‘Lake Life’ on the Brink of Economic Disaster in Guadalupe Valley

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Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Following the failure of multiple spill gates, lakes fed by the Guadalupe River are under threat as the rivers governing agency plans to dewater the lakes.

Seguin resident Travis Anderson is disappointed he missed the meeting this week when Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority (GBRA) voted to follow through on its plan to drain the lakes formed nearly a century ago by damming sections of the Guadalupe River.

While a throng of community members pleaded for a different plan, Anderson, a realtor with Anders Pierce Realty in Seguin, was showing waterfront houses to potential buyers on Lake Travis.

Anderson originally planned to show homes on Lake McQueeney, but a change in location was prompted by the GBRA’s recent decision to dewater the lakes held back by 90-year-old dams, whose deteriorating conditions pose a safety risk.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Anders Pierce Realty realtor Travis Anderson in downtown Seguin.

Already, the dams at Lake Wood and Lake Dunlap have failed, the first in 2016 and the second in May. Starting Sept. 16, Lake Gonzales, Meadow Lake, Lake Placid, and Lake McQueeney, all just east of San Antonio, will be drained and the dams decommissioned. Though the GBRA drained some water from the lakes in 2018 to begin repairs, it has now abandoned that plan.

But the economic impact of fully draining the lakes on the communities surrounding them is yet to be determined. The Save Our Lakes Coalition, made up of several advocacy groups, has mobilized area residents and business owners and commissioned a formal study of how the communities will be impacted.

A full report on the $30,000 economic impact study being conducted by The Perryman Group is due in about three weeks, said Tess Coody Anders, a Trinity University marketing vice president who lives near Lake McQueeney and whose husband owns real estate agencies in New Braunfels and Seguin.

The coalition also has asked the City of Seguin and Guadalupe County to help support the study to ensure it is complete and independent and can be factored into the risk assessment related to draining and the timeline and cost to repair the dams.

For Anderson’s clients, the risk that property values will drop along with water levels is too great, and buyers are asking him to show them homes near other lakes in the region – Canyon Lake, Lake LBJ, and Lake Austin. He predicts a ripple effect in the local economy.

“All of those are people that are buying million-dollar properties that would be great contributors to our local town or economy,” Anderson said.

Those who already own lakefront homes are taking a wait-and-see approach before trying to sell their homes, he said, worried their property values will decrease and “bottom-feeders” will prey upon those anxious to sell.

“So you take waterfront property and you remove that value of the waterfront,” Anderson said. “That has a big impact economically. It certainly affects our school systems because property taxes are the primary means of funding the school systems.”

Brad and Miriam Jones, who moved to Seguin in 2012, bringing their commercial furniture business with them, are trying to decide when they should sell the lakefront home that’s just steps from downtown Seguin and the GBRA offices.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Miriam Jones walks down to Meadow Lake from her home.

“Our goal was to create our dream with waterfront living,” Miriam said. “So we found a place on Meadow Lake. We wanted to live on the water and our business involves a lot of entertaining. So we created a retreat in our home where designers come, and our clients. They come, they stay, they eat, they shop, and hang out on the water.”

The Joneses also purchased a building in downtown Seguin and began a restoration project to create a showroom of their high-end furnishings. They’ve worked with the City to have utilities set up and invested $35,000 in the renovation. News that the lakes would be drained put a halt to their plans and they now intend to sell the building.

Though a decision about when to sell their waterfront home is on hold, Miriam said, “We’re not going to live in a ditch.” After the lakes are drained, the Joneses fear serious and costly damage to the bulkheads along the lake. Like many in the area, the couple has already put their boat in storage.

On the 13 acres that Precision Boat Works owner Thomas Long owns near Lake McQueeney, there are about 150 boats of all sizes parked behind his newly expanded boat repair shop and in a storage building he recently built. There are 50 boat owners on his waiting list for storage, so he’s planning to build 30 more to accommodate them.

Long’s largest customer base own vacation homes on the lake. “That’s kind of the bread and butter of our business,” Long said. “We store their boats here, put them in the water in the summer … so it’s more than just boat repair, which is why we chose this area to start our business.”

