Boat show opens amid industry woes


February 01, 1992|By John H. Gormley Jr.

Side by side on the floor of the Convention Center, two extraordinary boats are on display as part of the Chesapeake Bay Boat Show.

One looks like a Winnebago riding a barge. This blockish affair has a wraparound porch and a roof deck. The interior of the rectangular cabin has the feel of a suburban eat-in kitchen and family room -- blue plush carpets, bookcase, wood paneling, sofa, formica countertop, stainless steel double sink. This baby is built for comfort, not for speed.

Just a few feet away sits a long, sleek jet-black power boat with four brightly chromed exhaust pipes extending out the rear. The word "Heartbeat" is painted in bright red script on the side. The message here is speed and power: a projectile rather than a boat.

The hopes of the recreational boating industry in Maryland are riding on these and the hundreds of other boats on display at the show, which opens today and runs through next weekend.

For the last couple of years, sales of new boats have moved slower than a houseboat.

"Believe me, there is blood everywhere," said Greg Proteau, a spokesman for the National Marine Manufacturers Association, the sponsor of the Baltimore show.

In 1988, the industry sold 750,000 boats nationally. Last year, the figure was down to about 440,000 boats, a decline of more than 40 percent. In Maryland, sales of boats, engines and accessories amounted to about $213 million in 1990.

But many of the 183 exhibitors at the show are optimistic that sales might finally be on the upswing, though they don't expect a return to the "speed boat" days of the 1980s.

Dave Harrison, owner of Harrison Yacht Sales at Kent Narrows on the Eastern Shore, is so confident of success that he has bet his employees a dinner that they will sell all nine boats they brought to the show. These are not rowboats either. They have a combined value of about $1.2 million.

Mr. Harrison is optimistic because he has seen evidence that people are getting over their reluctance to shell out $100,000 or more for a yacht.

When a luxury tax on big boats took effect last year, the bottom dropped out of the market. "The recession dimmed the lights. When the luxury tax hit, the lights went out," he said.

Last January, he did not sell a single boat. This year, sales have returned to more reasonable levels. "I've got just about $1 million on the

books," he said.

Another important factor is in his favor. The hard years weeded out many of his competitors.

Then, too, there's the prospect that Congress will follow President Bush's urgings and end the luxury tax on big boats this year.

Lower taxes, pent up demand, the end of the recession, fewer dealers: to Mr. Harrison that all bodes well.

"The graph's going to go up," he said. "It's going to go way up."

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