Lake Appeal

Our annual light-hearted look at the allure of Lake Champlain

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

darlings_maddy_sue0419Maddy Sue, Darling’s Boatworks, Charlotte. Sam Darling

In early March when we began our interviews for this year’s story, we checked, which tracks the years when the lake is completely frozen over, to find it marked “not closed.” Within three days, though, we checked again, and — ta-da! — it had closed up on March 8.

The site contains an interesting disclaimer about the records, which go back to 1816, noting that closure dates in the 1800s were gleaned from anecdotal articles in The Burlington Free Press and other local papers, then recorded in books housed at the National Weather Service Burlington.

Since 2009, however, NWS Burlington has depended on satellite data imagery from NASA’s Terra and Aqua polar orbiting satellites to determine ice coverage on the lake for recreation purposes.

We’ve had a lot of fun with this story over the years since 2011, when we had the idea to take our first look at business people whose lives depend on the lake. “Vermont’s Other Playground” was the result. And so for the past nine years, we’ve made this a regular April feature. As you might expect, it’s become harder and harder to find an angle on which to hook this idea.

  • 1  Ladd’s Landing Marina, 412 U.S. Route 2, Grand Isle
  • 2  Bay Harbor Marina, 278 W. Lakeshore Drive, Colchester
  • 3  Computer Care, 332 W. Lakeshore Drive, Colchester
  • 4  Dick Mazza’s General Store, 777 W. Lakeshore Drive, Colchester
  • 5  Saba Marine, 390 Prim Road, Colchester
  • 6  Sea Dog Boating Solutions, 146 Packard Road, Jericho
  • 7  TruexCullins + Interior Design, 209 Battery St., Ste. 201, Burlington
  • 8  Waterfront Diving Center, 214 Battery St., Ste. 1, Burlington
  • 9  Small Boat Exchange, 2649 Shelburne Road, Shelburne
  • 10  Bruce Hill Yacht Sales, 4520 Harbor Road, Shelburne, and 332 W. Lakeshore Drive, Colchester
  • 11  Darling’s Boatworks, Ferry Road, Charlotte
  • 12  Point Bay Marina, 1401 Thompsons Point Road, Charlotte

This year, we’re taking a slightly different approach. Besides interviewing boating- and recreation-related enterprises on the lake, we phoned up the principals of a few businesses that have no real dependence on the lake for income but are located within view of it. Having done that, we asked a couple of owners who do depend on lake-related sales, but aren’t located near the lake, what effect that distance has on business.

Marine-related companies on the lake

Since we wrote about Formula Ford and its owner, Mark Saba, in 2004, he has been one busy guy. In 2010, he bought Boat Works, now known as Saba Marine, on Prim Road in Colchester, just around the corner from Malletts Bay. Two years later, he purchased Jake’s Marina on West Lakeshore Drive, renaming it Bay Harbor. A beautiful new headquarters building graces the property, which can’t be missed driving along the shore. Saba completed his boat dealership acquisitions last year with the purchase of Fox Marine, Saba Marine’s next-door neighbor on Prim Road.

bay_harbor0419Bay Harbor Marina, Malletts Bay contributed photo

Asked if he has a particular affinity to Colchester, the Burlington resident gushed. “I love Colchester! I think the town does a great job. Malletts Bay really is a town on the lake. If you’re into boating, no matter where the wind is blowing from, you can always find a spot that’s calm.”

Last year was a good season for those in the boat business, Saba said. He credited the economy, and “having great weather certainly helps business,” he added.

He mentioned the protected nature of Malletts Bay, and the depth of its water, which is good for boaters, as advantages of his location. “There’s not a lot of hustle and bustle around us, so people can relax and just have fun.”

Emily Clark, the owner with her husband, Dan, of Ladd’s Landing Marina in Grand Isle, echoed Saba’s sentiments about last year’s beautiful summer. “Like always, it’s so driven by weather,” she said, adding that the lake level got a little low at the end, “but we’re lucky it doesn’t impact us as much on a day-to-day basis.”

northland_ladds_landing0419Ladd’s Landing Marina, Grand Isle contributed photo

Ladd’s Landing is on the Inland Sea, which Clark described as feeling like a world away from Malletts Bay and Burlington, although being just 25 miles from Burlington. “We have a lot of Burlington customers, so it feels like it’s a place away, and being on the drawbridge, if you want a quiet day on the lake, you can spend your day on the Inland Sea, see the Green Mountains.” The Inland Sea is 25 miles long and 4 to 6 miles wide, she said, “but it’s not the big bad broad lake, so if the broad lake is building up, you can still spend the day on your boat.”

Last year, Ladd’s Landing began renting pontoon boats, “hands-down the most popular boats we rent,” said Clark, who confessed to having made her peace with the idea of “bringing your picnic and swim platform wherever you want it. And most boat renters want something comfortable for six to eight people.”

