Businesses on Buckeye Lake struggling financially after state-imposed low water level

Businesses on Buckeye Lake struggling financially after state-imposed low water level

Businesses surrounding Buckeye Lake suffering because of state sanctioned low water levels.

Chris Alexander has spent his entire 60 years living and working on Buckeye Lake, which straddles the Licking, Fairfield and Perry County borders. Alexander—owner of the marina Alexander’s Landing—says the restaurants, bars and marinas lining Buckeye Lake’s coasts are what draw people to it. “That’s what everyone likes about the lake: something to do, besides just ride around in circles in your boat,” he says. “That gets old pretty quickly.”

But for the lake’s business owners, what’s really old—and financially devastating is the lake’s dam. Their predicament started in March 2015, after a United States Army Corps of Engineers report detailed the serious deficiencies in Buckeye Lake’s earthen dam. The state is replacing the dam, but the process will take years. In the meantime, the lake’s water level has
been left at winter pool level to minimize the chances of the dam failing.

The winter pool level, however, is three to four feet less than the summer level, Alexander says, which makes a big difference on the already shallow lake. “They’ve made the lake basically unusable,” Alexander says. “You can get small boats out there if you’re very careful and know the lake, but it’s scared off 99 percent of the people.”

Buckey Lake

According to Alexander, last summer’s boat traffic was akin to that during the winter. He says that historically, the Fourth of July is their high season. “It’s almost dangerous, there are so many boats out here,” he says. “There was no one out this year. We saw maybe a couple
kayaks.”

With less traffic on the lake, businesses on the water are struggling. “We’re working … three times harder for less than half the money,” Alexander says. “I don’t mind working. We put in long hours our whole lives here, but it’s the reduced revenue that really hurts.”

Alexander and his wife, Grace, own and operate the marina—his family’s business since 1870. To cut operating costs, the two didn’t hire their normal help this past summer.

And they weren’t alone. Tracy Higginbotham, who owns the Buckeye Lake Winery with his wife Laura, says they reduced their staff from 54 in 2014 to 23 last summer. He says he and his teenage sons have picked up jobs like lawn care at the winery to save money.

Unlike the Alexander’s long history at the lake, the Higginbothams opened their winery in July 2013. “I think I’m faring better than most out there,” Higginbotham says. “But we definitely saw a 50 percent decrease … from Memorial Day through Labor Day for sure.”

Mark Bernhard, an owner of The Port Lounge and Smokehouse, says although
he appreciates customers who continue visiting the lake’s businesses, “it just takes a lot more people than that.”

Bernhard says estimates his business was down 60 percent last summer from previous summers.

“Before, I never knew how much money came in off the lake because the cash register doesn’t determine that,” Bernhard says. “But now you know which door they’re coming through, so I learned a lot this year.”

Despite the unspecified timetable for dam repairs, Alexander, Bernhard and Higginbotham say they want to stick it out. “We don’t have a choice. We’re all in,” Higginbotham says, adding he and his wife have leveraged everything for the business. “The alternative is unthinkable.”