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Lake Cumberland Tourism at Full Pool

By Kathie Stamps

Lake Cumberland region tourism sector members say increasing annual business since 2009  has been growing exponentially the past few years.
Lake Cumberland region tourism sector members say increasing annual business since 2009
has been growing exponentially the past few years.

Stress relief is big business in south-central Kentucky, thanks to hiking, horseback riding, golfing, swimming and other outdoor activities – especially boating – in and around 160,000-acre Lake Cumberland.

The massive water and recreation resource is owned and managed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Nashville District, which conducted a $600 million repair on 256-foot-tall Wolf Creek Dam from 2007 through 2013, when water levels were kept some 40 feet below normal.

Back at its usual 710-foot summer pool, bustling Lake Cumberland offers residents and tourists year-round entertainment and getaways plus seasonal festivals and events during the warmer months.

The Kentucky Department of Travel and Tourism has nine named regions across the commonwealth, and Lake Cumberland is hub of the “Southern Shorelines” region, an area comprising 10 counties, five of which surround the lake: Clinton, McCreary, Pulaski, Russell and Wayne.

“We’re white hot. Somerset is doing quite well these days,” said Bobby Clue, executive director of the Somerset-Pulaski Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve been growing exponentially over the last five and a half years. Lake Cumberland is paramount to the success of our community down here. We are a very steady community (year-round) and in the summer I defy anyone to find a place with a more robust economy than Pulaski County.”

A low tax rate and friendly business and social environment contribute to a desirable area for people to live and retire, according to Clue. Many businesses in the county have connections to tourism and Lake Cumberland, “a lot of people do generate a good percentage of their revenues attached to tourism in one shape, fashion or form,” he said. “Tourism breeds tourism.”

Many tourists have come back to live in Monticello after retirement, contributing again to the local economy, said Charles Peters, a former city councilman and retired postmaster who is the volunteer president of the Monticello-Wayne County Chamber of Commerce.

Tourist stays crest again in 2017?

Wayne County has seen an increase in tourism expenditures each year since 2008. “That includes the time that the dam was being worked on,” Peters said. “Lake Cumberland has an impact on employment, occupational taxes and insurance fees generated from boat owners. Others benefiting are gas stations, restaurants, grocery and supply stores, boat storage units, boat repair businesses, and contractors performing various maintenance needs on boats and houseboats.”

A business surge is being felt across the Southern Shorelines region.

“Tourism around Lake Cumberland, specifically Jamestown and Russell Springs, is fantastic and definitely up from previous years,” said Janette Marson, director of tourism for the Lake Cumberland Tourist Commission. “We have more people staying in Russell County this year than since we began tracking it in 1985.”

The six-year drawdown “affected the whole region,” said Layne Wilson, district manager for Safe Harbor Marinas, which operates three major marinas as well as a hotel, restaurant and bar, and rents cabins, houseboats, pontoon boats and personal watercraft. “We weathered the storm.”

Lake Cumberland State Resort Park recently renovated all the lodge rooms and cabins. Lure Lodge Restaurant got a complete makeover and more recently so did its miniature golf course.

“The economic impact of our very popular Kentucky State Park is huge for our county,” Marson said.

There are four major commercial marinas in Russell County, including Lake Cumberland State Dock, with a fifth in the works.

“We are especially proud to note that there are more rental houseboats here in Russell County, Ky., than anywhere else in the nation and we just keep growing,” Marson said. “The waters have been up for three or four years now; that’s not even an issue. It was a PR nightmare, though, as people had the impression there was not enough water, and that was not the case.”

Near the water, amenities are on the rise also.

“This year, we will have a white sand beach for our visitors to enjoy,” said Carolyn Mounce, now in her 12th year as executive director of the Somerset-Pulaski County CVB. In response to many visitor requests, a Pulaski County Chamber Leadership class took on creating the beach as a special project.

Lake Cumberland is the main draw for visitors, Mounce said, but “we have loads of other things for our visitors to do,” she said, citing events such as the Crappie USA and FLW Bass tournaments, both in April, the annual Master Musicians Festival in July, and Somernites Cruise, a monthly car cruise and block party held April through October.

Still the houseboat capital

“At the boat and travel shows we attended in January and February, people were buying boats at the shows, people were buying campers,” Mounce said. “They wanted to talk about what’s happening in and around Lake Cumberland. I believe this summer will be another banner year and better than last year. And last year we were thrilled.”

Somerset native Chris Girdler, whose grandfather, Jim Sharpe, is credited with building the industry’s first houseboat in 1953, spearheaded recognition for the region when he served in the state Senate from 2012 to 2016.

In 2014, Gov. Steve Beshear signed a resolution designating Kentucky the Houseboat Capital of the World, and in 2016, Gov. Matt Bevin renamed the U.S. 90 bridge across the lake connecting Wayne and Pulaski counties as the Houseboat Capital of the World Bridge.

Girdler worked in his family’s Sharpe Houseboats business before his political career and in March 2017 became executive vice president at Trifecta Houseboats, which formed in 2014 when Stardust Cruisers, Sumerset Houseboats and Thoroughbred Houseboats merged. The three custom houseboat brand identities remain, but all are now manufactured in one facility in Monticello.

While a state senator, Girdler championed another tourism-related issue: pushing back the school year start date.

“I anticipate the governor signing this legislation into law soon,” he said in late March. “This will be a tremendous step in the right direction for tourism and our overall economy in Kentucky, as the early August school dates were costing us 6,000 jobs, $27 million in lost tax revenue and over $432 million in economic activity.”

The region’s custom houseboat construction sector “suffered tremendously during the latest economic recession, where we saw the cost of raw materials continuing to climb while the demand for the houseboats declined dramatically,” Girdler said. “We envision many better years ahead. The amount of interest and the uptick in our production and sales has grown a lot in the last year and most recently began to really increase.”

Lake Cumberland by the numbers

$224,767,324 tourism expenditures*

6,560 tourism industry employment*

63,000 surface acres of the lake

1,255 miles of meandering shoreline

101 miles, length of Lake Cumberland

9 commercial marinas

9 golf courses

2 state parks

* For the five counties surrounding Lake Cumberland

Source: 2015 Kentucky Tourism, Arts & Heritage Cabinet economic impact study 

Kathie Stamps is a correspondent for The Lane Report. She can be reached at [email protected].