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Recreational boat dealers buoyed by rise in area sales

Business best since 2008 recession

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Better bank-interest rates, improved consumer confidence, and the release of pent-up demand are being credited with the increase in boat sales among local dealers.

THE BLADE
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In yet another sign that the economy is improving, Toledo-area boat dealers say sales this year are better than they've been since the 2008 recession.

"We're definitely seeing more sales this year -- pontoons, Jet Skis, runabouts -- both new and used," said Chris Rising, sales director at Devil's Lake Water Sports in Manitou Beach, Mich.

The sales activity aligns with a recent report by the National Marine Manufacturers Association showing that boat sales rose 6 percent to $32.3 billion in 2011, the first increase in recreational boating sales in the United States since 2006.

The report by the trade industry association, which is based in Chicago, also noted that boating participation had increased by 10 percent to 83 million people in 2011. That was the largest jump in boating participation since 1997, according to the marine manufacturers' association.

Mr. Rising said three factors are fueling stronger sales at Devil's Lake Water Sports -- better bank-interest rates, improved consumer confidence, and release of pent-up demand.

In a statement about the nationwide sales surge, Marine Manufacturers Association President Thom Dammrich agreed with Mr. Rising.

"Pent-up demand for boats following years of diminished willingness to spend by consumers, improved credit availability for buyers and boating businesses, a positive shift in consumer confidence, and an overall interest in the benefits of the boating lifestyle are steering the industry toward recovery," Mr. Dammrich said.

Mr. Rising said that local banks have gotten extremely aggressive about lowering interest rates for buyers, offering rates for consumer loans in the 4 to 5 percent range.

"On some loans, customers have been able to save $500 a month on interest compared to years past," Mr. Rising said.

Buyer confidence also seems to have returned, he added, with many customers expressing satisfaction at the current direction of the economy and acknowledging greater feelings of security with regard to their jobs.

Lastly, "the pent-up demand out there has finally just broken and people have said, 'Whatever. We want to do it and we're going to do it,' " Mr. Rising said. "Boater enthusiasm had been stifled previously."

At the current sales pace, Mr. Rising said that Devil's Lake Water Sports could have its best sales year in a decade.

Similar sales activity is occurring at Bass Pro Shops' Tracker Marine boat sales in Rossford.

General Manager Scott Czerwony said Tracker Marine is "having the best year we've had since we opened" in 2008.

Tracker Marine does an annual boat show in February, and this year's show was the best since 2008. "We sold more boats there than we ever have. The consumers are a little bit more comfortable, it seems, opening their wallets and making bigger purchases," Mr. Czerwony said.

"Also, the banks are lending again. They're been giving us really good interest rates."

The marine manufacturers' group said sales of smaller aluminum power boats, primarily fishing and pontoon boats, are leading the sales surge this spring. Sales of the smaller craft were up 11 percent in 2011.

Mr. Czerwony said he believes the demand for the smaller boats is related to fuel prices, which are still high.

"I think the reason you see a big jump in the smaller boats that we sell is that, even though the economy is starting to flatten out, there's still that concern about fuel prices. The 20-foot to 30-foot fishing boats that guzzle gas like crazy are still going to cost you a lot in fuel," Mr. Czerwony said. "But the smaller boats still have the same range, but you're only going to burn half as much fuel."

Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.

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