Economy blamed as state's boat fleet drifts from top
Written by Grand Rapids Press   
Monday, 30 January 2006 12:20

Swamped by job cuts and an exodus to warmer climates, Michigan no longer is the top state for registered boats. Florida has taken that spot, leaping over California and Michigan, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.

It is a blow to the pride Michigan's boating industry, which pumps $3.7 billion into the state's economy each year.

And the underlying numbers paint a bleak picture of Michigan's economy: Fewer people are boating in the state. Boat registrations in Michigan have fallen 6 percent since 2001, from about 1 million boats to 944,800.

"We should be very, very concerned," said Ed Mahoney, a Michigan State University professor who tracks tourism and boating issues.

Mahoney said 230,000 jobs in the Great Lakes states are directly and indirectly related to the boating industry.

"Anybody that doesn't see that as substantial has something wrong with them," Mahoney said. "This stuff has an incredible impact on the economy."

Those that keep close tabs on boating blame the drop on Michigan's economy. The thousands of workers who lost high-paying manufacturing jobs are the hard-core boaters who head out on the water each weekend, said Van Snider, president of the Michigan Boating Industry Association.

"A lot of folks are losing jobs," he said. "We would be foolish not to think the job losses wouldn't affect us. It definitely has an impact on us."

Despite the drop in boating in Michigan, the Midwest leads the way in boat registrations, according to the NMMA. The Great Lakes states of Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin account for 27.4 percent of all boat registrations.

The number of registrations also matters because the federal government uses the statistics to allocate Aquatic Resource Trust Fund dollars. Fewer boats mean fewer federal dollars coming to Michigan.

Still, the gap between Michigan and Florida is tiny. Just 1,272 boats separate the two. And Michigan holds a large lead over third-place California, with nearly 50,000 more boats registered.

Considering Michigan's boating season is a third as long as it is in Florida or California, the state is staying competitive.

Gordon Connell, director of association services for the Marine Industries Association of South Florida, said it is easy to see why boat registrations in Florida are on the rise. The state's population continues to grow, and the forecast for the next few days calls for partly sunny skies and high temperatures in the mid-70s at the group's Fort Lauderdale office.

"Everyone is beginning to figure out that year 'round boating is where it's at," he said. "The weather in Florida is prime for that.

The shift to the South is reflected in boat sales as well. Florida is a strong market for Holland-based Tiara Yachts, said Dave Walsh, director of marketing.

The company posted record sales last year and is on pace to hit similar numbers this year, Walsh said.

Michigan is giving up its registration title grudgingly.

Secretary of State Terri Lynn Land said Michigan doesn't begin its watercraft renewal cycle until March, "so those numbers are bound to change." She said the number of registered boats also fluctuates from year to year because Michigan's registrations cover a three-year period.

Snider also said boat registration rules differ from state to state, and not all Michigan boats are counted. Small boats, canoes and some types of sailboats don't have to be registered in Michigan.

Between the small boats and those unregistered, Mahoney said as many as 350,000 boats in the state go uncounted.

And given the state of the economy, Mahoney said he is surprised Michigan is as close to Florida as it is.

"It's an interesting statement of Michigan's commitment to boating that we haven't dropped further with the economy we have," he said. "You have to compare Michigan's economy with a Florida economy that is doing very, very well. I would have thought we would have lost more boaters than we did."

Land said Michigan remains a "boater's paradise."

"We will always be No. 1 in the hearts of Michigan boaters," she said.

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