Sailboat show offers opportunity to sell the maritime industry

Annapolis event salutes its economic anchor

October 11, 2002|By Amanda J. Crawford | Amanda J. Crawford,SUN STAFF

Amid the sailors decked out in foul-weather gear, the hundreds of gleaming sloops and catamarans and row after row of maritime accessories at this weekend's U.S. Sailboat Show, Bob Maersch is peddling a simple service.

For $100, he can take a faded, scraped-up winch and turn it into a gleaming piece of nautical hardware. He'll do the same for your turnbuckles, your chocks, your cleats and any other sailboat equipment or metallic keepsake.

A former electrical engineer, Maersch and his wife, Rita, both 61, bought Annapolis Plating and Polishing on Hudson Street in Annapolis four years ago, becoming part of the diverse and thriving maritime industry in the state capital. It's an industry that has evolved over more than 300 years, but has remained an economic backbone, employing more than any other private industry in Annapolis.

This weekend and next, the city's maritime identity will be in the spotlight as an estimated 100,000 visitors attend the U.S. Sailboat Show, which opens for regular admission today at City Dock, and the U.S. Powerboat Show, which opens next week.

The sailboat show features about 250 boats along floating docks in Annapolis Harbor - the largest, a 78-foot Palmer Johnson sloop that sells for about $6.5 million. The powerboat show will be bigger, with about 400 boats in the water. The most expensive will be a Viking model that goes for $2.5 million.

Each show includes more than 600 exhibitors, about one-fourth from Maryland and many of those from Annapolis. Participants say the international attention given to the event is good for the whole industry, which has its roots in the 17th century.

17th-century roots

"It goes back to the first colonists here," said Rick Franke, boat show spokesman and Annapolis Sailing School manager, about Annapolis' maritime industry. "We don't have `dot-com' after our name, but we're still here, and we have been here a long time."

Over the years, shipping, boat building and seafood catching and processing have dominated the industry.

But today, it's mostly centered on recreational boating, with marinas, boatyards and supplies and services for the pleasure boaters that flock to the "Sailing Capital of America."

Statewide, the recreational boating industry had an economic impact of about $1.6 million in 2000 and provided about 20,000 jobs, said Susan Zellers, executive director of the Marine Trades Association of Maryland. And Annapolis has the highest concentration of maritime businesses in the state.

According to a survey recently commissioned by the city, there are 275 maritime businesses in Annapolis: marinas and boatyards, riggers and sail makers, electronics suppliers, fiberglass repairers, yacht carpenters, outfitters, mechanics and marine insurers.

Most of them are small businesses with an average of 6.5 employees, but their importance to the city should not be underestimated, said Mike Miron, economic development officer for the city. "Just those little businesses have a $160 million impact on the city," he said.

The maritime survey, released last week, also shows a stable industry, with most companies in business for more than 15 years. That's when the city took steps to protect maritime businesses from the rising cost of waterfront property caused by competition from condominiums and office buildings by rezoning the Back Creek and much of the Spa Creek waterfront for maritime uses.

"There are more maritime businesses than most people realize," said Larry Belkov, 47, who opened Belkov Yacht Carpentry along Spa Creek in 1980. Belkov found his calling when he built a cabinet for his cousin's powerboat after dropping out of business school and community college.

By age 25, he had his own business specializing in building furniture-quality yacht interiors. In the 20 years since, he has also custom-built eight powerboats that sell for up to $1 million each.

`Shopping-center effect'

Belkov said there is an advantage to being in Annapolis, in close proximity to similar businesses.

"With all the maritime businesses, there is a shopping-center effect," he said. "People come from all over to buy or sell or have work done on their boats."

Jim Scott, 55, owner of Scott Sailmakers, agrees. Scott's company makes and maintains sails in a small building next to several other maritime businesses along Edgewood Road. He has five employees in Annapolis and four years ago opened a sales office in Urbana, Va.

Annapolis is "one of the premier places to have your marine business on the East Coast," Scott said.

The boat show has been a draw to some of the businesses. That's why Sue and Tony Smith came to Anne Arundel County when they decided to relocate their boat manufacturing business from England to the United States in 1980.

For many years, the owners of the company now known as Performance Cruising had crossed the Atlantic for the 33-year-old show, to publicize their Telstar trimarans. But as the European economy struggled, they decided to relocate here. They are the only production boat builder in Anne Arundel County.

Like others in the business, Sue Smith said, she sometimes feels like the maritime industry is taken for granted. But this, she says, is what Annapolis is all about.

"It is not just that we bring in the physical dollars, and we do," Smith said. "It's that this - the water, the boats and the general ambiance - is what brings people to this area."

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