Fox River Business owners talk losses from heavy flooding season

Businesses feel loss from no-wake, no boating days this season

Like many business owners, Garry Zack, co-owner of Route 14 Marina, wants to make improvements.

The shop, which opened in Algonquin three years ago, needs to be completed and he wants to put in a restaurant at some point. However, because of a lack of revenue, the marina is limited in what it can do, Zack said this month.

Like other businesses along the lower Fox River, the number of times the river has been closed this year or designated as "no-wake" because of flooding and high water has caused Route 14 Marina to lose money.

“If we don’t have sales, we don’t have income, [if] we don’t have income we cannot improve our property for our business,” said Zack, who also co-owns Route 14 Marina in Fox River Grove.

According to data from the Fox Waterway Agency, there were 40 status changes this year to either the Upper River, Lower River or Chain O'Lakes from March 15 through Oct. 30. Of these status changes,19 were to designate at least one of these areas as no-wake or closed to boating traffic for a period of time. In 2018, there were 20 such status changes, with 11 designating at least one zone of the river or Chain O'Lakes as no-wake or closed.

Even the agency itself has taken a hit.

Joe Keller, executive director of the Fox Waterway Agency, said flooding in the early part of the season wasn't good for selling stickers. These stickers, which people are required to put on their boats, are the primary way the Fox Waterway Agency obtains money to care for the Chain O'Lakes and Fox River. The agency lost $90,000 during the first part of the year in sticker sales.

Although the agency was able to play a little catch-up after the summer season improved, Keller said he anticipates ending the year with a reduction in sticker sales.

The agency brings in about $2.5 million a year. For them, losing that much revenue means a lot of their older equipment can't be replaced, and there isn't enough money to pay employees for overtime on projects such as debris removal.

To deal with this, Keller said the agency has had to "pinch pennies."

Businesses such as marinas can store boats when the river is closed or a no-wake zone, but Route 14 still netted a loss on these days regardless.

“Basically, every time the river is closed, we don’t sell gas, we don’t launch boats,” Zack said.

Because there are no people on the water, nobody’s boat is breaking, so nobody needs repairs, either, Zack added. “It pretty much shuts your business down,” Zack said. “It hurts, it hurts the bottom line.”

When the river is designated a no-wake, people can ride their boats, but they can’t make waves – meaning they need to idle through.

“Who wants to get in the boat doing a half-mile an hour?” Zack asked. “It takes a long time to get from point A to point B, so it definitely slows business down an awful lot, even with no-wake.”

Zack estimates that almost half of their season was lost to no-wake and river closures this year.

“Once they’re gone, they’re gone,” Zack said. “The only way to recoup them is if we had a perfect summer next year and it was nice and sunny on every weekend and the river was open.”

Zack said the situation is “just getting worse and worse and worse” every year.

Although business owners remember the major floods from 2013 and 2017 – the difference in those cases is that the events dissipated quickly.

“It was an event, the event blew through, and then it was gone,” Zack said. “But these [recent floods] are all reoccurring; they’re pretty much back to back.”

According to data compiled by the McHenry County Economic Development Corporation, there are an estimated 374 businesses along the Fox River, including nonprofits and government offices. About 3,340 total employees work at these businesses, which the corporation estimates will make about $768,500 in sales this year.

Ziya Senturk, manager of Port Edward's Restaurant in Algonquin, called this one of the "worst years" for the number of times the river has been closed in the summer.

Located on the river, 60% of Port Edward's business comes from people on boats, Senturk says.

This means, in the span of one summer filled with no-wake restrictions and no boating, the restaurant manager estimates that the business lost $500,000 to $600,000 in revenue.

"You cannot make it up," Senturk said. "You just pray [it does] not repeat itself."

Senturk said he hasn't been able to buy as many ads, and has had to cut hours when it is slow.

"You just make that adjustment," he said, adding that some servers have had to find a second job because they didn't have enough hours at the restaurant.

"I’m hoping it’s over and done with and we will have a great, regular year next year," Senturk said.

Vickie Clawson, owner of Vickie's Place in McHenry, said her business just rolls with the changes that come from more no-wake and no-boating days.

"We make our adjustments to staffing, things like that, to mitigate the losses," Clawson said. "When it's slow, we have to send people home."

Unlike employees at Port Edwards, Clawson said theirs don't necessarily take on second jobs. "They'll just kind of go somewhere else ... we actually wind up hiring all summer long," she said.

This makes it more difficult to retain workers, Clawson said, although some former employees will come in for a couple of shifts when the restaurant becomes really busy.

Clawson said a good 30-35% of their traffic comes from boats in the summer.

"When there's no boating, of course, we lose that," she said.

Making matters worse was that the spring weather was horrible, Clawson said.

"People didn’t get their boats in the water until late," she said. "If you take the summer months, business has dropped off 20% from last year."

Clawson said it did get a little better late in the mid-summer. "A lot ... depends on the spring, how soon people get their boat in the water," she said, adding that the greatest effect was the late start this spring because of rain and cold temperatures.

"That’s pretty much the way it is when you’re a business on the river," Clawson said. "Sometimes if the weather's perfect and everything goes your way, you have a really great summer. Other summers you don’t."

James McConoughey, president and CEO of the McHenry County Economic Development Corporation, said there are some businesses that are "completely adaptable" to more flooding, no-wake and no-boating days, and others are not.

Some of the more adaptable businesses are those on higher ground, with redeveloped parking and pumping systems. Other businesses are more vulnerable.

"That's one of the liabilities of being on the river," McConoughey said.

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