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As water levels rise, will tourism dollars in the Thousand Islands drop?

Emily Russell

The Thousand Islands is a major tourist destination, but right now it's flooding. Water levels in the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario are higher than average and they’re expected to keep rising.

Like stepping back in time

Plenty of places along the St. Lawrence River cater to summer tourists, but the community of Thousand Islands Park boasts a special kind of charm.

“Oh it’s wonderful," said year round resident Holly Pelland. "It’s like stepping back in time."

Credit Emily Russell
Some of the docks at the marina are already underwater this spring.

Thousand Islands Park, or TI Park as it's known to locals, has the look of a really well maintained Victorian village - big houses with wrap around porches. There's a restored old hotel and a quaint little library in the middle of the big, green commons.

Summer is when TI Park really comes alive. “[There are] ice cream socials and little art shows and fishing derbys and sailing regattas," Pelland explained.

Pelland runs the TI Park marina. Boaters can dock there, fill up on gas or just grab a scone at the cafe Pelland runs. She’s also got a business renting out bikes and kayaks.

Almost every part of what Pelland does relies on the St. Lawrence River. That’s why she’s been keeping a close eye on this spring’s rising water.

Credit Emily Russell
The Thousand Islands Park marina, where Pelland also operates a cafe from during the summer.

“We just watch it everyday because we’re not sure what’s going to happen," said Pelland. "We don’t want a repeat of two years ago.”

Big financial hit from flooding

Two years ago - 2017 - was when Lake Ontario and St. Lawrence River surged over docks and up into boathouses and low-lying cottages. The water stayed high into August.

“I had no marina business," Pelland said. "My kayaks, I worked out of the back of my truck. It was a big financial hit.”

The 1000 Islands International Tourism Center surveyed more than 100 businesses in 2017. It found more than 80% of them were hurt by the flooding. Some lost 40% of their business that year.

Credit Holly Pelland
The Thousand Islands Park marina was boarded up for much of summer 2017.

It wasn’t just tourists who took their business elsewhere. Jim Brasser remembers what the marina looked like two years ago.

“The gas tank was underwater," Brasser explained. "The gas pump was underwater.”

Brasser has lived in Thousand Islands Park and boated on the St. Lawrence River for more than 30 years. When the TI Park marina was closed most of the season, Brasser went across the river and bought gas elsewhere.

Like shutting down the river

This kind of flooding is disruptive and it’s expensive. New York state alone spent nearly $100 million in clean up and recovery after 2017.

Brasser said Thousand Islands Park was actually lucky compared to some towns.

“TI Park sits up high, so in general it didn’t affect the cottage owners here, but it did affect their boating here.”

Credit Holly Pelland
Both tourists and locals had to get gas elsewhere during the summer of 2017.

“It was like shutting down the river," said Barbara Peterson. "It was bad.”

Barbara Peterson works at the 1000 Islands International Tourism Center. Peterson said tour agencies, tour boat lines and big attractions like Boldt Castle were all hit by the high water.

It’s too early to know how this year’s high water will affect business in the area.

“We don’t have that many people yet - tourists - because school isn’t out yet," Peterson said. She is hopeful the flooding won't have as big of an effect on tourism as it did in 2017.

This weekend marks the start of the tourism season; the marina in TI Park opens, so does Boldt Castle.

Credit Emily Russell
Barbara Peterson works at a NY tourism center near Thousand Islands Park.

Meanwhile water is expected to keep rising at least for another few weeks, though the National Weather Service says it does not expect flooding to be as bad as it was in 2017.