Seven years after the water level in Lake Cumberland was lowered drastically so that the massive Wolf Creek Dam could be reinforced, the water is gradually returning to normal levels and economic barometers are rising along with it.
The largest lake by volume east of the Mississippi River, Lake Cumberland is a massive economic engine for the entire south-central Kentucky region. Straddling Clinton, Laurel, McCreary, Pulaski, Russell and Wayne counties, it has a jagged 1,255-miles shoreline – longer than the Florida peninsula – and is known as the Houseboat Capital of the World.
Visits fell almost 14 percent from 4.4 million in 2007 to 3.8 million after the lake was lowered 43 feet to lessen stress on the dam during repairs. That undertaking is at last in its final phase, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is raising the water level in stages from 680 feet above sea level back to 723 feet.
After the project commenced, some of the marinas fringing the lake had to reposition boat slips as the water level dropped. Others were left high and dry and had to relocate entirely. A couple went out of business.
There were other adverse business factors at play: On the heels of the drawdown came a nationwide recession in 2008 and an all-time-high spike in gasoline prices.
The state Tourism, Arts & Heritage Cabinet annual economic impact study for the region for 2013 won’t be available until next year, but trends indicate financial metrics are improving as lake elevations have risen nearly 20 feet.
The Army Corps of Engineers estimates how many people visit the region annually. Its numbers for 2013 aren’t available, but previous federal fiscal figures per year peaked at more than 4.4 million in FY 2007 (through Sept. 30, 2007). That has ranged from 3.8 million to just over 4 million in the years since.
The state measures the lake’s economic impact, which in 2007 was $118.43 million including related industries and services. That dropped to $114.12 million for 2008, but the dollar amounts have been slowly rising since even before water levels did. By 2012, the economic impact was reported at $132.24 million.
“We look at the economic impact in four counties (Clinton, Pulaski, Russell and Wayne) bordering the lake,” said Gil Lawson, executive director of the state cabinet’s communications office. “There was a drop (in lake recreation-related activity) from 2007 to 2008, but it’s gone up every year since. That timeframe was also the beginning of the recession. You can’t point to one thing that caused the drop. We feel like it’s rebounded well. I think people who visit there, as well as the local population, have gotten the word out well about what a great body of water it is.”
“By and large, the numbers there (in the lake region) have pretty much mirrored the numbers for the entire state,” Lawson said.
Carolyn Mounce, executive director of the Somerset-Pulaski Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that the general feeling after this summer was that things were getting back to normal.
“I think the numbers will be up from what we saw and heard around the marinas this summer,” Mounce said.
A transient tax on hotel rooms and cabins (not campsites or houseboats) for the high season of July, August and September was up 11.4 percent in 2013 over 2012, she said.
Tide rising after years of survival mode
While business is returning for most, there were casualties.
“Seven of the marinas went down, and one is operating at 50 percent and in the red,” said J.D. Hamilton, president and owner of Lee’s Ford Marina in Nancy. “A lot of it depended on your location on the lake. Those that did go down have gone or are going through some kind of bankruptcy restructuring, and a couple aren’t in business any more.
“When the Corps declared the dam was in imminent risk of failure, the SBA (Small Business Administration) came in and declared this an economic disaster area. The only authority they have is to loan you money,” Hamilton said. “It’s helpful, but that is designed more for disasters like tornados. It doesn’t work the same for a seven-year disaster.”
Lee’s Ford had to relocate all its boat slips to access deep water after the drawdown.
“It cost me close to three-quarters of a million dollars to do that, and it’s going to cost about the same to move them back,” Hamilton said. “I had to change my way of thinking through all this. I’m used to running successful businesses. In this situation, I had to change my definition of success to ‘just surviving.’ ”
One of the bigger marinas, Wolf Creek Marina, also had to relocate and then sold out to Lake Cumberland State Dock in Jamestown three seasons ago.
“A lot of folks had to spend a whole lot of money to relocate,” said Bill Jasper, president and one of the owners of Lake Cumberland State Dock. “We had the drawdown one year, the next year gas was $5 a gallon, and the recession took hold the year after that. It hurt the communities and businesses in the area – hotels, restaurants, they had a tough time of it too. The entire region felt it.”
Jasper said the tide does appear to be turning, though.
“The tourists really are coming back. We can sure tell a difference in boat rentals – whether it’s the water level going up, the economy improving or a combination, who knows,” he said. “We’re doing well at both facilities, and we built a big restaurant that looks like a Tiki Hut at Wolf Creek. It’s become a destination point around here.”
The adversity did produce a new spirit of cooperation among marina operators, and the Lake Cumberland Marina Association was formed. “The situation caused us to get organized,” said Hamilton.
Jasper is the association’s current president.
“We formed the group more as a marketing tool than anything to combat the misconceptions about the drawdown,” he said. “We’ve joined together to put on some events that are getting bigger than the holidays. We held a Raft Up that set a Guinness book record of 1,651 boats all tied together (in 2010). We’ve held (nationally televised) boat races, and we do a poker run that’s a huge draw.”
The water level is expected to return to its former 723-foot level next spring.
“We’re finalizing the work at Wolf Creek now,” said Tom Hale, operations manager for the Corps’ Eastern Kentucky Area. The Corps designed and built Wolf Creek Dam beginning in 1938 and since completion in 1952 has managed and operated it. The massive lake produces hydroelectric power and is a key element in a multistate water navigation system.
“Because it stores such a massive amount of water, Lake Cumberland has provided water during times of drought to assist river navigation as far south as the Mississippi River,” Hale said. “We also let water out to improve aquatic situations below the dam, especially during the really hot months.
“Recreation and tourism is a major part of the lake. From what we saw this summer, attendance is improving,” he said. “We collect user fees for the camping areas, and those are up between 12 and 15 percent over last year. One area that lost lake access with the drawdown is up 50 percent.”
Hale confirmed that the Corps expects a return to the normal summer pool level of 723 feet next spring.
“This has been an arduous journey,” said Hamilton. “But the dam is fixed, and my focus is on trying to recover, and put people back to work. One thing I’ve learned in my life is there’s no value in looking backwards. We’re focusing on the future.”
Anne Charles Doolin is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected].