March 30, 2012 Share

Sharpe: Healthy lake levels will revive houseboat industry

Somerset —

“When the Corps of Engineers announces Wolf Creek Dam is safe; when Lake Cumberland is back to normal, it will have a tremendously positive impact on the houseboat industry.”

The prediction is by Pulaski County’s own James (Jim) Sharpe, a leading pioneer of the lakestyle houseboat and nationally known builder of some of the world’s finest custom cruisers.

 Sharpe knows whereof he speaks. He started building boats when Lake Cumberland was still a river and has created more than 3,000 houseboats during a 63-year career. People in the industry affectionately call him the “Grandfather of Houseboats.”

The houseboat industry is in a bad slump, a situation Sharpe calls “really sad.” But he doesn’t buy in to the notion that problems at seepage-plagued Wolf Creek Dam and resulting lower lake level triggered the current devastating downtown in the houseboat industry in this area.

“It wasn’t the lake … there’s plenty of water in the lake. It’s the national economy. People are afraid to turn their money loose,” said Sharpe. However, he is convinced the mere announcement that Wolf Creek Dam is safe and Lake Cumberland is back to normal will unleash a pent-up love for houseboats and the industry will take on new life.

“There are plenty of people out there with lots of money but they are afraid to spend it in this economy,” said Sharpe. But once they hear Lake Cumberland is back to normal, the “Ohio Navy” will return in droves and seek the picturesque coves for extended weekends and vacations on their houseboats, he says.

A proclamation from the Corps that Wolf Creek Dam is permanently repaired is expected late in 2013 or early in 2014. It will end a seven-year, $594 million rehabilitation of the 61-year-old dam and allow Lake Cumberland to re-extend its fingers along 101-miles from west of Jamestown through Pulaski County and east to Corbin.

“It is our intent to have Lake Cumberland in normal operation by Summer 2014,” said David Hendrix, manager of the rehabilitation project. Lake Cumberland has been kept as close as possible to 40 feet below normal since January 2007 to ease pressure on the earthen section of the dam that was declared in high risk of failure.

Sharpe, noting that perception is worse than reality, pointed out that Lake Cumberland, with 35,000 acres of water at its current level, is still the third largest lake east of the Mississippi River. However, constant publicity about uncontrolled seepage at Wolf Creek Dam and a lower lake level have created a perception that “ … the dam may break … and the lake is dry.”

Sharpe concedes the houseboat industry is in a terrible slump. However, he and members of his family are keeping the doors open at Sharpe Houseboats on South U.S. 27 waiting for news to spread that Wolf Creek Dam has been repaired.

Sharpe Houseboats, in normal operation, creates some 250 ancillary jobs.  “We use lots of plywood. Somebody has to cut the wood; somebody has to make the plywood. Houseboats have appliances, curtains, draperies, for example … amenities somebody has to make,” Sharpe reasoned.

In 1949, more than a year before Lake Cumberland was impounded, Sharpe founded Sharpe Marine in downtown Somerset. The business sold boats, motors and trailers. Sharpe changed the name of the company to Somerset Marine in 1953 and built his first houseboat, a 10-by-14-foot steel hull flat bottom with scow bow.

In 1959, Somerset Marine moved to a new location at the intersection of U.S. 27 and Ky. 80. By this time, Sharpe was building larger houseboats, 11 feet wide and 32 feet long.

Somerset Marine moved in 1969 to the present location on South U.S. 27. Facilities included a new showroom and 25,000-square-foot factory building. Sharpe changed spelling of Somerset to Sumerset when a printer made an error on a flyer and he liked it.

He sold the boat business in 1978, but returned and started building boats again after a previous owner went out of business. He began producing only aluminum houseboats, the smallest of which was 14 foot wide and 60 feet long.

Sharpe owned and operated several other businesses, including Pulaski Motor Company, Burnside Marina and Food Fair with Gene Robinson as a partner.

Now 82 and officially retired, Sharpe shows up at the plant on a regular basis “ … just to see what’s going on.” He says he gives advice “ … on a limited basis and only if I’m asked.”

By BILL MARDIS, Editor Emeritus
Commonwealth Journal