Amid drought of customers, Santa Margarita Lake concessionaire to close up shop

Owners want to stay, but economy and drought forcing them out

clambert@thetribunenews.comMarch 28, 2014 

It’s mid-morning at Santa Margarita Lake, and a handful of regulars have taken up residence at a table just outside the Santa Margarita Lake Marina & Mini Mart.

Apart from their chatter, the scene at the lake is calm and quiet — too quiet, said Don Lopez, who along with his wife, Sandra, has owned the marina store for nine years.

“I’ve had one customer this morning,” he said. “Three yesterday. This is spring break. Do you see anyone here?”

For some time, the couple has depended on regular customers to keep their business afloat. But with little sign of the drought easing, as well as for other reasons, the Lopezes have decided their last day in business will be April 18.

In the meantime, county parks officials are putting together a request for proposals for a new concessionaire to take over the marina. They had planned to do so later this year, as Lopez’s current lease expires Dec. 31, 2014, but now the process is being hurried along.

San Luis Obispo County Counsel Rita Neal said the owners are currently in good standing, but their lease does not include a provision allowing them to close down earlier. County staff will continue discussions with Don Lopez, she said, to come to some resolution to try to prevent any break in service to the public.

As the water level has dropped — Santa Margarita Lake is 37.6 percent full — so, too, has the number of visitors to this small lake seven miles southeast of Highways 101 and 58.

County parks officials said sales of annual passes and boat passes sold from July 2013 through February have dropped 43 percent from the same time period the previous year.

But Don Lopez said business began to suffer about three years ago, after an environmental study determined that stocked trout would be washed downstream into steelhead waters whenever the lake spilled (which typically happened annually).

“There is a potential for stocked trout to prey on juvenile steelhead and/or stocked trout to compete for resources (e.g. food, habitat, etc.) with steelhead — the native fish,” Janice Mackey, a spokeswoman for state Fish and Wildlife, said in an email. “Hence the evaluation resulted in not allowing trout stocking.”

At Lopez Lake, a screen was installed on an outlet pipe and stocking was resumed there, but the same could not be done at Margarita.

“It’s affecting the fish in the lake because the trout would feed the bass,” said Sandra Lopez, 60. “We used to have huge pelicans come in and feed off the trout. They were beautiful — they would scoop up the fish — and they don’t come around anymore.”

Over the years, Don Lopez said, his gross revenues were cut in half, from a high in 2006 of $140,000 to $50,000 in 2013. In 2006, he said he took in $11,000 over Memorial Day weekend; last year’s holiday weekend brought in $4,500.

In addition, boat slip rentals are down, due in part to low lake levels but also because of the poor condition of some of the slips, with old and splintering wood.

“We don’t want to quit,” said Don Lopez, 59. “The economy tells me I have to quit.”

He chose to close up shop in April to avoid paying about $4,000 in insurance, registration and other fees to keep his business, including the marina and rental boats, current.

Lopez and county parks officials have had a few recent letters and conversations about the monthly lease payments, which over the years have increased from $900 to $1,025, parks Superintendent Larry Iaquinto said.

Don Lopez had asked the county to consider a reduction in rent.

“I said I wanted a buck a month,” Don Lopez said during an interview at the lake Thursday. “I thought it was a negotiation.”

Lopez said he threw the number out to start negotiations — hoping to pay less but knowing the county wouldn’t accept his extremely low offer — but the discussions soon ended.

“We said we can’t do $1 a month,” said Curtis Black, county parks General Services Agency deputy director. “That was the extent of the negotiations.”

Black noted that the lease at the Santa Margarita Lake marina is sometimes significantly less than what the concessionaire at Lopez Lake pays. That lease calls for a percentage of gross revenue, and during the summer, that individual has paid $12,000 to $16,000 for the month, Black said.

“I don’t believe he’s paid less than $2,000 in any month,” Black said.

However, the two lakes are difficult to compare: Lopez Lake is larger, has more amenities and allows swimming and water sports, while swimming is prohibited at Santa Margarita Lake. Unlike Lopez, Santa Margarita doesn’t have a water treatment facility so there aren’t full hookups for recreational vehicles.

The county has received grant funding to repave the parking lot at the Santa Margarita marina and at the White Oak day-use area, revamp a fish-cleaning station, and add new restrooms and amenities to three boat-in campgrounds, Black said.

He said the boats slips are a joint responsibility at Santa Margarita — the county inspects them, but the leaseholder would be responsible for proposing repairs (under the current contract, Lopez is responsible for the first $2,000 and the county would pay the rest).

Customers dismayed

It was clear from a brief visit to the marina that the regulars will miss Don and Sandra Lopez — though the couple will continue to live nearby.

“I’m going to hate to see him close,” said Dennis Yates, the mayor of Chino, who was wearing a green hat with the marina’s name stitched on it. He visits relatives in Atascadero and comes to fishes at the lake monthly.

To random visitors, Don Lopez might at first appear a little gruff, but that persona fades away soon enough to reveal a sarcastic wit, shared among some of his regulars and other park users.

When one woman pulled an SUV near the marina, rolled down her window and asked whether they carried disposable cameras, Don Lopez turned around and hollered back: “This is a full-service marina, woman!”

Then he turned back around and added, “I love being here. It’s been a hoot and a holler.”

Sandra Lopez added, “We have a very good clientele.”

The couple is now planning to sell their inventory, including seven boats, two pontoons, a canoe, a paddleboat and five kayaks.

“This is a hard decision, but it had to be done,” Don Lopez said.

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.

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