A rising tide may lift all vessels, but an improving economy is a much more welcome event for long-struggling area boat dealers.
After years of seeing competitors along the Lake Erie shoreline and further inland disappear amid the biggest economic downturn in a lifetime, the surviving retailers of new watercraft say they are finally seeing buyers in their showrooms.
"The economy's terrible, but people do like to boat, and it's still a great sport," said Don Smith, president of Brenner 75, which is at Harrison's Marina on North Summit Street. "The bigger boat market is still very slow, but the smaller boats -- 28 foot and under -- there tends to be some increased activity."
The market forces that squeezed the overall economy took a tremendous toll on the recreational boating industry in recent years. In 2008, gasoline prices took a toll on an already soft market and dried boaters' disposable income power.
Later that year, the financial crisis made it all but impossible to finance new-boat purchases, and rampant unemployment scared away many potential customers.
Ellen Hopkins, a spokesman for the Chicago-based National Marine Manufacturers Association, said sales of new power boats dropped 24 percent in 2009 and 14 percent in 2010. But boat-show sales this winter were strong, she said, leading her organization to predict an uptick for the first time in several years.
Scott Czerwony, general manager at Bass Pro Shops' Tracker Marine boat sales in Rossford, said the store moved its annual boat show back a month, from February to March, to take advantage of an industry trend in which vessels are being purchased closer to boating season than before.
"It's tough for us to compare apples to apples, because we had a major transition change, but we've been busier for the last month than we were for the same month a year ago," he said. The store wrote up 39 boat deals during this year's boat show, compared to 28 a year ago, and about half of those deals were from first-time buyers, he said. He cited increased credit availability as a key factor in the increase.
"I think the biggest thing in regards to the economy is in the banks. Interest rates on boats have come down significantly in the last two years. The banks themselves are definitely helping," Mr. Czerwony said.
The credit crunch that squeezed boat sales also put some dealers out of business when they couldn't find financing for their inventory. In February, the Small Business Administration stepped in for the second time in three years to offer financing packages to boat, recreational vehicle, and automobile dealers who couldn't find private-market financing for their inventories. The program was included in the Small Business Jobs and Credit Act of 2010, signed into law last fall.
Chris Rising, sales director of Devil's Lake Water Sports in Manitou Beach, Mich., said his store, which deals primarily in pontoon boats and smaller vessels intended for inland lakes, had a strong start to April.
"We were swamped on Saturday. I put out three new pontoons on Saturday, and that all happened within a four-hour time frame," Mr. Rising said.
"We're definitely seeing a trend with buyers purchasing what's in stock, and doing it closer to the start of the season."
Contact Larry P. Vellequette at email@example.com or 419-724-6091.