A crown jewel in the Windy City

Posted on Written by Richard Armstrong

24_featureThe new 31st Street Harbor marina adds 1,000 slips in Chicago and will host a new in-water show

The more than 4 million registered boats in the eight states surrounding the Great Lakes represent a quarter of the nation’s recreational fleet. Chicago, with 28 miles of shoreline on Lake Michigan, along with the Chicago River and inland canals and waterways, has long been a major hub of the region’s boating. And it’s about to get bigger.

The new 31st Street Harbor marina, which officially opened during the last weekend in April, adds 1,000 slips to the city’s existing 5,000 at nine marinas, or “harbors,” as they are called. “There are only a handful of marinas this big in the country; 1,000 slips is a lot in one place,” says Scott Stevenson, executive vice president of Westrec Marinas, which manages the now 10 Chicago lakefront harbors.

The first major event at the facility will be a new boat show. The inaugural Chicago In-Water Boat Show will be held June 7-10, and 150 power- and sailboats will be showcased — more than 100 of them in the water. About 85 percent of the boats at the show will be powerboats.

“The feeling is very strong that this show has a great chance to be a tremendous success and the pre-eminent show in the Midwest,” says show manager Keith Ogulnick, who also manages the Chicago Boat, Sports & RV Show, which is held each January. “NMMA always felt a need to put on a major boat show in the Midwest, but there was never a facility that could put on a show of this magnitude,” Ogulnick says.

Now there is.

Modern and ‘green’

The 31st Street Harbor is not only one of the largest marinas on the Great Lakes, but it is designed for 21st century customers. The $103 million facility, like the nine other harbors in the city, is owned by the Chicago Parks District. The slips, for boats from 35 to 70 feet, have power, running water, cable TV and Wi-Fi. There also will be room for boats as large as 200 feet.

A 700-by-150-foot indoor parking garage is an example of the harbor’s “green” initiative. The structure literally has a green roof, with plantings that have the dual benefit of reducing the asphalt signature of the property while providing an appealing public space overlooking the marina for picnics, barbecues and special events. The building has a geothermal heating and cooling system that uses lake water and it will be certified LEED Gold for its environmental impact and energy efficiency, Stevenson says. “Beyond it being a ‘green’ building it will ultimately give us a lower operating cost for the building,” he says.

25_chicagoIn season, the building will be used for vehicle parking; offseason, it becomes climate-controlled, protected winter storage. “Essentially, it’s producing revenue year-round,” Stevenson says.

A 3,000-foot stone breakwater protects the marina. The structure extends 19 feet above the surface (about 35 feet high from the lake bed) and has capstones that weigh as much as 36,000 pounds. By early May, 70 boats had been moved into slips. Stevenson expects 300 boats at the marina during its inaugural season and believes the facility will take four seasons to reach capacity. Ample space will be maintained for transients.

Slip rates range from $108 a foot for a 35-foot slip to $148.25 a foot for a 70-foot slip. The revenue will go toward paying down the bonds used to fund the project. The harbors generate more than $30 million annually for the Chicago Park District and provide hundreds of jobs in hospitality, marina maintenance, and boating instruction, repair and maintenance.

The 31st Street Harbor marina is expected to fill a need for slips and become the crown jewel of the Windy City’s lakefront (www.chicagoharbors.info). “Chicago is one of the nation’s top boating markets and a major in-water boat show for the region is something NMMA has wanted to add for decades,” NMMA president Thom Dammrich says. “Before the economic downturn, dealers in Chicago would tell me if there were more slips they could sell more big boats.”

In a shaky economy, when dealers are not stocking as many boats larger than 35 feet, opportunities for consumers to get a close look at the latest big boats have been restricted, he says. The ripple effects of the new harbor and show could have a significant impact on the region’s dealers, manufacturers and suppliers. “This new show will display the largest collection of big boats in the Midwest — probably ever,” Dammrich says.

Dealers sought June dates

When the new marina began to move forward and an in-water show began to take shape, area dealers set their sights on June, Dammrich says. “They told me if they can get customers interested in June, they can sell through the summer because people will still have time to get on the water and use their new boats that season,” he says.

Ogulnick believes the in-water show will complement relationships dealers establish at the January Chicago Boat, Sports & RV Show. Those relationships can be further developed with sea trials at the June show. “This show can help bridge that gap in sales, where dealers will have the perfect venue to follow up on leads to extend the sales cycle by getting people out on the water to experience the sights and sounds and get excited about the boating lifestyle,” he says.

Organizers expect sea trials to be a major draw, though they won’t be held during show hours. They’ll be scheduled in the morning each day before the show opens. It is scheduled to start at noon on the first three days and 10 a.m. on the final day. This arrangement will maximize dealer face time with potential customers and screen out some of the less serious buyers from the sea trials, Ogulnick says.

Beyond family-friendly experiences, such as a pool for trying scuba diving, a sailing simulator and the overall “festival atmosphere” that show organizers plan to instill, the layout of the new marina fits the new “Try It Cove” feature. On the protected south end of the marina, near the entrance past the breakwater, is a pocket of open water away from boat traffic but close to the show. This is where the “Try It Cove” will be set up for consumers to try their hand at paddle craft.

Given what area dealers have sought and hope that the economy is improving, organizers say the timing is right to launch a new show. “It just makes a lot of sense in many ways,” Ogulnick says.

This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue.

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