Closed locks stymie Armstrong tourism, businesses
Bill Knopp and Lauren Chorny say they may not have purchased the Rosston Eddy Marina nine years ago if they had known the Allegheny River locks in Armstrong County were going to be closed to recreational boating.
“We bought this business thinking we had a river highway,” Chorny said.
She and Knopp, her husband, who live in Bethel Township, worked for several years to add to the marina in Manor a mile south of the Ford City Veterans Bridge.
They added a hot tub and a floating gazebo. They purchased three large industrial trucks for moving their customers' biggest boats. They hosted concerts and organized poker runs.
The business grew little by little, according to the couple — until the locks were closed by the Army Corps of Engineers.
“It had potential for growth,” Knopp said. “And they took that away.”
In 2012, the Corps of Engineers' budget for the Allegheny River was cut from $8.4 million to $4 million, which started a series of reductions in the times the Armstrong County locks were open to boaters. By 2013, the locks at Clinton, Kittanning, Templeton and Rimer were closed to everything but commercial traffic by appointment only.
Closing the locks created a chain of economic troubles for owners of marinas on the river. Boaters dwindled. Fewer slips were rented. Less gas and fewer groceries were sold. Lock closures turned the 52 miles of river that runs through the heart of Armstrong County into a series of pools.
Boaters from downriver who used to bring their crafts to Rosston Eddy for maintenance no longer could get there. Neither could the Pittsburgh-area boaters who used to dock at area marinas for days at a time, visiting bars and restaurants in nearby towns when they weren't on the water.
“People quit coming up here because they can't get back,” Chorny said. “We've lost all that traffic and we've lost boaters because they don't want to be stuck in a nine-mile pool.”
That loss means fewer tourism dollars flowing into the county, said Kevin Andrews, director of tourism for the Armstrong Tourist Bureau. Events like Arts on the Allegheny concerts in Riverfront Park that used to draw lots of boaters now have an audience mostly arriving by foot or car.
“We have started seeing fewer people out on the water. It is kind of strange,” Andrews said of the concerts once the locks were closed. “I know it is definitely affecting tourism in the county.”
Chorny and Knopp remain cautiously optimistic, working to engage customers and the public with concerts and social media. But big boats mean big business for marinas like theirs. And the big boats more and more are heading to marinas downriver.
Between Pittsburgh and Fox Chapel, it's next to impossible to find dock space, said Terry Grantz, president of Allison Park-based Boat Net Enterprises, publisher of BoatLocal.com. He said he has seen Lower Allegheny marinas with 50 boaters on waiting lists to get a slip rental.
“It's near impossible to find an open slip,” he said. “Every marina in Pittsburgh is sold out. The locks closed, and everything started getting real crowded down here.”
Don Stone, general manager of Pittsburgh Boats on the North Shore, has seen a migration of boating business in and around the city. The boomerang effect in Armstrong County is a big economic blow to businesses.
Fred Bonello, owner of Dizzy Lizzy's restaurant in downtown Kittanning, has seen that first-hand. He said his numbers are down since the locks were closed, and he doesn't see a brighter future if they stay that way.
“I know it's going to hurt,” he said. “It's going to hurt everybody.”
The way Fred Socco sees it, the locks are closed and there's not much to do about it.
When the locks were open, his Armstrong Beer Distributor in Kittanning saw a lot of traffic from boaters. They would dock and make their way to his Jefferson Street beer distributor, which is just a half a block from the river.
“It's pretty tough to compensate for it,” Socco said. “It's just lost business, and you never make that up.”
Some businesses are adapting to the lock closures to survive. Brian Reed of Allegheny Power Sports in East Brady said he has cut inventory and fuel at his marina. He directs his advertising north in the hopes of capturing business of those who travel by land with small boats in tow. But it's not a strategy that returns his bottom line to what it was before the lock closures.
“There's a lot of money that's not here anymore,” he said. “As soon as the locks closed, you saw a change.”
As with the Rosston Eddy marina, Pittsburgh boaters were a big part of Reed's customer base. His location once proved beneficial — his was the only place to get gas between Locks 7 and 9. It was natural for boaters to just head up river for fuel. But now his boating business mostly comes from local campers.
“I used to get the bigger boats that would come up from Pittsburgh and stay,” he said. “They would all come up here and fill up on gas.”
Reed, whose business is open year-round and offers snowmobile and ATV service, hasn't had to cut down on staff. But his business is struggling compared to past years. Last year, Reed estimated he lost thousands in sales. The days when he saw a dozen houseboats from Pittsburgh fuel up at his station during the summer, spending as much as $500 on gas, are gone. And it's tough making up that kind of business with customers filling 10 or 20 gallon tanks of gas for their small boats.
Reed is holding out hope for the future, with an eye on the effort being made by the nonprofit Allegheny River Development Corporation to have the locks reopened throughout the summer. If the ARDC's efforts are successful, he said, recreational-boating business may be better than ever.
“People now realize what it's like to be trapped in a pool of water,” he said. “I think they would use it more than they used to because they now realize what they lost.”
Julie E. Martin is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.
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