While Long pivots to mostly boat storage as a way to keep his business afloat in the wake of the lakes being drained, business owners like Chris Nelligan-Davis, captain of Red Beard Boats, isn’t sure he will be able to continue operating at all.

Nelligan-Davis started the watercraft rental business three years ago and relies on the income to support himself, his wife, and toddler son. He recently purchased a ski boat to add to his fleet of kayaks, paddleboards, jet skis, and a pontoon, and invested $50,000 last spring in a boat dock that soon may sit to dry land.

Taking his business on the road to other nearby lakes would add overhead costs that might not make it feasible, he said. He hopes enough water will remain in the river to operate the pontoon or he may focus on kayak rentals. “As far as selling the business, I don’t know who would buy it if the lake is drained.”

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Chris Nelligan-Davis, owner of Redbeard Boats.

Along FM 725 in Seguin, a two-lane stretch of roadway that hugs Lake McQueeney, “lake life” is supported by one business after another – from the Lake Breeze Ski Lodge and Dam Camp to bait shops, bars, and restaurants. At Blake’s Café, owner Ginger Sanders said she is certain losing the lake will mean loss of business, especially during the peak recreation season of summer.

Even in downtown Seguin, the effects may be felt. Heather Felty, who left her job at Rackspace to own and manage the Court Street Coffee Shop a year ago, said she’s seeing a growing number of out-of-town and lake-bound visitors at her shop. But, for locals, she said the lakes and rivers are an important part of the culture of the community that will change if the lakes are gone.

“I just think we need to see a plan about it, of how it’s going to impact all of us,” Felty said. “I don’t think we have to do everything drastically. It would just be great if we had an organization that would help and come with a plan of action.”

With just weeks to go before the lakes are drained, on Thursday, children and families were splashing and playing in the water’s edge on Lake Placid at Son’s Island, a vacation property owned by Best Texas Travel. At least 16 of its 40 cabanas were rented for the day while a dozen or so of the operation’s total 60 employees supervised guest parking and equipment rentals. At peak times, the resort brings 15,000-18,000 people a month to Seguin.

Operations Manager Harrison Wood estimates that Son’s Island, open since 2014, has an annual economic impact on the community of at least $1.1 million. Roughly $535,000 is spent on local goods, labor, taxes, and utilities, and $539,000 is returned to the community through indirect spending of its guests who buy gas, groceries, and leisure items from retailers in the area. Added to that are similar estimates for the company’s other properties in the Guadalupe Valley.

“None of it had our 90-plus employees and contractors who also live in this area, no projections included them,” Wood said. “If we begin to talk about the real numbers and the real impact, that number rises to $2.6 million through people who live here, go to school here, and receive their paycheck from us.”

While the one-lane bridge to Son’s Island usually closes for the winter sometime in October, if the lake is drained, leaving cabanas in the mud yards from a shallow riverbed, Wood said the resort will close in September and relocate standing reservations to sister properties in the area. They could add a splash pad or pool and offer river tubing in the future.

Michael Kuehne has lived within sight of the dam on Lake McQueeney for three years. His home is one of 15 on the tiny Isle of View, created when the dam was built 90 years ago and flooded the valley where a pecan orchard once stood. Lake Placid is visible from the upper deck of his boathouse.

Kuehne watched the water level on his bulkhead drop about 24 inches a year ago when the GBRA began releasing water for dam repair work. Buoys labeled “keep out” are scattered all along the waterway behind his home and dock, and no swimming or boating is allowed due to safety concerns with the dam.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Michael Kuehne, homeowner on the Isle of View on Lake McQueeney, explains how his property will be affected.

He’s resigned to the fact that his home will soon offer only a water “view” instead of waterfront, but worries about the impact on his property values as well as the 100-year-old cypress trees. If the lakes are drained, Kuehne believes the majestic trees will die without the support of the water.

But he also empathizes with the people who make their living based on the lakes and who haven’t had time to adjust their business plans.

“What would be ideal is, if [GBRA was] draining the lakes based on a plan – let’s say it’s two years to repair – I think most of us would agree and feel better about that. Right now, it’s in an indefinite mode. It may turn the lake into a field of hay. That’s where the anxiety and fear is coming from mostly.

“People are concerned that if they drain it, it could be for forever.”

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