High Gas Prices Low Water Could Sink Summer Fun

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LANSING — As the grass gets greener and the weather turns warmer, many people eagerly await the "fun-in-the-sun" activities that summer brings.

That's especially true for those tourists who cruise the Great Lakes and relax on the West Michigan shores of Holland and Saugatuck.

However, many people are worried that there won't be as much fun in those summer activities as they'd hoped, because of rising gas prices and low water levels.

According to AAA Michigan, motorists are paying 33.1 cents a gallon more than last year at this time. The latest statewide average, based on a weekly survey of 300 gas stations, is $1.746 for self-serve regular. A year ago, the average cost was $1.415 per gallon.

And the prices are expected to keep rising because Michigan has yet to hit its peak traveling months, said Jim Rink, AAA Michigan representative. "I wouldn't be surprised if we hit $2 (this summer)," he said.

The rising gas prices make it harder for Michigan's "wonderful" tourism industry to prosper, said Sharon Koops, Holland Area Chamber of Commerce cruise line representative.

"I'm definitely concerned," she said. "The gas prices tend to keep people home."

But that's why Gov. John Engler isn't worried.

"When costs rise, people tend to stay closer to home," said Engler in a Capital News Service interview. "They explore their own state or region."

But Koops said the high prices are also going to keep people from traveling to Michigan, which would affect the Great Lakes cruise-ship industry.

Great Lakes cruising made a comeback two years ago after an absence of nearly 50 years. Holland last year became a port to the Niagara Prince, a cruise ship with American Canadian Caribbean Lines based out of Rhode Island. Seven trips are planned for this season.

"Great Lakes cruising is very popular in Michigan," Koops said. According to a survey that she conducted last year, 19 states were represented in Holland during the cruise-ship season.

Originally, Holland wasn't a scheduled port on the ACCL itinerary, but it became a popular destination once the cruise line started working with Elderhostel, a Boston-based nonprofit organization for senior citizens, said Debbie MacGillvray, ACCL director of personnel and operations.

"They were very interested in Holland," MacGillvray said. "It's definitely been a success for us. It's a small town on Lake Michigan that offers a little bit of European culture."

She said many of the passengers, who are mainly between 30 to 50 years old, enjoy visiting Holland's pottery factory and Windmill Island. "It's a quaint little town," MacGillvray said.

The Niagara Prince, which holds 82 passengers and 18 crewmembers, costs between $1,080 to $1,560 per person for the six-night cruise, depending on the cabin. Also, the cruise ship docks at Crescent Shores Marina. The trips begin and end in Chicago, visiting Holland, Manistee, Mackinac Island, Sturgeon Bay and Milwaukee, along the way.

As far as the gas prices go, Jeanne Gervais, Crescent Shores Marina manager, said it's just an inconvenience. "It's the same way with cars, they'll still drive," she said. "They'll complain, but they'll still do it."

Great Lakes cruising also has become a popular industry in Saugatuck.

The Le Levant, a French cruise ship with the Great Lakes Cruise Co., proved its popularity, because it will be returning to Saugatuck for its third consecutive season. The ship will dock at Wicks Park eight times in June and September.

Wicks, a city park, isn't equipped for docking small boats because of a seawall. But a Holland construction company donated steel pipes so the Le Levant could be tied off, said Gordon Gallagher, Saugatuck city manager.

"Given the specialty of this project, the City Council gave the Le Levant permission to dock," he said.

Each cruise traveling to Saugatuck is for eight nights and the cost ranges from $3,850 to $5,500 per person, depending on cabin choice, said Jill Gerlinger, GLCC cruise director. The Le Lavant's itinerary begins in Chicago and includes stops in Saugatuck, Mackinac Island, a cruise of Lake Superior, and stops at Little Current/Flowerpot Island, Windsor and Welland Canal before it arrives in Toronto.

"It's a charming little community," Gerlinger said. "They all really enjoy the shopping. It seems to be a great destination."

The passengers aren't the only ones happy with the experience. The entire area feels the economic benefits, said Felicia Fairchild, executive director of the Saugatuck Douglas Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"We're exposing our community," Fairchild said. "We're one of the main ports in Michigan. We're standing out, which is kind of cool."

Fairchild said the passengers use many of Saugatuck's local services, including the post office, public transportation and beauty parlors.

She said the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also helped the cruise-ship industry. Without them, Fairchild said, it would be impossible to get the cruise ships into the harbor because of the low water levels.

For the past 25 years, Fairchild said, the corps wouldn't dredge (clear out or deepen) the harbor, because it wasn't a commercial port. But once the Le Levant started docking three years ago, it made Saugatuck a priority.

Dredging makes it easier for boats with larger drafts to float into the area without damage.

"If we were where we were three years ago, we wouldn't have boats coming in here," Fairchild said. "Our waterways are kept clear because of the ships."

Even though Saugatuck's harbor is cleared annually by the corps, Fairchild still worries about how this year's low water levels are going to affect the cruise ships.

But the corps is doing additional work to compensate for the low levels, said Tom O'Bryan, U.S. Army civil engineer. He said he's not worried because Saugatuck's harbor will be dredged at 16 feet this year, compared to 13 feet in the past.

"The biggest concerns are the obstructions not visible today" because of the lower water table, O'Bryan said. Old docks and barrels that were once out of harm's way are now becoming a "boating hazard." He suggests that boaters explore the area they plan to occupy before they start fishing.

"Take it easy at low speeds before going fast," O'Bryan said. "Hopefully, they can see what might be an obstacle for them."

Even though low water levels may be Saugatuck's main summer concern, Holland isn't as worried. O'Bryan said the boat entrance from Lake Michigan to Lake Macatawa will be dredged at 23 feet this year. "We need more depth to compensate for the waves," O'Bryan said.

He's more concerned about the recreational boaters.

"The boat launches, marinas and private boaters will have to extend their docks," O'Bryan said. "They'll still get boats in the water."

Gervais couldn't be happier about the low water levels, because her marina will get great business this summer.

Seasonal boat slips are available to the public as long as they call ahead, she said. The prices range from $1,500 to $2,000 for the summer, depending on the size of the boat.

"It's good for us," Gervais said. "A lot of people on Lake Macatawa will have to slip with us."

Recent Articles by Christina Stolarz, Capital News Service

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