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Steve Conner at one of the slips being built at Riverwalk Marina. Conner said the slips will go around the point into the existing docking area and will replace some older units.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
Steve Conner at one of the slips being built at Riverwalk Marina. Conner said the slips will go around the point into the existing docking area and will replace some older units.

Sea change
for marina

Riverwalk owner hopes expansion of docks will encourage recreational use

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com · 340-2435

For decades, the Tennessee River’s economic value to Decatur has been almost exclusively industrial.

Riverwalk Marina owner Steve Conner sees a changing future, and he hopes an ongoing expansion of his marina helps him ride the shifting currents.

“We want to make this a destination point,” Conner said Thursday. “We want more than just the ‘drive-by’ traffic.”

Transient docking

His latest effort is a $300,000 expansion of transient docking facilities.

The docks, which will extend along the point near the existing gas dock, will allow overnight docking.

A $200,000 federal grant helped finance the project.

“When this is done, we’ll have one of the nicest destination points around,” Conner said.

Riverwalk has transient docking for eight boats. After the expansion, it will accommodate 25. The new facility can handle up to an 80-foot boat.

“It’s mainly for people traveling up and down the river, to give them a place to stay,” Conner said.

“We’ll sometimes get a regatta from Wheeler with, say, 20 boats that will eat at Hard Dock Café and spend the night. This gives them a place to dock.”

The increasing recognition of the river’s value as a recreational spot has been slow in coming, Conner said, but is accelerating.

New slips are being constructed in Riverwalk Marina.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
New slips are being constructed in Riverwalk Marina.
“As a city, we’re focusing more on the recreational aspects,” he said. “The river is an important part of Decatur, and we’re doing a better job of using it.”

That recognition has been a mixed blessing for Conner, who leases the marina’s land from the city. He has 40 years left on the lease.

The negative has been the decimation of his launch business. His $2 launch fees used to bring in about $25,000 a year. That revenue dropped to almost zero when the city opened Ingalls Harbor.

Not only is Ingalls free, it is state of the art. Head-to-head competition is not an option.

“We’ve got 150 parking places here. They’ve got 450 over there. It’s premier,” Conner said, with a trace of regret. “It’s one of the nicest sport fishing marinas ever built.”

Mayor Don Kyle said he regrets the short-term hit Riverwalk has taken on lost launches, but he predicted the marina will enjoy long-term benefits.

“I suspect there are adaptations to the marina business that he might make, along with his transient docks, that could help out in the future,” Kyle said. “It may take some capital investment.”

Kyle said the city has no plans to install transient docks at Ingalls. He said the reduction of launches, and the wakes they create, should improve the attractiveness of Riverwalk’s transient docking facilities.

An awakening appreciation for the river’s recreational value has its benefits. Boat sales at Extreme Marine have increased for three consecutive years, despite slumping national demand.

Governmental interest that spurred construction of Ingalls Harbor had more to do with fishing tournaments and tax dollars.

Conner said the main driver of increased recreational use of the river is the desire for family activities.

“It’s good family recreation. The kids don’t mind going out with Mom and Dad on a boat. They don’t want to go to the mall with them,” Conner laughs. “They may not want to be seen with them, but being with them on the river seems to be OK.”

Popularity growing

It’s not just Decatur families, either.

Rapid, high-income population growth in Madison and Athens is paying dividends for Riverwalk. Madison residents are almost as common as Decatur residents at Hard Dock Café, and much of the growth in boat sales comes from Madison and Athens.

“We carry a high-end boat, and there’s only a couple high-end boat dealers around here,” Conner said.

That brings smiles to local economic developers, who are used to watching Decatur money float upstream to Huntsville retailers. Riverwalk is a business that brings money downstream to Decatur.

The business challenge facing Conner in the wake of Ingalls is repositioning his business model. His launch business is essentially dead, but Ingalls has helped spur increased interest in boating. How to convert the short-term negative into a positive?

“We’re trying to become more of a full-service operation. We’ve got the boat sales and boat service, now an increase in transient docking. We’ve got covered and uncovered slips. We’ve got a restaurant,” Conner said. “We want to keep heading in that direction.”

The transient docking, plus some landscaping and repaving to beautify the marina’s entrance, are the first steps.

Other ideas

He has other plans, too.

For one, he would like to increase dry storage at the marina. As more people own boats, more people need to store them.

His existing dry storage facility stays full, and he would like to build another.

“At some point, we may approach the city about building a dry-storage building over here in lieu of a launch ramp,” Conner said. Because the city owns the property, City Council must approve significant changes at the marina.

“All of it revolves around catering to the public, and dry storage is something that’s needed in the area.”

Conner would like to build a reception hall that could handle up to 400 people for events such as weddings, together with a swimming pool.

“We just want a few added amenities to become a full-service, premier marina,” Conner said. “It would cost some money, but I think it would pay off in the long run.”

Kyle said the transient docks are the first step in remaking Riverwalk Marina into an important asset for Decatur.

“Those transient docks are a key to additional investments at Riverwalk,” Kyle said.

And they are an important cog in the engine driving increased recreational use of the Tennessee River.

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