Our marina crisis

Reinhard Friedrich is uncharacteristically, if not completely, at rest. One leg bounces lightly under the table while he waits politely to get back to work. It’s mid-June, and there’s no end to what has to be done at his marina, the only one left on Anstruther Lake in Kawartha Highlands Signature Site Provincial Park. There used to be two marinas, but one was sold years ago to become The Landing, a 25-unit condominium complex. Right now, Reinhard is watching one of his guys try to secure heavy chains to a new dock anchor. The worker could probably figure it out, but Reinhard looks as though he’d rather do it himself. At 44, the marina co-owner sports a deep tan and muscular physique; with the help of his equally tireless wife, Donna, he operates a full-service marina for 250 cottages on the small boomerang-shaped lake, 160 of them water-access-only properties. The Friedrichs provide much more than just the basics of gas pumps, engine-repair service, parking, docking, and winter storage. They also run a well-stocked store, offer snowmobile service in winter, operate a barge, build docks, host the annual regatta and, now, will even serve you rotisserie chicken on Friday nights. The restaurant is empty on this Tuesday afternoon as the screen door bangs. Reinhard glances up.

“Okay,” he says, smiling at a cottager holding up a bag of chips and a pop, the same man who, five minutes earlier, asked him to add $54.66 in gas to the bill. Reinhard doesn’t write any of this down. “I guess I ought to teach you how to run the till,” he says. It’s a friendly exchange that has played out for generations in small marinas across the province—a scene poised to be, within the near future, on a nostalgic par with a Norman Rockwell painting. Marinas as we know them may soon be extinct. And the cottagers who depend on them could be left high and dry.

Why marinas are selling

A significant portion of Ontario’s marinas are for sale today, whether they’re officially listed or not. And although when a marina is sold—as Al Donaldson, executive director of the Ontario Marine Operators Association (OMOA), points out—it often ends up in the hands of another marina operator, this is not always the case. The result: Marinas are closing, and new ones just aren’t being built. Most of the 450 marinas the OMOA represents are family run. Even in a robust economy, the marina business is tough, but now, Donaldson says, “we are losing members because they can’t even afford the $495 fee.”

Today, there are more reasons to sell a marina than to keep one—if you can find a buyer. Mary Jane and Jerry Tyndale listed Star Marine on Chemong Lake, near Bridgenorth, Ont., last June, but they aren’t holding their breath for another marina operator to buy it. The Tyndales think it’s possible for a young couple to do what they did 14 years ago, but they also think it’s problematic. Their asking price is close to $700,000, and banks aren’t exactly lining up to finance marinas. In fact, most require a substantial down payment and guarantors. There were six marinas in the area when the Tyndales arrived in 1996; now two are for sale, one is only storing boats, and two more have closed down.

One complication is that many marinas have long operated as family businesses, and now the next generation may not be as interested in taking over as previous ones were. It doesn’t help that the value of the waterfront land far exceeds the value of the businesses. The outcome is that the operators often sell. New owners, such as the Friedrichs, who bought Anstruther Lake Marina in 2003, must somehow try to make a profit while saddled with a large mortgage. Add to that the financial burden of rising property taxes, insurance rates, and water-lot leases; government regulations that strangle expansion; a chronic lack of trained mechanics and seasonal help; and long hours. Then there’s the reaction of some cottagers when costs are passed along to them, in parking and slip charges. Donna Friedrich has seen it all. “I had one guy point a finger at me and yell, ‘You’re just gouging people!’_” she says. “It was horrible.” Not surprisingly, three years ago, after only four years in business, the Friedrichs were ready to call it quits. Fed up with the long hours and no reward, they put the marina on the market.

Much to the relief of the 160 water-access cottagers on Anstruther Lake, the Friedrich marina is no longer listed; they’ve been reprieved. But for the first time, those cottagers were forced to wonder how, in a marina-less world, they would cope. Without marinas, what are the 36,884 water-access-only property owners across Ontario to do?

What cottagers can do

Cottager Jane Milligan owns one of those properties and may have part of the answer. Nine years ago, Nicholson’s Marina on Gloucester Pool, near Orillia, went on the market after more than 50 years in operation. Access to Milligan’s cottage was suddenly in doubt. Her first reaction was to contact the cottagers who use the marina. She invited them to a meeting, not really expecting anyone to come. The meeting drew a crowd. So Milligan formed a corporation—something she’d never done—and offered shares to cottagers. A cottager could secure a share by putting $1,000 up front and further committing to loan the corporation another $15,000 if the marina purchase went through. The marina’s asking price was $650,000. Milligan’s corporation offered $500,000—which meant that she had to sell more than 30 shares, or the deal was off. The property was on a whopping 319 acres, including an area with potential for rental, a feature that may have been the clincher for the more reluctant of the cottage owners. In the end, Milligan bought five shares herself (an outlay of $80,000); the marina owner bought six; other cottagers, including children of the owner, bought 24.

Little Go Home Bay Dockers Corporation was born. Shareholders later agreed to lend another $500 a year each to cover the cost of maintaining docks and buildings; that figure was increased to $1,300 annually after six years. Today the corporation rents out a dozen additional slips to non-shareholders at a yearly rate of $1,500 each. There’s no mechanic, store, or gas, just parking, slips, and outdoor winter boat storage. A shareholders’ agreement, drawn up by a lawyer, ensures access for all cottagers.

Water-access cottagers on other lakes have since turned to the Little Go Home Bay Dockers model to shape their agreements. But even if you are able to organize and come up with enough money to buy a marina as a group, what do you do when there is no option to purchase? This was the scenario facing water-access cottagers on Kashwakamak Lake, in North Frontenac Township, when the owners of Kings Cottages and Marina decided to close their doors and apply to have the property rezoned and divided for residential use, and then sell it off.

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