Lake full, people optimistic around Lanier

November 2009 News Mark Davis - The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Earlier this week, Dean Benamy had two gleaming reminders of life at Lake Lanier.

David James of Grayson ties up his 40-foot Sea Ray Sundance boat at its slip at Holiday Marina on Lake Lanier.
David James of Grayson ties up his 40-foot Sea Ray Sundance boat at its slip at Holiday Marina on Lake Lanier.
 The lake is back at full pool, drawing more boaters and visitors.
The lake is back at full pool, drawing more boaters and visitors.

Low-slung, brilliant blue, each highlighted with a red stripe - twin Chris-Craft cruisers, 28 feet of power and prestige, waited for buyers at the Houseboat Store. For sale, cheap, they were shiny signs of a lingering recession gripping the recreation industry as tightly as other segments of the U.S. economy. Last year, they would have sold for $150,000. Benamy would settle for 100 grand.

And Benamy, who'd been as blue as his boats, felt something.

Perhaps it was exhilaration. Lake Sidney Lanier is at full pool, a glorious 1,071-plus feet above sea level. A red sign flashed the numbers at the dam where the lake ends and, on the other side of its concrete-and-steel gate, the Chattahoochee River resumes its southerly tumble. Lanier is like a big tub, filled nearly to the brim, inviting boats and bathers.

Forget the lawsuits and the water wars. Forget, for a moment, the economy. The lake, say merchants and residents, has never looked better. With rising waters, spirits cannot help but lift, too.

Boat dealers say they're still standing after a one-two punch - a shrinking lake and a crummy economy. Real-estate agents, never a pessimistic bunch, say they've recently noticed an increase in interest in lakefront properties as people search for deals.

Also, earlier this week nearly 300 people participated in a lottery to get one of 174 permits to build docks on their lakefront property - a quiet show of confidence that prospects at the lake will get better.

Rising lake and sales

A wet spring, soggy summer and rainy fall have accomplished in less than a year what some meteorological experts considered nearly impossible: They raised the lake almost 20 feet. Docks are floating again, and concrete boat ramps actually reach into the water.

Yet the economy hasn't risen as quickly.

During the last year, more than 4,000 people lost jobs in the greater Gainesville area, which includes much of Lake Lanier. State Department of Labor figures show that 78,100 people were working in non-agricultural jobs in September 2008. Twelve months later, that number stood at 74,000.

The greatest drop - 2,700 jobs - occurred in the service industry. That category includes people who make their livelihoods in restaurants, marinas and other businesses catering to the recreation trade.

Home sales are rebounding, but they don't mirror the volume and prices real estate commanded two years ago.

Rising lake levels may change that, said Frank Norton Jr., head of the Norton Agency. His father, Frank Sr., sold lakefront lots at Lanier as the lake rose, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, for $200 to $500. Frank Jr., 53, closed on his first property in his 20s.

The full lake has piqued potential buyers' interest again, said Norton, who tracks real estate sales across North Georgia.

"Rising lake, rising sales," said Norton. "And rising interest, too."

`How sweet it is!'

Still, prices have not risen as quickly as Lanier's waters. In 2007, an average lakefront home with a dock commanded $605,000, said Norton. The average now is $495,000.

Lake levels do

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