A floating city on the river: Yacht Basin provides economic boost to area

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 18, 2004

If you’re an investor on the lookout for The Next Big Thing, Fred Hansard has one word for you: recreation.

Actually, Hansard has several words to say about what he believes The Next Big Thing will be.

“The Baby Boom Generation is fixing to retire,” observes Hansard, “and when that happens one of the biggest industries anywhere is going to be recreation.”

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As general manager of the Demopolis Yacht Basin, Hansard hopes to be in a position to take full advantage of that seismic shift in the economy.

A recent economic impact study conducted by the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway Development Authority confirms Hansard’s intuition. The study pegs the annual economic impact of large pleasure boats (those in the 20-foot-and-up range) using the Tenn-Tom from Demopolis to Pickwick Lake in Tennessee at more than $5 million.

“That’s probably a very conservative estimate,” says Tenn-Tom Development Authority Administrator Don Waldon in Columbus, Miss.

Waldon notes that a decline in transient boat traffic of nearly 20 percent due to the lingering effects of 9/11 and a generally slow economy combined to keep the total figure low, as did the fact that not all marinas participated.

“This waterway has created so many different kinds of benefits — a lot of them things nobody even thought of when it was being built,” he says. “Who could have predicted you’d be seeing $5 million a year in economic benefits just from snowbirds?”

Snowbirds, of course, is the term applied to residents from northern states who travel south each year with the cold weather and return the next spring. Initially, many snowbirds traveled by RV, those unwieldy land yachts that can be seen dotting most Interstates.

Increasing numbers of them, however, are making the annual southern migration by boat.

“Basically,” Hansard says, “that’s what a boat is — an RV that floats, and the waterway is the highway. Of course, you don’t have near the traffic on the river that you do on the Interstate.”

The Tenn-Tom Waterway officially opened to commercial traffic in January 1985. Pleasure-boaters from as far north as the Great Lakes find it a shorter and safer route to Florida than going down the Tennessee to the Mississippi River.

As the growth in pleasure-boat traffic on the Tenn-Tom gradually increased, a number of marinas opened to cater to that traffic.

According to Hansard, Demopolis is the largest marina for nearly 200 miles in either direction. It services both pleasure-boaters and commercial tow traffic.

“We’re a full-service marina,” Hansard explains. “We can fuel and repair just about anything on the river. We’ve had some 160-footers and we’ve had ’em come in jon boats.”

The marina pumps an average of 4 million gallons of diesel fuel a year. But Hansard says the economic impact of the marina on the surrounding area goes far beyond the cost of diesel fuel.

“What makes Demopolis unique is that we’re located right at a city,” he says. “Most places, a marina is stuck 20 or 30 miles from the nearest city. So the first thing most people do when they get here is go shopping.”

A favorite stop for many snowbirds is Wal-Mart, where they stock up on supplies. You’ll also see them in the grocery stores and at restaurants. “We provide a courtesy car,” Hansard says, “and there’s hardly a day goes by that it’s not running all day long.”

Factor in that the marina here services roughly 2,000 to 3,000 boats a year, and each boat has an average of two to four people aboard, and Hansard says you begin to appreciate the impact of such a facility on Demopolis.

The marina here boasts 80 slips, which provide water and electricity to each boat. “It’s like a little city down here,” marvels Hansard.

Most of the residents of that floating city are transients, although snowbirds have been known to stretch the definition of “transient” by staying as long as a year or more. “We get everybody from movie stars to mom and pops come through here,” Hansard says. “Some of them spend one night with us, and some of them spend the whole winter with us.”

Hansard has been at the marina since 1986, although he’s lived on or around the river most of his life. “Everybody’s got their niche,” he smiles. “The river’s mine.”

Perhaps that accounts for why he doesn’t hesitate when asked to describe the attraction of life on the river.

“Mankind has always sought adventures,” he suggests, “and being on the river is one way you can still have a true adventure these days. You’re self-contained, you get to see different parts of the world and you get to see them at a leisurely pace. You don’t have to fight traffic like you do on the highway.

“And,” he adds, “most of the people you meet on the river are friendly.”