With Chain O' Lakes closed for boating, waterfront businesses losing millions
Floodwaters along the Chain O' Lakes and Fox River are not only damaging residents' homes and property in places such as Fox Lake and Antioch, they're costing businesses along those shores thousands of dollars every day the waterways remain closed to boating.
It's been more than two weeks since the Fox Waterway Agency closed the Chain and river for boaters because of high waters caused by torrential downpours July 11 and 12 in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin.
That's crucial time lost for businesses that survive on a boating season that lasts only about a third of the year.
"We are only open four months out of the year, and July and August are the center of those four months," said Rob Hardman, owner of Blarney Island on Grass Lake near Antioch. "It hurts to lose a weekend or two in May or June, but losing a couple of weekends in July, forget it."
Hardman said businesses along the Chain O' Lakes take in about $1 million in revenue every weekend day. They include taverns, restaurants, marinas, gas stations, grocery stores and other places that cater to boaters in the summer.
He estimates area businesses have lost in the neighborhood of $10 million in tourism dollars.
"There is no chance we can hope to make up all the revenue we lost from this," Hardman said. "The only thing we can hope for is that people show up in droves when the lakes reopen."
A 7-inch rainfall from the evening of July 11 through the morning of July 12 caused the Chain O' Lakes and Fox River to swell to near-record levels. Gauges monitored by the Fox Waterway Agency said Chain O' Lakes water levels near Lake Villa reached a crest of about 4 feet over normal summer pool levels, while gages in New Munster, Wisconsin, topped out at 6.4 feet over flood stage.
That water forced the Chain to fill up on July 12, then flood the area July 14 when the water from Wisconsin moved down the Fox River.
Hardman said he was able to keep Blarney Island and its sister restaurant, Port O'Blarney, open until July 14, before floodwaters forced them to close both buildings. He reopened Blarney Island Friday night, running a boat shuttle to and from the Port O'Blarney on Grass Lake Road.
"We didn't have a choice but to close it," Hardman said. "The season is what the season is. It's a two-week loss."
Joe Keller, executive director of the Fox Waterway Agency, said the Chain and Fox River generate about $150 million in tourism dollars from the boating season that runs from May through September.
"The shutdown is in the heart of the boating season for these businesses," he said. "It's hard for them to try and make those days up."
Even when the water recedes, the cleanup on the Chain will continue, he said. Piers destroyed because of the flood will make it tougher for boaters to park, dock and eat at restaurants and bars. Floating debris will make traversing the waterway difficult, while bogs the size of small islands will hamper boaters, he said.
"The businesses will try and make up for it when the waterway reopens, but it's going to be tough," Keller said. "We hope they have an enormous August when the system reopens and boats can head back out there."
Brian Bosack, owner of Squaw Bar and Marina on Rollins Road in Ingleside, said the damages from the floods will set him back years. Every pier was damaged, flooding wiped out three of his four volleyball courts and high water levels drove customers away.
"My docks were pulverized so we don't have any boaters coming in, and my volleyball courts were washed away so we don't have any volleyball players," he said. "Even the gambling machines are down between 50 and 70 percent at the bar during the floods."
Bosack said the volleyball courts were back up and running on Saturday, but the piers will take a little longer.
"I had about $80,000 in damages to the piers and the land, but thousands of dollars in losses from the business," he said. "Hopefully things will get better here in the next couple of weeks."