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Survey gauges impact of lake level
Business ebbs, flows with Lanier
10-71 Coalition 3 es
Joe Sobczak sits with new Berkshire pontoon boats as he talks about the level of Lake Lanier on Tuesday at Bolling Bridge Marine. - photo by Emily Saunders
What is Lake Lanier’s economic impact on the region?

That’s the question nearly 5,000 area businesses are being asked as part of an online survey sanctioned by the 1071 Coalition.

The coalition is a nonprofit group dedicated to maintaining the lake’s water levels at full pool, or 1,071 feet above sea level, a mark reached Wednesday for the first time in four years.

Alex Laidlaw, organization treasurer, said the survey results will be used as “part of our mission as a coalition to impact the water management of Lanier, both from a regulations standpoint and a public relations standpoint.”

“We’re trying to impact water management,” said Laidlaw, also Westrec Marinas operations vice president. “We’re trying to impact the process.”

The survey probes everything from annual revenues and number of lake-area visitors to what percentage of business customers are lake-related.

The goal is to determine how much business is affected by the lake level, which has been a source of frustration during the recent years-long drought.

James McCoy, a coalition board member, said the goal is to get a better picture of how the lake’s level impacts area businesses.

“What we’re doing is using that information to make demonstrable arguments that Lake Lanier, the lake level and how it is managed, have a huge impact on the entire region,” said McCoy, who also heads the Cumming-Forsyth County Chamber of Commerce.

“I suspect hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars of economic impact are felt as lake levels get lower or get higher.”

The survey targets the usual suspects, including marinas, boat vendors and bait shops. But McCoy said the lake’s reach extends beyond the obvious.

“People assume it’s only businesses directly related to the lake, but grocery stores, retail stores, convenience stores, gas stations, service stations and others are all impacted in one way or another, some more directly than others, by Lake Lanier.”

Dan Jones with Bolling Bridge Marine said new boat sales were a disaster during the years of low lake levels. Business was down about 50 percent.

“Now this is the fall time of year, so it’s always going to be slow now,” he said. “But still, the summer was not anything to write home about.
Hopefully, if we keep the lake level up, we’ll have a good boat show in January and we’ll be able to have a good spring.”

Jones said sales at neighboring businesses also mirror the lake levels.

“If the lake’s up and people are using the lake, [they’re] selling. When the lake’s not being used, [they’re] not selling.”

The coalition’s survey is not the first one in which Jones has taken part. And like the last one, he fears it won’t change the way the lake is managed.

This survey, he said, is important “only if the end results bring full pool.”

“We’ve done these impact studies before — our marine trade group has — and they’ve not been to any avail,” he said. “You have to be more consistent. You can’t have these big swings up and down.”

But Laidlaw said the coalition’s goal is just that — to have an impact on management of the lake.

“We’ll use this survey as part of our mission as a coalition,” Laidlaw said.

Gary Mongeon, vice president of Atlanta-based Bleakly Advisory Group, which is conducting the survey, said the full report will be released sometime before year’s end.

In addition, Mongeon said, another survey will be up on the company’s Web site before the weekend, specifically for lake residents and visitors.

“The purpose of that survey is to ask people if changing water levels at the lake have impacted the number of times they’ve visited and used the lake,” he said. “The people who visit the lake will help us determine if rising and falling water levels have impacted how they have used the lake for recreation over the last four to five years.

“So it’s two perspectives to get to the same answer and hopefully the results will reinforce each other.”