“They’re putting their pontoon boats out on the water and just sitting there, but we don’t see as many skiers,” said Bob Stoick of Valley Boat Sales in Polson.
The wind rustled in the cottonwoods on a picture-perfect afternoon on the shores of Flathead Lake earlier this month. Few boats plied the wide-open water, which didn’t surprise Stoick or his partner Tracy Burland, who runs S&K Marina.
Weekdays are generally pretty quiet, and with gas prices at waterside pumps at about $5 a gallon many boaters are thinking twice about gunning engines and making wakes.
Owners of RV parks, boat and boat-slip renters – and other business owners who derive their livelihood from the tourist season on Flathead Lake – say they see fewer cars with out-of-state license plates, more Canadian license plates (due to the relative weakness of the U.S. dollar to the Canadian loon) and more subdued behavior out on the lake.
“I sit out here and watch every license plate that comes by,” said Burland, gesturing to the gravel lot in front of his office. “I saw three Canadian vans today.”
Boat sales are slightly slower than last year, Stoick said, although he feels confident he’ll sell out his whole stock.
Amid signs of a downturn, everyone seems to be looking for reasons to be optimistic. One trend, mentioned several times by RV park owners and managers, is longer stays for those big gas-guzzling rigs. People want to park and save money. Another sign, said Stoick, of record-high gas prices and the national slowdown is the sales growth of after-market parts. As he explained, when people feel uncertain about economic growth, they fix their boats rather than shop for new ones.
“Our parts sales are up almost 30 percent,” said Stoick, who also represents a national after-market parts manufacturer.
But those bright spots don’t blunt the harsh reality at the pump.
“Fuel sales are down this year,” said Hans Carlson, who mans the fuel house at Eagle Bend Yacht Harbor in Big Fork. His gas is $5 a gallon. “The Fourth of July was dead, but that could have been because of the big storm.”
That’s the other big factor for on-the-water-businesses: the weather.
“We didn’t get summer until the end of June,” Burland said.
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