Boating businesses stay optimistic |

Boating businesses stay optimistic

Sierra Sun

LAKE TAHOE – If the Lake Tahoe basin’s summer economy were a math equation, it would look like this:

Boating + tourists = success.

Though the area offers vacationers a laundry list of warm-weather activities, boating is a central thermometer of the area’s economic strength. And this year, it’s being tested as never before.

Soaring gas prices and the slowing economy are the primary culprits.

“When you have toys that are paid for with a discretionary income, and the economy takes a downturn, you’re not going to be spending like you used to,” said John Walker, an Internet boat dealer and Lake Tahoe boat owner. “I expect to see a reduction of boats on the lake this summer.”

“People are holding back right now and not using their boats as much,” added Gary Felsh, sales manager for Cope & McPhetres Marine in Tahoe City. “Boat sales are definitely off.”

As fuel hovers close to $5 per gallon for cars on the shore and costs more than $6 per gallon for boats on the lake, people are rethinking their boating habits, said Jan Brisco, executive director of the Tahoe Lakefront Owners Association.

“Some people are not even taking their boats out of their harbor or slip,” she said. “Some of the really big boats are staying close to home, and a lot of people I know have traded powerboats for sailboats.”

With their hopes placed on encouraging boaters after a dismal 2007, some area merchants have taken steps to softening the effect of soaring gas prices.

Stuart Mass, sales manager for Ski Run Boat Co. and Tahoe Keys Boat Rental, did not raise rental fees.

The companies – affiliated with Powder House and Rainbow Mountain, a ski-rental outfitting company with seven locations on the South Shore – charge $95 per hour for boats and $100 per hour for personal watercraft.

“Because adventure sports are a luxury, we wanted to make it as affordable as possible for everyone and let the people have the fun they want to have,” Mass said. After a slow start in June, rentals of both types of watercraft have been “solid” in early July, though boaters are being “a little more cautious” with their use of fuel, Mass added.

“We’re still seeing people taking boats for half-days and full days, but we’re not sure if they’re going around the lake,” Maas said.

Tourists itching to escape the hot valleys surrounding the basin still are coming to Tahoe, said Ski Run Boat Company owner Ron Williams.

“It’s a pressure cooker down there,” Williams said, noting the many valley customers he has served. “When it gets to be in the hundreds in Sacramento, they float right up the highway.”

That particular highway, though, hasn’t yet led to Billy Fier’s place on Donner Lake in Truckee. Fier, who manages Donner Lake Water Sports and Donner Lake Marina, said the company is getting hit with a “double whammy.”

To compensate for high gas prices, Fier’s business has raised fees to rent ski boats, but the tourists aren’t coming, so Fier is unable to recoup his losses.

“You’re sitting there holding your breath, hoping people will show up this summer,” he said.

Other marina owners and managers around the lake also are feeling the pinch of higher gas prices, though most are optimistic the basin will weather the storm. Bob Hassett is among them. He owns Timber Cove Marina in South Lake Tahoe.

“My gut feeling is that people are going to have fun, and compared to last summer, gas is only one dollar more, so most people think spending an extra $20 is worth it.”

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