Fourteen years ago, Mick Blackistone and other boating enthusiasts set out to stop an avalanche of new regulations and taxes they feared would bury marine businesses.
Rounding up support from boat dealers, sailmakers and marina operators, they revived the dormant Marine Trades Association of Maryland. Since then, the Annapolis-based group has increased its budget from $2,000 to about $150,000, peaked at 500members in the mid-1980s, pushed through 13 new laws to protect the industry and worked to stop others deemed harmful to boating business.
Today, as marine businesses struggle to stay afloat in a recession, and many have closed or laid off workers, association leaders see support for the group waning.
"The industry is suffering through difficult times and people are focused on their own problems," Blackistone said. "There's not a great deal of support for Marine Trades Association."
A weakened association could leave the industry even more vulnerable to new restrictions and taxes that could force more people out of business, said John Burgreen, chairman of the executive committee and owner of Annapolis Yacht Sales. In the past year, 50 of the state's marine businesses either have declared bankruptcy or shut down, he said.
To the dismay of marine trades officials, the grouphas lost a couple hundred members in the past few years, bringing its roster down to 300. It has lost income that boat shows in Annapolisand Baltimore had generated, as well.
Now Blackistone, executive director and a driving force behind the group's lobbying efforts, hasbecome the latest casualty.
Marine trades no longer can afford topay Blackistone as executive director and full-time lobbyist. For the next three months, he'll work as a consultant on an hourly basis. Then, the association will reconsider whether it can bring him back full time. Burgreen said the group wants to hire Blackistone as a lobbyist for next year's legislative session.
Meanwhile, the group is trying to boost its membership and raise more money, Burgreen said.
The loss of Blackistone is especially hard on the association at a time when members feel unfairly singled out for new restrictions and taxes, Burgreen said. Industry officials worry that legislators will resubmit proposals that failed during the last session, including a 10percent slip rentals tax, gasoline and diesel taxes and a 2 percent personal property tax on boats.
Blackistone recently enlisted other states' marine trades associations and boat manufacturers and dealers to help overturn a 10 percent federal luxury tax on new boats costing more than $100,000. He formed a non-affiliated political action committee, which has raised $10,000.
Adding the luxury tax during arecession was like "handing a cinder block to a drowning man," Burgreen said. "Our customers choose boating as recreation. Many use it asa second home. We've been selected to be penalized. We're afraid thestate will do the same thing."
Members of the industry say the new federal tax has hurt sales
of new, large boats, already suffering in the downturn. Many dealers have seen their boat sales cut in half -- or worse. They blame the tax for a loss of marine jobs as well. Burgreen estimated the state has lost millions of dollars that the 5 percent sales tax on new boats would have generated.
In the past, Marine Trades has initiated new laws that require mandatory educationfor boaters, created a fund for low-interest loans to replace underground storage tanks, required boat sales taxes to go into the waterways improvement fund instead of the general fund, made it easier for the state to remove abandoned boats from navigable waterways and to made it easier for out-of-state boat exhibitors to come to Maryland boat shows.
Blackistone has begun to look for new clients for his public relations firm, M.S. Blackistone & Associates. Marine Trades has accounted for 80 percent of the firm's business.
So far, he has been hired by Chesapeake Appreciation Days to handle publicity. The author of several books, he also plans to write two more children's books, a book on Smith Island and one on Indian tribes native to the state.