About a decade ago, local boat salesman Gary Israel was working for Northeast Florida’s leading retail boat seller, helping the company post millions of dollars in sales.
Then the economy took a nosedive, and businesses that sold items for recreational purposes found there were few buyers.
Sales of recreational boats in the United States went from almost $12 billion in 2006 to less than $6 billion in 2010.
“[Boat Tree] had five stores in the state and they don’t even exist now,” said Israel, who works for Waylen Bay Marine off State Road 207 in St. Augustine.
Israel has stayed with the boating business, working for Waylen Bay the last two years as the industry has seen a huge rebound.
He said his store had great year in 2017 with about $25 million in sales. And with the local and national economic indicators pointing in a positive direction, there’s optimism for the new year as well.
Consumer confidence is high statewide, and unemployment is low almost everywhere in Florida. In the last release from the state, St. Johns County had the absolute lowest unemployment rate in the state — measured for November.
That has given Waylen Bay leadership enough confidence to keep more than 125 new boats on its lot.
What’s happening in St. Augustine is happening around the country. A release Wednesday from the National Marine Manufacturers Association said unit sales of new powerboats are expected to be up 6 percent in 2017, which means an estimated 260,000 new powerboats were sold last year.
“The close of 2017 marked our sixth consecutive year of growth in new boat sales and recreational boating expenditures, and we expect that trend to continue through 2018, and possibly beyond,” said Thom Dammrich, NMMA president, in the release.
Florida is the largest market for boat dealers, so any national increase will be felt in this state. Although final 2017 numbers are not yet available, stats show sales for new powerboats, engines, trailers and accessories in Florida in 2016 were $2.5 billion, up 5 percent from 2015.
Israel said local interest received a further boost last month when the latest tax bill was passed through Congress. Many people are expecting to have more available income with the change and are looking at boats.
And this is already a place where demand is high whenever times are good.
“We have a lot of people moving into our area, and one of the first things most of them do is go out and start looking for a boat because we have so much water in this area,” Israel said. “Fishing is a huge recreational (activity). (For) a lot of people here, it’s their passion.”
It isn’t just Waylen Bay seeing the results.
Don Douglas is a local yacht broker who also runs a boat storage facility off Holmes Boulevard and the marine shopping website BoatNation.com.
He said the activity on his site is matching the uptick nationally in boat sales. With more new boats purchased, it also leads to more resales. According to NMMA, there were an estimated 981,600 pre-owned boats (powerboats, personal watercraft and sailboats) sold in 2016, totaling $9.2 billion in sales.
“The industry overall is doing quite well,” Douglas said. “The economy is good. It’s robust. Everybody’s got money and everybody’s spending it.”
With the boat industry in full rebound, another local businessman, Mark Lacovara, started a boat dealership about a year ago. He runs Grand Slam Boat Sales in the St. Augustine Shipyard.
It’s one of several boating-related businesses in the development that opened about two years ago. In an indication of just how strong the industry is, the indoor boat storage facility at the Shipyard with room for 300 boats is already near capacity.
“It (the boating industry) is as good as it’s ever been,” Lacovara said. “(St. Augustine) is just a great place to boat and fish. It’s been a great business of us so far.
“We’ll be expanding the business this upcoming year. We’re very hopeful.”