The Chestertown Marina is attracting renewed interest from boaters. That was one of the key points in marina manager Samantha Branham’s report to the Chestertown mayor and council at their Monday evening, Nov. 18, meeting.
The report reflects the results of substantial renovations and upgrades to the town-owned marina, including replacement and extension of docks, new bulkheads, dredging the boat basin, a new marina office building, and raising the level of the parking lot to combat flooding. The work, which has been ongoing since the town acquired the marina in 2012, was finally completed over the summer. Branham came on board as the manager at the beginning of the season.
“I’m just going to give you a snapshot of our first summer and where we’re headed in the future,” Branham began. The marina has a total of 63 slips. The 2019 season began with 26 slips rented and ended with 35. The remaining slips are available for day-trippers or other short-term stays, such as for visiting local restaurants For 2020, the marina set a goal of 32 summer slip holders, and 18 have already committed, she said. This summer, the marina staff consisted of Branham and four part-time dock hands, whose role was to assist boaters with their needs and answer questions.
Last winter, there were seven boats in land storage. This year, eight have committed and are ready to haul out of the river and go into outdoor rental spaces on the marina property. Three more are still deciding, for a possible total of 11 winter rentals.
Between the start of the boating season in May and Downrigging weekend at the end of October, there were 1,011 overnight stays at the marina, which Branham characterized as “a really good number for our first summer, especially with no advertising whatsoever.” That translates to a rental rate of 68% for the whole season, although there was construction going on for part of the season. The rate from the beginning of July was 84% occupancy every weekend, Branham said. She said 316 of the stays were for weekdays, with the rest weekends. Moving forward, she said, she would like to see a higher weekday occupancy. The marina sold over 10,000 gallons of gasoline and just under 9,000 gallons of diesel.
For next summer, five yacht clubs have confirmed that their members will be staying at the marina. And three weekends next season – Tea Party, Downrigging and Jazz Festival – already have waiting lists for slip rentals. Branham said her objectives over the winter include raising the marina’s social media profile. She said she hadn’t pushed social media this summer because the renovations were still ongoing. She also wants to make a stronger connection to local businesses to see how the marina can work to their benefit.
Mayor Chris Cerino asked what the big weekends are likely to be in addition to those already booked. Branham said the marina was nearly full for the HP festival, and she expected it to be the same next year.
Councilman Marty Stetson asked how the slips are allocated for Downrigging weekend when a number of tall ships are at the marina. Branham said the display slips are blocked out in advance. This year, there were 14 total, she said. She said she wait-listed everything until she knew how many had to be committed to the festival, then took care of the rest. Cerino said the two docks on the upriver side of the marina are traditionally reserved for Sultana and the other tall ships during the festival, with the downriver dock reserved for slip-holders and transients. If one of the display boats decides not to return, that space would become available for rental, he said.
Branham added that the weather forecast for the 2019 Downrigging weekend was originally “pretty bad,” so that some possible renters had delayed making commitments, but that in the end every slip was filled. She also noted that a number of boats were anchored out in the river, but came to the marina to buy fuel and/or let passengers come ashore for the festival.
Cerino said the thinking behind the town’s giving so many slips to Sultana for the weekend was that at the end of October, the marina would normally be “basically empty.” But the festival brings in many visitors to see the historic boats. “It’s a little bit of a chicken-and-egg thing,” he said.
Councilman David Foster asked Branham what she saw as her biggest challenge. “I think, just because it’s new, trying to get people to realize that all the improvements have been made.” She said that would be part of her social media campaign over the winter.
Stetson asked about the launch ramp, which had to be redone after the initial installation proved unsatisfactory. “The ramp’s in excellent shape, everyone loves it,” Branham said. She said that before it was redone, people had to wait for the proper state of the tide to use it, but it’s now available all the time. “We have a lot of sailboats that use it,” she said.
Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver asked if the marina was making a profit on fuel sales. Branham said the fuel isn’t really a profit center for the marina, but it brings people in to use other services that do generate a profit and to visit the town and patronize local businesses.
Cerino said the 2019 season was “kind of a weird year,” because the renovations were completed so late in the summer. He said the fact that the marina wasn’t really finished led the town to hold back on its promotion and marketing efforts. Now that “those band-aids have been kind of ripped off,” the town can go all-out to promote the marina, he said. He said he wanted to set up a business forum to focus on ways to tie in the marina and local businesses “to strengthen that connection. That’s kind of the whole reason we invested so much money down there – it’s for water access, but it’s also to encourage people to come into town.”
Foster asked how many marina customers are first-time visitors. Branham said the majority this year were new, and that many of the returnees hadn’t been to Chestertown “for a long time.” She said she thought the length of time it took to complete the dredging was a major reason. “The town couldn’t accommodate (large) boats,” she said. For anything substantial enough for the owners to stay on board overnight, “there wasn’t enough water there.”
Cerino asked how many slips the marina has after the renovations. “There are 63 slips total,” Branham said. Two of them on the fixed dock are without electricity, which makes them suitable only for short stays, such as day boaters coming to visit Chestertown. And two others have been set aside for the 98 Cannon restaurant, so they have slips for customers. On the whole, after subtracting the long-term slip holders, that leaves 20 to 25 available for visiting boats at any given time.
As Branham finished her report, Cerino asked if there were any questions from the audience. Kay MacIntosh of Main Street Chestertown said, “I think Sam’s doing an awesome job. She’s so unflappable, and is just the perfect person to handle this first year… Hats off to Sam.” The council and audience gave Branham a round of applause.