – a time when some are looking at slowing down, and yet you’re launching new businesses. Why?
At this point, anything I do has to be fun, and this is fun.
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