Longtime Sailing Center Is a Casualty of the Lake Champlain Real Estate Boom | Business | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Longtime Sailing Center Is a Casualty of the Lake Champlain Real Estate Boom


Published January 27, 2023 at 1:41 p.m.
Updated February 14, 2023 at 2:19 p.m.

Boats on Lake Champlain - COURTESY
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  • Boats on Lake Champlain
A rising tide of development in northwestern Vermont has claimed a fixture of the Malletts Bay community, the International Sailing Center, which for decades has provided an affordable route for young people to learn how to sail.

The sailing center and school is losing its lease and looking for another berth on the Lake Champlain shoreline. With a GoFundMe campaign stalled at $27,000, a little more than half of its goal, owner Robin Doyle is struggling to find a way to transfer 30 boats from the Colchester property she has used for more than 40 years and to set up her program somewhere nearby. 

Doyle’s problems began, she said, when her landlords informed her in November that they wouldn't be renewing her lease. Instead, they planned to lease the property to local businessperson and landlord Rick Bove, who has plans for the site, according to his brother and business partner Mark.

“It was a real bombshell,” Doyle said, adding that she contacted the landlords to ask if she could stay. “The landlords really gave me no recourse or option for discussion,” she said.

When the sailing center goes, Doyle said, so will a decades-long tradition of community activity that included weekly races, boat rentals, programs with the Boys & Girls Club of Burlington and Colchester Parks and Recreation, and monthly barbecues. 

Gone too, Doyle said, will be a community gathering place where friendships  flourished over decades. 

"A lot of sailors have broken hearts right now,” Doyle said on Monday. “It’s really sad that all these people are being forced to disband when they really enjoy being around each other.” 
Doyle's low-budget operation is being pushed out by economic growth that has altered the prospects and lives of renters and property owners in much of northwestern Vermont.

As Burlington’s economy has grown, so too has the value of its lakeside real estate. Interest in boating picked up during the pandemic, and marina owners have reported little trouble filling their slips, even as the Canadian boaters who made up a large share of their customer base were forced to stay away for two years. 

The Bove brothers, who have a portfolio of commercial and residential real estate holdings, recently bought the Moorings marina, a near neighbor of the sailing center on Malletts Bay.

Mike O’Brien, who represents Lake Champlain marina owners and boat dealers as president of the Vermont Boat & Marine Association, said the local marina business is stronger now than it's been in a decade.

“Especially in Burlington, everyone is shoehorning things in where they can,” O’Brien said. The city has three large marinas. “Burlington is pretty much full.”

Malletts Bay, which is home to many lakeside homes and cottages, is about six miles north of Burlington’s waterfront district, and it has fewer marinas and associated amenities such as restaurants. Locals who watch the real estate market, however, expect that to change as demand continues to increase for property in Chittenden County. 

The Lake Champlain shoreline is dotted with marinas, which range in size from simple boat ramps with a few moorings to full-service destinations that include clubhouses, concierge service and restaurants.

Like boating itself, the marina real estate is pricey. The North Hero Marina, listed at $3.5 million, sold last year to a couple from Montana.

The International Sailing Center is modest, with a small building and some moorings. Chana Datskovsky, assistant director of the sailing school, said the business wouldn’t need much in a new location: a room for holding classes, beach space for dinghies and some moorings.

O’Brien said it's possible they can find something; older marinas outside the more populous areas tend to have simple boat ramps and little other infrastructure. 

“The further north you go, you probably have a better chance,” O'Brien said. But, he added, “I think it’s going to be tough for them.” 

Doyle grew up in a sailing family in Connecticut and started out as an instructor at the sailing school after she graduated from the University of Vermont in 1981. She bought the operation in 1987 and said on Monday that she’d hoped to pass the business on to her staff members eventually.

“I want to keep the business running for future generations,” she said.

To that end, Doyle has rallied friends and supporters to assist through GoFundMe with boat storage, removal and startup costs somewhere else. And her allies are helping to spread her message about the sailing center's struggle. 

"The landlords gave Robin no warning or ability to meet new terms or negotiate in any way," said Colchester resident Della Leonard in an essay published on January 25 on the website sailinganarchy.com. She called for ideas and donations from sailing stalwarts everywhere. "A wealthy local businessman has somehow taken over the lease; it’s unknown what purpose he has in mind for ISS’s lot,” she wrote.

That businessman, Rick Bove, was the subject of a November 2021 Seven Days article that outlined a litany of problems at affordable apartments he and his brother own.

Jasen Boyd, whose son interned at the sailing center, called for a boycott of Bove businesses and products. The family, which once operated Bove's Café in downtown Burlington, has a wholesale line of Italian food products that bears its name. Boyd asked supporters not to moor their boats at Bove's marina "until they relent on the plans to drive the ISC out of business" and to boycott Bove  businesses "until they work a deal with the ISC that protects this institution in Mallets Bay."

Rick Bove did not return messages about the proposed boycott.

Complicating the crosscurrents of changing property values, last year Colchester residents approved a sewer project along West Lakeshore Drive — the site of the sailing school’s home. While the project is aimed at protecting Lake Champlain from pollution, it will enable more commercial development in the area, and “it will push out small businesses in favor of rich people getting richer and decrease access to the lake for people of average means,” Leonard said. 

Leonard's boyfriend, Colchester sailor Allen Baker, has asked a lawyer who worked at the sailing school in the 1980s for help, with no results. Now he's reaching out to all the sailors he knows for donations.

"There's hardly anyone on the East Coast I haven't contacted about this," said Baker, who has five boats in the sailing center yard. To Baker, the center's situation embodies a larger shift he's seeing on the bay, with the advent of more expensive powerboats and personal watercraft. He likes the sailing center, he said, because it makes the expensive pursuit of sailing accessible to the masses.

"This is a unique institution; there is nothing else like it on the lake," he said. "It's a really eclectic group. You don't have the shiniest new boat, but you get the real experience."

Correction, January 30, 2023: A previous version of this story misreported the Boves' plans for the site.