City harbors only 76% full; economy took wind out of sails
BY MITCH DUDEK Staff Reporter September 1, 2013 3:50PM
At 31st Street Harbor, which opened in 2012 and cost $103 million to build, only 319 of 1,013 spots were filled in mid-August. The abysmal statistic drags on the overall occupancy rate of 76 percent at Chicago’s 10 harbors, with 4,381 of 5,747 total spots filled. | Mitch Dudek~Sun-Times
Updated: October 3, 2013 6:11AM
Scott Stevenson, the man in charge of the city’s harbor system, is sticking to the “If you build it, they will come” mantra when it comes to explaining the low occupancy rate at 31st Street Harbor.
But he’d like to add an addendum: Have patience.
At the harbor, which opened in 2012 and cost $103 million to build, only 319 of 1,013 spots were filled in mid-August.
Like an unsecured anchor, the abysmal statistic drags on the overall occupancy rate of the city’s 10 harbors, which, with 4,381 of 5,747 total spots filled, stands at 76 percent.
“The boats don’t magically appear overnight, but they will come,” said Stevenson, executive vice president of Westrec Marinas, which is contracted by the city to run the harbor system.
When construction began in 2009, the thinking was that the harbor would fill in three to five years.
“Now we’re thinking five to eight years,” Stevenson said.
Despite building the harbor in the midst of a recession — which sent boat sales into a death spiral — he does not regret the decision.
“I still believe it was the right thing to have done, but I don’t think anyone could have forecast the economy would take as long it has to rebound,” he said. “Overall, the number of boaters who are using the harbor system is the same as three or four years ago. We’ve just added supply.”
New boat sales, which declined by half during the recession, have been rising.
“We’ve recovered to a level of about 60 percent of what we were prior to the recession,” said Thomas Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association. New boat sales in the U.S. rose 10.7 percent last year, with sales in Illinois slightly outpacing the national average, Dammrich said.
Steps have been taken to lure new boaters to 31st Street, such hosting an in-water boat show and implementing a three-year moratorium on the 25 percent surcharge on slips for suburban boaters. But docking fees, which average about $3,800 a year, remain untouched.
“We haven’t lowered any prices,” Stevenson said. “But we are going to look at all our rates for next year.”
For some, the low occupancy rate is a plus.
“I like it that it’s not so crowded. If it was full, the parking would be a zoo down here,” said Rob Krueger, a dentist from Lake Forest who leases a 40-foot power boat docked at 31st Street Harbor.
Four miles to the north, Paul Schneider’s docking fees at DuSable Harbor — just east of Millennium Park — are on the high end: $5,000 a year.
On a recent weekday, Schneider puffed on a cigar while grilling ribs on a dock next to his 30-foot sailboat. His critique of the harbor’s lack of shoreside eateries and adequate shower facilities fell silent as he looked up at the city’s skyline. “Don’t get me wrong, we adore this harbor. It’s like having seats on the 50-yard line.”
“You could dock in Hammond for half the price, but there’s nothing there but the casino,” said Schneider, a barber from Wheaton.
“Its kind of like real estate: location, location, location,” Stevenson said. “These harbors make the park district a lot of money, and now it’s going to be a cash cow for 100 years.”
Stevenson expects revenue to be $24 million this year, $13 million of which is profit for the Chicago Park District. Upkeep expenses jumped from $10 million to $11 million with the addition of the harbor at 31st Street, Stevenson said.