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A Bluegrass 'oasis': Business booms on Lake Cumberland despite pandemic

Posted at 10:25 AM, Jun 25, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-25 10:25:51-04

SOMERSET, Ky. (LEX 18) — Life on the lake has always been good in Somerset, and last summer -- despite COVID-19 raging out of control -- life was good for a number of reasons. Now business owners and city officials are hoping to capitalize on the momentum of 2020.

J.D. Hamilton came to Lake Cumberland years ago and turned a family vacation into a way of life.

"My kids wanted to get a houseboat and I thought, 'That's for old retired people,'" Hamilton said. "Truth is I had never been on a houseboat and never had been to Lake Cumberland."

Turns out he loved them both.

"I really discovered the life and saw what was a wonderful business opportunity," Hamilton said.

So he bought this restaurant at the top of the boat launch and the nearby cottages. He also owns Lee's Ford Resort Marina. all of it. And he figured out how to make a seasonal business survive a summer of COVID.

Most businesses and vacation spots suffered last summer due to COVID, but Lake Cumberland proved to be somewhat recession-proof. Where better to socially distance than on a lake with thousands of miles of shoreline? The pandemic, in some ways, may have actually boosted business here.

Some aspects remained as smooth as glass. Other parts of the business sailed into a much choppier wake.

"The marina is booming," Hamilton said. "The restaurant got creamed."

So he shut it down for three months while building this outdoor dining area, and navigated himself back to the safety of the proverbial dock.

Wake Cumberland Water Sports owner Greg Dalton had no such trouble last summer. He grew up on this lake and saw a similar effect.

"As opposed to spending money traveling vacationing and doing other things, even going to the movies, they came to the lake and stayed here," he said. "They felt safe here."

Michelle Allen got here as a teenager and never left. Now she runs the tourism department, and last summer was unlike any she'd seen before.

"People saying, 'We were heading to Florida but we've decided not to go and we've heard about Lake Cumberland,'" Allen said.

So they came and had a blast.

"A lot of first-timer," Allen said. I'm hoping they're going to be second-timers this year."

But even the first-timers couldn't carry the entire freight. In 2019, tourists alone added $126 million to the economy in this county. Officials are still waiting on last year's figures.

"Of course that's going to be lower for 2020, but I'm hoping we can get that back in 2021," Allen said.

They might. Or business could also revert back to pre-pandemic years, which isn't bad -- just different.

"We do expect at some point it'll slow some," Allen said. "People will want to get back out and leave the state."

But the loyalists will always come here. That's how lake business thrived before -- during and after a pandemic.

"It's kind of like its own little oasis in Somerset, Kentucky," Dalton said.

About 65,000 acres-worth of this 'little' oasis right here in the Bluegrass.