Posted 11/09/2022By Susan Thompson Lake Panorama Times
As soon as Lake Panorama filled in 1970, property owners were looking for ways to perform various tasks on their waterfront lots. The May 1972 edition of Lake Panorama Times featured a photo of an old Army “Duck” boat that plied Lake Panorama waters for several years.
Tom Contner hired the duck boat owner to set his boat lift, which gave him an idea for a business opportunity. At the February 1986 LPA board meeting, Contner told the board he was having a barge built. His Lake Panorama Barge Service would be available to waterfront lot owners for a fee.
The 12-feet-wide and 35-feet-long barge was built in Jefferson and launched in 1986 from a trailer at the marina. Contner’s main use for the barge was setting boat docks and lifts each spring and reversing the process each fall. He also removed large logs after flood events, did riprap work, hauled beach sand, and once was hired to hydro-seed a shoreline lot from the water.
Contner sold the business in April 1994. Following is a look at how barge service businesses have expanded to meet demand as Lake Panorama grows.LAKE PANORAMA BARGE SERVICE
Once Contner sold the Lake Panorama Barge Service, business continued as usual with ownership moving through a couple of different entities. For several years, Danny Cunningham was one of the barge operators. In 2003, he and his wife, Gina, purchased the business from Neil and Jolene Wright.
Besides boat lift and dock installation and removal, Lake Panorama Barge Service sells Shore Station lifts, docks and accessories. The business also supplies parts, labor, maintenance and repairs.
“We have been to all of the annual Shore Station service schools to stay current on their product lines,” Cunningham says.
The company still operates the Lake Panorama Barge that was built in Jefferson in 1986. In 2017, Cunningham added floats on each side to widen the barge to 18 feet.
“As lifts got bigger, it became important to have a wider barge to more safely transport lifts,” he says. “I also added thrusters up front to make it easier to move the barge sideways, which helps with maneuverability around docks.”
In the winter of 2020, Cunningham purchased a second barge in Wisconsin, then added a crane to it in his shop located at 1965 Highway 4, just north of the east entrance to Lake Panorama. He planned to use it that summer, but the COVID pandemic made it difficult for him to find the necessary workers to operate two barges.
That changed this fall when Cunningham launched the second barge and has been operating both on days when he has employees available and there is enough work. For instance, Lake Panorama Barge Service provides lift and dock placement and removal for all the condos along the east edge of Lake Panorama’s main basin. That work was completed more quickly this fall because both barges were in use.
Cunningham says spring is the busiest time for his business, because “everyone is anxious to get on the water. We do offer priority service to 40 customers each year who pay an extra fee to be at the top of our installation list. The timing still is weather dependent, but our goal is to get to these customers in the first two weeks after ice goes out of the lake.”
Summers are spent answering service calls, delivering new product, offering sand delivery, even trimming trees and repairing rip rap.
“We also complete repair and maintenance work that we can’t get scheduled during the busy seasons. We spend our winter months maintaining equipment, planning for spring sales and assembling new product to ensure early spring delivery,” Cunningham says.
Jason Alsted is a full-time employee who has been with Cunningham for five years. Austin McMichael, a recent Panorama graduate, is in his third year of seasonal work on the barge.
“A shout out to my current crew and all those who have helped in the past,” Cunningham says. “It’s difficult to find great people who are willing to work in the elements and under the crunch time pressures of the spring and fall seasons of this business.”
Each year, Lake Panorama Barge Service installs and removes about 350 boat and jet ski lifts, plus hundreds of docks.
“I’m grateful to have met so many amazing people through this business,” Cunningham says. “I encourage customers to get in touch before the busy season to get on our schedule. Once we’re on the water, I can’t take phone calls. The motor is too noisy, and we’re usually on a job.”
Text or call Cunningham’s cell at 515-971-0226, email firstname.lastname@example.org
or call the shop at 641-755-3351.VAN HOUTEN BARGE SERVICE
As the number of waterfront lot owners grew, so did demand for services. At the July 2001 LPA board meeting, Mark Van Houten discussed the possibility of starting a new barge service. He requested the board limit additional competitors from entering the market until he could develop the business. The board approved Van Houten’s business plan and voted to limit barge service to two viable business operations for a period of three years.
Van Houten started his barge service that fall. He did much of the work to build his barge with help from another company. It is 12 feet wide, 30 feet long, and weighs 38,000 pounds.
