Rising Tide: High Lake Travis level leads to local business boom

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In July 2013, Lake Travis, the reservoir lake that provides drinking water for the Austin metro area, was a low 625 feet deep in the dead heat of a lingering drought.

In the Great Basin region near Mansfield Dam, The exposed Sometimes Islands stretched three quarters of a mile, curving through the center of the basin — essentially dividing the area in half. In areas such as Pool Canyon near Hudson Bend, dozens of private docks sat on dry land, while all the public boat slips were closed and inaccessible to the water. The sparkling beauty of the lake was diminished, where expanses of rocky soil fit for parking lots laid barren areas that would otherwise be underwater. Many lakeside businesses closed, as some were unreachable by boat, such as Carlos N’ Charlie’s, where unearthed cliffs made boat traffic unaccessible. It closed that September after 20 years in business.

That was in 2013. Today, the lake sits at an above-average, comfortable 676 feet, and business and housing sales are up.  

Thanks to record-breaking rainfall over Memorial Day Weekend in 2015, the water levels rose from 629 feet to 666 feet in a matter of days. Since that point, the region’s watershed has seen somewhat consistent rainfall and lake water levels have remained between 665 and 680 feet — which has historically been the zone of economic stability.

The water levels of Lake Travis have a dramatic effect on the region’s economics. Historically, water levels between 660 and 681 are within the sweet spot, with stable positive economic impacts and lake visitors. If the lake dries up to lower than 660 feet, economic downturns are likely.

In a 2011 study from Robert Charles Lesser and Co., data from 2001 through 2010 showed that when lake levels remain below 660 feet, visitations decline, boat ramps close and businesses contract.

The study found that with below-average lake levels, there’s a staggering $23.6 million to $33.8 million reduction in visitor spending, and up to 241 lost jobs and $6.1 million in lost wages on an annual basis due in part to about 365,000 fewer park visits.

However, when the lake is full like it is now, there’s average tax revenue gains as high as $207.2 million per year for state and local governments.

“When the water’s up, business is good,” said Austin Cameron, owner of VIP and NorthShore marinas. “When the water’s down, we starve.”

With the water levels up this year, businesses and home sales have been thriving in the region, said Elaine Hughes, executive director of the Lago Vista and Jonestown Chamber of Commerce.

One of the most visible business impacts of the high lake levels is the expansion of NorthShore Marina. On June 24, the marina — located in the Hollows subdivision in Jonestown — expanded its four docks to six and added a combined 71 new boat slips for a total of 265 to meet the demand of their wait list of interested boaters. A second phase is also in the works to increase to a total 318 slips.

“After our grand opening, within the first two weeks we leased 25 of the new 71 slips in two weeks. That’s pretty strong,” Cameron said. “Besides that, things are going great, business is up in all categories compared to last year.”

Cameron, NorthShore’s owner, is a bit of a success story on Lake Travis as well. In 2010, Cameron bought VIP Marina at a bankruptcy sale in November 2009, and since then he’s renovated the ship store, upgraded the docks and he’s increased the occupancy of the marina from 72 percent to near full. Then in 2016, he bought NorthShore Marina.

“People want to bring their boats out to Lake Travis, there’s room for everyone. This is a much better situation,” Hughes said. “This kind of growth shows the confidence in our area.”

Right behind VIP Marina, there’s now a new owner at the Volente Water Park and Beachside Billy’s. About two months ago, Adam Weedman took ownership and worked to get all the park’s water slides and previously defunct attractions working and repainted and built in a beachfront near the water park. They’ve even teamed up with Alamo Drafthouse to host a “JAWS on the Water” film series where viewers float on inner-tubes to watch a projection of the classic shark-horror film “JAWS” on the shore. While attendance was pretty low prior to the upgrades, they’ve been seeing more interest with the new attractions, Weedman said.

The Gnarly Gar, the only floating restaurant on the lake, survived the lows and highs of the lake throughout the past decade, and upgraded its facility in November 2016 into the larger, former Johnny Finn’s building. The building now has about an extra 5,000 square feet for retail space to keep up with the increased lake visitors.

Out on the Hurst Creek Arm, Sundancer Grill opened in July 2014, when the lake’s levels were around 628 feet. The eatery has since seen an increased amount of business as the lake levels have risen about 50 feet since then. A “mainland” favorite in Austin, Lucy’s Fried Chicken opened a lakeside restaurant in December 2015 where the old favorite Iguana Grill used to operate on the south shore of Hudson Bend.

After Carlos N’ Charlie’s closed in September 2013 during the low lake levels, it later became Frog’s at the Pond in 2015, and The Rusty Rudder in 2016 before rebranding as Ernie’s on the Lake in January 2017. The building has been a mainstay for lake visitors, and the closing of Carlos N’ Charlies in 2013 made for the most visible impact of the central Texas drought.

“It’s a very resilient community,” said Laura Mitchell, President of Lake Travis Chamber of Commerce. “That lake was built to be a reservoir, and there’s been a grand economy that’s built up around it.”

With new businesses coming to the lake and population and home sales trends up, there’s a noticeable positivity to the vibe of the lake.

“The whole vibe of the lake is different, it was kind of depressing when it was down,” said Sam Richardson, owner of Champagne Luxury Cruises, a private party boat business, who docks at NorthShore marina. “It’s like nobody thought that it was going to come back.

“The machine just works when it’s all doing well.”

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