The community of Elk Rapids is rediscovering a crown jewel in their own backyard. You see, Elk Rapids Marina, located on Elk Lake and conveniently nestled between Traverse City, Kalkaska, Suttons Bay and Charlevoix, is in the midst of a modern-day renaissance.
About Elk Rapids Marina
Elk Rapids Marina is a full-service marina and watercraft retailer. An authorized Mercury Marine dealership, ERM carries a large selection of new and pre-owned inventory, including Manitou Pontoons, Iguana Yachts, Montara, Alumacraft, and Mercury Outboards.
But if that’s all you knew about Elk Rapids Marina, then you would be missing a big part of the story.
New ownership and vision
With its original roots dating back to the 1980s, “Elk River Marina”, recently re-named Elk Rapids Marina at Elk Lake, was purchased in January 2021 by Susie and Lewis Cooper. With their kids grown and out of the house, the couple were looking for a new opportunity to work together. After seeing the marina listed for sale in the local paper, they did their due diligence and began imagining what it might be like to own and operate the business. “It was a chance to not just own a business, but be part of a community,” Susie said.
The marina needed some TLC and significant investment dollars, however. The property is highly visible from US-31, and the couple saw its potential to be “the gateway to Elk Rapids”. They quickly fell in love with the surroundings and developed a vision to build a gathering place for the community to relax, enjoy good food, socialize, go boating and just take in the picturesque views. They also envisioned lots of green grass, wooden toys for kids, and a place for families to enjoy being together. “I’m a mom, and I get it. But kids on phones when you are in this beautiful setting? Here, they can play cornhole or ring toss and get out on a boat and just enjoy the outdoors,” Susie added.
But the Coopers didn’t just want to build “their” vision. As renovations began, a suggestion board was posted to gather ideas from the community about what they wanted. And suggest they did. Based on a dearth of options for coffee in the area, a suggestion was made to add a coffee shop to the marina’s “The Dam Shop”. Then, to facilitate bringing on enhanced food options, a food truck was added, “The Dam Food Truck”. And since they are open year-round, the Coopers are also working with the village to host the Elk Rapids’ community ice skating rink. Plans include offering hot chocolate, chili and other cold weather delights.
“It’s all about customer service”
One of the strategies that the Coopers put into place was building the best team possible to welcome and serve their guests. “We’ve been very lucky with our management team. I don’t want to just keep hiring people, I want to develop people,” Susie shared. At the time of purchase, ERM had about nine employees. Today, the Coopers have roughly twenty full-time, year-round employees. That number swells to about forty employees in the summer.
They’ve been able to keep good people on staff as they perform work to winterize boats (nearly 400 this year) and with Service and Parts departments that operate all winter to ensure that boats are ready to go when the warm weather arrives. A special emphasis is placed on training for the staff mechanics, oftentimes having them travel for training programs conducted by the boat manufacturers the marina’s Sales department represents.
To help keep the emphasis squarely on their customers, the Coopers also recently hired a Director of Customer Experience. As Susie explains it, “It’s important to have a dedicated person who is working with the village, working with the horse show and the Rotary Club. We want anybody that walks into our business to feel welcome, and that starts with our team. This has to be a fun, collaborative, family environment, because if it isn’t, then it rubs off and our customers won’t feel welcome.”
In addition to opening the The Dam Shop and The Dam Food Truck, the Coopers have replaced all the marina’s docks, 117 of them in total. All the seawall has been replaced as well. Every building on the property was demolished and rebuilt. Four new bathrooms have been added, as well as a new barn that serves as the sales showroom for the boat brands ERM represents. In other words, in the short amount of time since the couple purchased the property in early 2021, basically everything has been rebuilt.
Susie is quick to add that none of these projects would have been possible without careful planning, a great team and a little luck with the weather. “We had four construction crews, working six days a week, for four months. It was a like a military campaign to get it all back up and built out,” she noted.
Partnering with Crystal Flash
The Coopers identified early on that the fueling capabilities at the marina were sorely lacking. There was a large red gas tank on the premises that was old and rusted — a real eyesore, and likely unsafe. “Crystal Flash was amazing to work with. Our top priorities were safety and the environment. They came out with two double-walled tanks and installed them in our fenced-in area for added security. The CF Team was also able to get us a beautiful new gas pump, which we added our logo to. It’s really a wonderful fit with our aesthetic and is exactly what we were looking for,” Susie said.
She added, “They made it so we had everything brand new. They really worked with us because we didn’t want exposed pipes running everywhere over the ground. Crystal Flash helped us realize our vision and everyone was just wonderful to work with there.”
The project also had some unique timing and deadline challenges, as Susie explains it, “We’re the only gas on Elk Lake, so we were worried about being offline very long because there might be a revolt if people couldn’t get gas for their boats. Customers have really shown appreciation for the new fueling system and how much of an improvement it is.”
When asked how they chose Crystal Flash for their fuel project, Susie said, “We did our homework and just really felt like Crystal Flash was the best company to work with for our needs. We never had to worry that we were going run out of gas, CF watched our levels using the remote tank monitors and came when we needed it, especially over the Fourth of July and Harbor Days, which are really busy times for us.”
Celebrating one year in business
While it’s hard to believe that this flurry of activity and reconfiguration all happened in less than one year, Susie believes that the real satisfaction comes from the response by the community, “What has been the biggest bonus in all of this is the community support. We have people five times a day coming to us and saying, “Thank you so much for the investment, for being here, for cleaning up and for making it look beautiful.” Our hope is that everyone will come out to enjoy the environment and feel welcome. We’re off to a really good start.”