Even though the water tower marina’s tower hasn’t held water for many years, there are no plans to tear down the downtown McHenry landmark on the Fox River, its co-owner MaryJo Munson said.
“Because of the raw shape, I would love to make it look like a lighthouse,” she said. Her family is less inclined to that idea.
The Munsons, of Munson Ski and Marine, purchased what originally was a boat manufacturing site and later a riverside boat repair site in October 2020. For much of the previous 10 years, the property at Lincoln Road and the Pearl Street bridge sat empty, with wooden docks and boat slips sliding back into the river.
While her husband, Mark, and son, Matt, disagree on how to paint the water tower, the structure is solid and otherwise in good condition. It will be painted, MaryJo said.
Since their purchase, the Munsons have spent $7 million renovating the property. It was something MaryJo wanted to see happen for several years, she said.
“I drove past this for the last seven years and kept visualizing the Munson logo” on the building, she said.
Having the riverside site filled again “means a great deal” for the city and the community, said Doug Martin, McHenry’s director of economic development.
“They cleaned up the area, the property and buildings that were in a state of obsolescence and turned it into a thriving business,” Martin said.
“McHenry is very happy” about the improved marina, Matt Munson said. He is the third generation of the Munson family selling and repairing boats in northern Illinois.
“That entire property needed to be fixed up and was an eyesore,” he said.
It was the second time in recent years a buyer had made promises to fix the aging docks and crumbling buildings, MaryJo said.
It made neighbors a little unsure whether the Munsons could overcome the property’s issues after so many years of neglect, MaryJo said.
“We had a lot of obstacles to overcome with customer trust. They were not sure we would deliver what we had promised,” MaryJo said.
Before the dock replacement, neighbors across the river told MaryJo they could hear the abandoned docks “singing” at night.
“There were people across the river who said ‘you can’t sleep at night with the window open.’ ” The old steel and wood structures would rock in the wind and current, making a whistling sound, she said.
The buildings on the property were another matter. “It was horrific,” MaryJo said of their initial condition.
The Munsons started work in late 2020, tearing down every thing but the pro shop and gutting that building as well.
Originally, she said, plans were to have the marina, pro shop, service bays, showroom and yard open in 2021.
With supply chain issues and finding more work was needed on the site, renovations took a year and a half. Slips were available to rent in 2021, but the entire location didn’t open until Spring 2022. A grand opening was held in July.
Business has been good this summer, with all the slips rented and boaters using their valet service to put boats in the water, MaryJo said. Bathrooms and showers added to the main building give boaters a place to stop and clean up, too.
Earlier this summer, the McHenry City Council also approved a request for outdoor boat sales at the site.
Whether boaters ever see their next boat sitting outside the showroom is another question, Matt said.
Like the automobile industry, the marine and boating makers are struggling to keep up with demand.
“Depending on the brand or model there is a six to eight month lead time” for new boats, Matt said.
He suggested anyone thinking about upgrading the family boat to order now for spring 2023.
Having the site open again is bringing tax revenue to McHenry and a new downtown disembarking point, giving boaters access to other businesses across the river, said Martin from the city’s economic development office.
What the Munsons have done with the site is a “great introduction into the city’s downtown area,” Martin said.
“Sales, service, leasing of slips ... the city gets benefits and revenue that way,” Martin said. “It has a direct and indirect economic benefit to the city.”
“It was vacant for so many years and it is such a prime location on the river and in the city. It was ripe for redevelopment and they have embraced that wholeheartedly,” Martin said.
MaryJo said she has more ideas for the property, including a tiki bar, food and a pool for those who want to swim, but maybe not swim in the Fox River. Two houses that sat behind the pro shop were purchased and torn down to add room for more off-season boat storage.
Boater response to the upgrades has been very positive, MaryJo said. “People are thrilled about what we have done to clean it up.”