Corridor boat dealers see a rebound in the economy

Despite positive outlook, some boat businesses still struggling

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March 29, 2014 | 4:47 am

The tide may have turned for the boating industry, at least for some.

In a June report, the National Marine Manufacturers Association reported that new powerboat sales increased 10 percent nationwide in 2012, with another 5 percent increase expected in 2013. This is good news for an industry that did not see any gains in new boat sales between 2006 and 2010, and only minimal growth in 2011.

Rick Karr of R&L Marine in Cedar Rapids said that after its worst year ever in 2009, his 35-year-old business has seen increases in sales of three to seven percent each year since, with 2013 on track to be even better.

“We are very upbeat about what our economy is doing right now,” Karr said. “We’ve had four years now of growth. It’s turning in our favor.”

Weeded out

Ben Patience of Coralville Lake Marina noted that before the recession, the market was saturated with boat builders and dealerships, but many did not survive the downturn. The industry as a whole had needed to be “weeded out,” he said, and is now stronger as a result.

“Things are definitely rebounding for us,” Patience said of the Iowa City dealership where he has worked for 16 years.

“I don’t think we’ll ever see the sales numbers we were seeing pre-recession, or if we do it will not be for a long time. But we’re still selling lots of boats, and it’s still a sustainable business.”

Other parts of Eastern Iowa may be recovering more slowly. Linda Benskin of J&L Marine in Guttenberg said the business she and her husband have owned since 1982 is still struggling.

“2011 was not a good year for us, and so far this year has been worse,” Benskin said. “I don’t think the economy is coming back as much as the media seems to think so.”

One issue may be wetter-than-normal spring weather.

“Weather drives business a lot more than the economy,” Karr said, noting his business is less affected by weather than some others because he deals predominantly in fishing boats. While pleasure boat owners tend to be fair weather boaters, he said, “Fishing boat guys go fishing regardless.”

“With the nice weather we’ve been having now, we’re seeing people excited about boating and ready to have fun on the water,” Coralville Lake Marina’s Patience said.

Pontoons for baby boomers

When people take to the waterways, most are in smaller fiberglass and aluminum boats, including pontoons, less than 27 feet in length. According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, boats in this category account for 96 percent of all registered boats in the United States.

Of all new powerboats sold in 2012, small outboard boats were about 82 percent of the market.

These findings are consistent with what local boat dealers have seen. R&L Marine’s top sellers are 18- and 19-foot fishing boats, while J&L Marine sells more 16- and 17-footers. Benskin said pontoon boats also are popular.

“They have been coming on real strong in the market for several years,” she said.

Both Benskin and Patience attributed the growing popularity of pontoons in part to baby boomers who want to relax on the water with their children and grandchildren. But Patience noted that the slow-moving “party barges” of old have been transformed in recent years to more versatile boats that can pull tubers or skiers and now appeal to a broader demographic.

“Their luxury has increased, and they have more colors, styling and power than ever before,” he said. “We now have 20-somethings looking at pontoon boats.”

Benskin said maximum horsepower is a priority for her customers, both for resale value and for versatility. Even with the smaller boats, customers want to have enough power to pull their children on a tube.

Fuel efficiency is top of mind for Patience’s customers.

“Nearly every customer asks, ‘How big is the tank and how long will it last?’” he said, noting that boat engines have become increasingly efficient over the years.

In more good news for the industry, the national association reported 37.8 percent of American adults participated in recreational boating in 2012, up six percent from 2011 and the largest number since the organization began tracking the data in 1990.

The industry has launched a “Discover Boating” campaign to attract even more participants.

Patience is optimistic about the industry’s future.

“Regardless of the weather, gas prices and the economy, people will always enjoy boating,” he said. “For families with kids who all have their own activities, boating is one thing they can do together as a family.”

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