In Economic Doldrums, Boat Makers Try To Stay Afloat

Industry Needs More Than Tire-kickers

October 09, 1991|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff writer

The rooms are gone and parking space in downtown Annapolis is going fast. The yellow-and-white striped tents are up for the U.S. SailboatShow, and the khaki-clad multitudes won't be far behind.

At firstglance, you'd never know that the boating industry is suffering its worst decline in decades.

"I've just been told that everything is filled up" in and near downtown Annapolis, said Herman Schieke, executive director of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Conference and Visitors Bureau. "They're sending people to hotels around the airport."

For seven days over the next two weeks, visitors are expected to converge on Annapolis by the tens of thousands for the sailboat show Friday through Monday and the U.S. Powerboat Show Oct. 18 through 20.

Because the show takes up space usually used for parking, downtown parking space will be even scarcer than usual. Shuttle buses will run from a number of parking lots during the show. The Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium lot is being set aside for boat show parking every day but this Saturday, when Navy plays Air Force. On Saturday, parking areas at Georgetown East Elementary School, Bates Junior High School and others will besubstituted for the Navy stadium. Boat show spokesman Jeffrey Holland said visitors can follow signs from Route 50 to boat show parking, where they can then take shuttle buses to the show.

In the past, Holland said the two shows have drawn 80,000 to 90,000 people a year. A 1988 study found the shows pumped $14 million into the county economy each year.

Visitors to the sailboat show will peruse boats and equipment offered by 350 companies. Holland said about 330 exhibitorsare expected at the powerboat show.

The number of companies represented at the show is about the same as last year, but down from 1986, the best year for both the 22-year-old sailboat show and the 20-year-old powerboat show. That year, 500 exhibitors at each show crowded City Dock with booths and Annapolis Harbor with boats.

The number of exhibitors, if not the number of visitors, serves "as a barometer of the general health of the industry," Holland said.

And the health of the industry is poor, about as bad or worse than anyone can remember. The double-whammy of recession and the 10-percent federal tax on boats over $100,000 -- which went into effect Jan. 1 -- has sent the industry into its worst dive in 45 years, said Mick Blackistone ofAnnapolis, former executive director of the Anne Arundel and Maryland Marine Trades Association.

Blackistone would know. Because of the slump, the money to pay his salary as executive director ran out inJune and he left the position in July.

He said at least 50 Maryland boat dealerships closed in 1990, putting about 1,000 people out ofwork. He estimated that another 4,000 jobs may have been lost at retail stores, suppliers and boat-building yards. Between 1990 and 1991,seven major Maryland boat dealers reported sales of boats over $100,000 dropped from $15.3 million to $3 million, he said.

How is it, then, that the hotels seem to be booked solid ?

"Boat show attendance is not a reflection of how the industry is doing," said Blackistone. "What is important to the industry is the number of contracts that are consummated at the show. . . . We could have 10,000 tire-kickers, but if we don't make one sale, the industry has to sweat bullets."

John N. Garfield, a sailboat-builder from Dartmouth, Mass., said business has been so bad at Marshall Marine that he considered breaking a 12-year tradition by skipping the show. He finally decided to make the nine-hour drive not despite the slump but because of it. With such major sailboat builders as Pearson, Morgan and O'Day having goneunder in the last year, he said he wants to let the world know that Marshall Marine is still afloat.

"I think it's really important because the sailboat industry has taken such a horrific hit," Garfield said. He added, however, that he and his wife are saving money on accommodations this year by staying with friends.

At his usual boat show quarters, The Maryland Inn, they were hanging out the no-vacancy sign.

"We are basically sold out, have been for quite a while, " said Elaine Noll, reservations agent for Historic Inns of Annapolis, which books The Maryland Inn and four other places that together comprise 137 rooms.

Downtown restaurateurs said they were adding help and/or ask ing their staffs to work overtime shifts during the shows.

"I would guess everybody does about double their normal" business,said John Wills, manager of Armadillo's on City Dock. To speed service, Armadillo's and several other restaurants plan to drop from theirmenus the items that take the most time to prepare.

Bill Kuethe, manager of Mum's Grill on City Dock, said boat show menu prices are about 5 percent higher than usual. He said the restaurant increases prices to offset the cost of additional help. Betty Santin, assistant manager of Fran O'Brien's on Main Street, said she believes the price of "one or two items" may have been raised a dollar or so.

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