During the boating season, the barge is docked overnight at the end of one of the marina slips. But most days, if the weather is good, Van Houten is on the barge somewhere on the lake. He has one full-time employee, Justin Firebaugh, and hires part-time help for spring and fall.
Van Houten doesn’t sell any products, but he does all installations for lifts and docks sold at Coulter Marine. Spring and fall are his busiest times, with lift and dock installation in the spring and removal in the fall, plus repair work during the summer months.
“As waterfront homes were built, many people bought lifts and docks at about the same time,” Van Houten says. “Now those are getting old, and people are replacing them with new. Much of my summer is spent hauling old equipment to the landfill and installing new lifts and docks. Or people move from one place to another and need to have their docks and lifts moved, too.”
Van Houten sends a mailer each spring and fall to current customers asking them what services they want to schedule with him. Once the completed form is mailed or emailed back, he adds those requests to his list.
“This is the best way for customers to be sure I have them on my schedule,” he says. “During the busy times of the year, I’m the guy doing the work, and I can’t stop in the middle of a job to answer phone calls. If someone hasn’t already responded to the mailer I sent, they can text or email me.”
Van Houten knows people are anxious to get their docks and lifts in the water each spring, and sometimes try to find out when he’ll get to them.
“Weather plays a big part in the timing,” he says. “If it is windy at your place, I can’t do it. I’m probably hiding out of the wind, working in coves or where the wind isn’t as strong.”
Timing also depends on where he can group various jobs.
“My barge moves at what I call a turtle pace; it’s not very fast. It takes me 45 minutes to get from the marina to the north end of the lake. It doesn’t make sense for me to go all the way to the north end for one job, just because that’s the order in which I received a customer’s request,” he says.
As Van Houten works his 21st fall season running a barge service on Lake Panorama, he says he still enjoys the work.
“I like being outside, like being around the water, and I’m not scared of hard work,” he says.
Van Houten can be reached via email at email@example.com
or by calling 515-975-7016.DELUXE DOCKS & LIFTS
At the LPA board meeting July 26, 2022, the board voted to allow Tyler and Aubrey Rupp, Deluxe Docks & Lifts, to operate a barge service beginning in 2023. Rupp was provided a length and horsepower variance, equivalent to what is in place for the two existing barges, plus a guarantee the LPA will not approve a fourth competitor for three years. Rupp’s barge will be docked north of the debris trap, since there isn’t space at the marina for a third company.
Rupp, his wife Aubrey, and their two young children purchased a vacation home at Lake Panorama in the fall of 2018. They live fulltime in Johnston. They started their business, Deluxe Docks & Lifts, in January 2021.
“We felt the lake membership wanted more options when it came to dock and lift sales and service,” Rupp says. “We evaluated many different product lines and found ShoreMaster has a portfolio of products we thought the community would love. We offer both floating and stationary docks and lifts and can accommodate any size and style of boat. The dock product line includes nine different decking styles and unlimited configuration options.”
Selling docks and lifts to Lake Panorama customers led to the idea of adding barge service to their business.
“As we grew, we recognized the need to have our own barge to better serve the lake membership,” Rupp says. “With a limited boating season, we understand how critical it is to maximize everyone’s time on the water between spring and fall.”
Rupp spent the last year evaluating different barge manufacturers, as well as barge styles, and is having a barge custom-built in Minnesota.
“It’s a 30 foot, all aluminum, fork style barge,” he says. “Imagine a portable fork lift on the water. We partnered with another ShoreMaster dealer in Minnesota who has been in the dock and lift business for 20 years, and the hands-on training has been invaluable.”
Rupp says the company will hire employees to operate the barge. He says beginning next spring, Deluxe Docks & Lifts will be a full-service operation including new installs, annual install and removal, dock and lift reconfigurations, repairs, canopy replacements, and on-lake transportation for items like beach sand and building materials.
Recently they launched a customer service portal that can be accessed through the company website at deluxedocksandlifts.com and allows for customer scheduling and communication.
“The software allows us to provide customers with real-time information, visibility to scheduling, invoices, notifications via text or email when the job is complete, and other information,” Rupp says. “We are excited to offer this new communication model.”
In addition to the portal, customers can email firstname.lastname@example.org
or call 515-612-6467.