Summer's end has a special meaning for boaters. For most of us, it's a time to start a delightful new season of boating. Not only are there many pleasant and warm fall days ahead, but some will push the season beyond the Nov. 1 closing of most marinas. Some even dare iceboating and the thrill of zipping across a frozen lake. Just as our boating season is about to change, I too will be making a change. That means the end of my 21 years as a reporter and editor for The Buffalo News, which included 11 seasons as the boating columnist.
On Labor Day, just as activity starts to slow down at many area marinas, I will be leaving The News for the Philadelphia Inquirer to start another chapter of my journalism career. While I will continue to visit my hometown, I will also be exploring the new waters of the Delaware River, the Delaware Bay and the Chesapeake Bay. So, as I bid farewell, I offer these observations on issues of interest to boaters:
Your names could fill this entire page. You are the volunteers, the participants, the people who make boating fun and a major attraction for people who live here. You appreciate this area's abundant supply of fresh water and the fact that you can easily get your boat to it.
While boating involves thousands of people, it continues to be overlooked by those marketing this region. The Buffalo region has yet to realize that the boaters throughout Western New York and Southern Ontario are an economic force that can bring business to downtown Buffalo. Buffalo has yet to adopt a marketing campaign aimed at enticing boaters from the region and Canada to visit downtown. Marketers can take a page from the Sugarloaf Marina in Port Colborne, Ont., which has turned itself into a must-stop for boaters simply by being hospitable and offering guest docks and other services boaters need.
Efforts to develop the banks of the Erie Canal are laudable, but may not help boaters. To encourage more boaters to use the canal, localities must focus on the basics: safe places where boats can dock; services such as ice, food supplies and gas; and attractions like restaurants and historic stops. Boaters still lack a useable guide telling them what they can find along the water. An East Aurora author has traveled the canal and collected all of that information but has been delayed in getting the book published. Since this information changes so often, the state should consider joining with him to produce a canal Internet site, so boaters planning to visit can tap in for the latest information.
Jet ski enthusiasts and wind surfers have been waiting patiently for 10 years for someone to give them a safe place to enjoy their sport. They have informally taken over the so-called Gallagher Beach, south of the Small Boat Harbor, but they lack adequate facilities to get their machines in and out of the water. There were several accidents there earlier this summer caused by jet ski operators returning to the shore and colliding with boats. The Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, which owns the property, was recently turned down for a state grant to improve the site and no other plans are in the works.
Speaking of the NFTA, the authority has learned there is a limit to how much they can charge boaters for slip rental. Fees have been frozen for six years. The Small Boat Harbor started this season with 53 open slips at prices ranging from $1,062 to $1,543. Boaters who at one time spent years on waiting lists now can shop around and find better prices at private marinas. Erie Basin hiked its prices this season to just under the NFTA's rates. While the city-run Erie Basin has the advantage of its location, it is feeling the pinch of competition from private marinas and a shrinking pool of boaters wanting slips.
Despite problems in the local economy, boating registrations actually increased by 13 percent from 1995 to 1997 from 42,427 to 47,778 in Erie, Niagara and Chautauqua Counties. The increase doesn't translate into a demand for more slips, however, because the popular jet skis and small fishing boats can easily be transported by trailer.
Local boating clubs, especially traditional yacht clubs, are finding creative ways to cope with a downsized Buffalo. In an unprecedented move this year, the Buffalo Yacht Club launched a successful public campaign for new members by advertising its open houses and offering members a bonus for bringing in new members. All local clubs are faced with the same problems of shrinking and graying memberships. The situation offers an opportunity for the clubs to bring new blood into their memberships. It's important they succeed. These clubs organize many of the events that make boating so much fun on the Niagara Frontier. They also have a rich tradition of sponsoring significant national events, such as the Buffalo Canoe Club hosting the Lightning North Americans last month.
A major success story is the Buffalo Harbor Sailing Club, which doesn't own any real estate but still attracts about 100 boats to weekly racing just off downtown Buffalo. That makes it one of the largest racing programs on the Great Lakes organized by a single club. It began 20 years ago when a few friends challenged each other to races up and down the harbor. It continues largely through the volunteer effort of key players like Chuck Chilcott, who manages the races, and Bob and Joanne Ihrig and their crew on "Commune." These people are so important that members are starting to worry how the club can carry on if they decide to retire. On Sept. 19, the club will host its season finale regatta, which for the first time has attracted support from American Express and US Airways. American Express is especially interested in Buffalo's Erie Canal history since the company was founded here in 1850 as Wells and Co. This connection was made possible by Laird Robertson, regatta chairman, who successfully showed the New York City-based officials that history sells and Buffalo has the real thing.
The state has wisely focused on Buffalo's Erie Canal history as the primary theme for the Inner Harbor development. Endless planning is finally turning into real projects with a groundbreaking planned for next year for the $27 million Inner Harbor project at the foot of Main Street. Boaters should be pleased with the result. For the first time there will be a prominent area where visiting boaters can dock and join in the activities on land. Tom Blanchard, a state planning official who is also a sailor, has been successful in ensuring that the final development is boater friendly. But there are many other projects on the drawing board for the entire shoreline and boaters need to speak with one voice. Improvements must accommodate those who view the shoreline from the cockpit of their boats.
And, finally, a personal thanks to Howard Smith, News executive sports editor who has given me the opportunity to cover the sport in this column, a recognition that boaters are enthusiastic about their sport. When they aren't out there on their boats, they love to read about it.
This is the last boating column for the season