In some ways, Darling’s Boatworks in Charlotte has the best of both worlds: an office on Ferry Road away from the lake, and a boat shop at Point Bay Marina on Thompson’s Point. We caught up with George Darling, the owner of Boatworks with his wife, Pam.

The season last year was excellent, said Darling, although the spring started out cold and damp, making it hard to get to work.

darlings_mashnee0419Mashnee, Darling’s Boatworks, Charlotte. Peter Rosenfeld

The Darlings have had a relationship with Point Bay for most of their 40 years in business. “It’s very important to us,” he said, “because it gives us access to the water. I think any inland facility that doesn’t have a relationship with a marina is at a disadvantage, because I’ve been in that position, and I’ll tell you, it’s not easy.”

The advantage of having the office inland from the lake is that it’s less expensive space, and there’s more land availability. “We don’t need to be on the water in the wintertime,” Darling said. “We’re just 2 miles away.”

All three laughed when we asked for predictions of when the ice will be out this year. “We’re hoping to open somewhere between April 20 and May 7,” Saba said, “but you never know. You think that, and by the time April 11 comes around, the ice is gone!”

“Lord knows,” said Clark when asked when Ladd’s Landing might open for the season. “We have people out there all over the lake. There’s plenty of ice, and that doesn’t always happen. This is our 13th season, and we’ve opened on May 15 every year so far. I’m optimistic.”

“You’re asking the wrong guy,” Darling said, chuckling. “The Marina at Point Bay, they were planning to be on the water this month, and I think that’s a little optimistic. I think the ice is probably going to slow all the marinas down this spring.”

Steven Charlebois of Sea Dog Boating Solutions is another entrepreneur whose business depends on the lake, but whose location is inland. Sea Dog is an online boating accessory business that provides some local boating services such as detailing, boat transport on the water, and some repair services. “We have thought about having a retail location near the water — maybe in Burlington or Malletts Bay,” said Charlebois. I think this would pull in more customers and increase sales during boating season.

“The challenge would be to make this financially viable given our short boating season. This would give customers a chance to see and touch the products before they made a purchase and not have to pay for shipping.” He acknowledged that it might be risky, since the American consumer loves to buy products online.

Non-marine-related companies in view of the lake

For 17 months, Ron Lewis, the owner of Computer Care in Colchester, has worked from an office at The Moorings Marina location of Bruce Hill Yacht Sales on West Lakeshore Drive. Lewis worked from his home office for decades before deciding to find a “real” office location not too far away. “My office is on the road side of the building,” he said, “but it’s great to open my window in warmer weather and hear the gentle clinks of boat hardware. And to have my office this close to nature is wonderful.” An unexpected advantage, he said, is “having lots of boats to take rides on and people willing to give me rides without the burden of ownership.”

Dick Mazza’s General Store has been within view of the lake since 1954, when Vermont state Sen. Dick Mazza (D-Colchester and Grand Isle) opened it with his father. “A lot of people come to buy our hamburg, naturally, but they enjoy the ride coming out from Hinesburg or elsewhere, and they enjoy the lake — the marinas, the ice fishermen — it’s kind of a nice mix to have both.”

truex-IMG_0174-adjView from TruexCullins Architecture + Interior Design, Burlington contributed photo

When he and his father opened their store, their plan was to count on the summer cottages, many rented by the day, or overnight, or by the week. “People, I’ve learned over the years, don’t come into an area unless they can get services — groceries, whatever. Over the years, the hardware store, hairdressers, everybody has benefited from the boats.”

One change he’s noticed is the slow decline of short-stay accommodations. “Years ago, there was Marble Island, a place to stay overnight or for a week. Now you have to stay for a month.”

That might be changing. In 2016, Lakeshore Vermont, an upscale three-unit inn right on the water just a stone’s throw from Bayside Park, was opened by Neil Gardner and Deborah Deen. “They’re doing great,” said Mazza.

Burlington’s waterfront, by virtue of its size, is home to a slew of endeavors not dependent on the lake. TruexCullins Architecture + Interior Design, at 209 Battery St., moved to that building in 1980, having been on Clark Street since its founding in 1968.

The principals in those days chose the location “largely because of our interest in being near the water in terms of its uses from a boating point of view,” said Bill Truex, one of the firm’s retired founders. “Also the view,” he added. “We were able to get the basement of the building, a space being used for storage, that was on the ground floor from the back side.”

After merging with Tom Cullins, who had rented space upstairs in the Stone Building, the firm moved upstairs to space recently vacated by the Lake Champlain Regional Chamber of Commerce.

David Epstein, the firm’s current managing partner, cites the proximity to the bike path as a bonus. “We offer a gym membership at OnTrack for our employees, so they can go running, take a shower, work out at OnTrack — a nice amenity.” Employees can walk their dogs at Perkins Pier or on the bike path.

“We also just really like looking out and seeing people enjoying the bike path, and, of course, the beauty of the lake. It’s a privilege to see that every day. One of the things that I love is watching the storms come across the lake,” said Epstein. “I feel like I have a front row seat to coming attractions.”