WHITEHALL -- Town officials are again considering ways to prevent free boating amenities from competing with paid private services, a conflict that goes against state policy.
While a public canal harbor has helped traffic in the area, the owners of Whitehall's Lock 12 Marina blamed the harbor's free amenities as the major reason they are being forced to close.
"It's a double-edged sword," said Dana Grant, a Whitehall Chamber of Commerce board member. "It benefits some, and obviously it's competition for others."
Marina operators believe free docking amenities hurt their business, and other municipalities charge for various services. State Thruway Authority spokesman R.W. Groneman said the state allows local entities to operate the docking areas and, if they choose, charge for amenities such as bathrooms and fresh water, electrical power and sewage pump-outs.
In redeveloping the state's canal system, the state identified seven canal harbors that could serve as key locations and benefit from $6 million to $10 million in improvements. The seven harbors, chosen from dozens of possibilities, were the Tonawandas, Rochester, Seneca Falls, Oswego, Little Falls, Waterford and Whitehall.
Not all of the canal harbors have provided free amenities, as Whitehall did before abandoning free electric hookups. Little Falls, a city along the Erie Canal near Herkimer, charges boaters $1 for each foot of the vessel, and the fees support seasonal harbor staff.
The fee allows the boats to receive power and drinking water for their tanks, and visitors also receive a key to access the facility for showers, television and a dining area.
Overnight dockers that don't need power or water pay 50 cents per foot.
Little Falls Mayor Robert Peters said the harbor operates in the red, but it brings boaters to the city's businesses and restaurants.
Bike rentals were added this year, Peters said, and the city also has plans to upgrade the docking area through a matching grant, adding fuel and gas tanks and new ramps for smaller boats.
Peters said the closest marinas to Little Falls are Ilion Marina and RV Park about 10 miles away and St. Johnsville marina about 13 miles away.
The canal harbor is not in competition with the marinas, and the rates for shared services are comparable, he said.
At the village of Ilion Marina and RV Park, dockmaster Don Sterling said a typical summer brings in $80,000 to $90,000 in revenue, including about $15,000 to $20,000 in docking fees from some 300 boats.
According to Whitehall's Lock 12 Marina co-owner Ray Faville, having free services at the public harbor is contrary to the original intention of the state's agenda for canal tourism and preservation.
The state plan was drafted by a commission in 1995 and sought to protect the environment and business. According to the document, known as the Canal Recreationway Plan, "canal investments should not jeopardize existing local businesses."
Faville and his wife ran the Lock 12 Marina and Finch & Chubb restaurant and inn for more than 20 years. The couple has acknowledged that other factors -- gas prices, the economy and spring and tropical storm flooding -- contributed to their decision to close.
In 2010, Faville said he planned to permanently close, but still re-opened at the start of this season. He said that scenario could not happen again because he's losing $40,000 to $50,000 a year.
The restaurant and inn closed Sunday, Faville said, and the marina will close next week.
Faville also pointed out that the state's recreationway plan states that recreational facilities and concessions should be delivered by the private sector, not the public sector.
"Public facilities will be utilized only when private businesses are unable or unwilling to provide service," the plan states.
The Whitehall Chamber of Commerce board has discussed giving Lock C-12 vouchers to boaters who dock at private marinas, to prevent boater traffic from automatically going to the public docking area and undercutting private marinas.
Faville charges $1.75 per foot for overnight docking, while a two-day lock pass from the state Canal Corp. ranges from $5 to $20 depending on the size of the vessel.
Whitehall Supervisor Richard "Geezer" Gordon talked Thursday with the deputy director of the state Canal Corp. He said he asked about meters for electricity again, something the town could pursue this spring.
Boaters could not get electric service at the free docking wall this past summer because the town stopped paying for it to mitigate the problem marinas were having.
If Whitehall charges fees, it is required to pay 10 percent of the revenue to the state, according to a 2001/2002 contract signed by the town.
Gordon said Whitehall might not have enough room for two marinas, but he hoped that the remaining Champlain Harbor Marina could last.