MANATEE -- Marine manufacturers across Southwest Florida are back to the business of building boats, with hopes a resurgence in buyer demand will leave the recession in their wake.
Sales of recreational boats, accessories and marine services are on the rise for the first time since a struggling economy took grip of the $72 billion industry.
Wary consumers put off their potential boat purchases during the past four years, fearing financial uncertainty. But as more economic indicators begin to improve, buyers are regaining the confidence to pull the trigger on big-ticket items.
Boat manufacturers now are working to keep pace.
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"It's been exponential growth each month," said Todd Albrecht, vice president of sales for Jupiter Marine in Palmetto. "People are getting numb to the negative news and getting back their lifestyles. Our customers grew up boating, they want to continue boating, and they're coming back faster now."
Vanishing demand from the Great Recession hit Manatee's maritime industry hard, with boat manufacturers and their ancillary businesses sailing off to areas like North Carolina, which levied fewer taxes.
The trend was never more evident locally than in 2008, when Wellcraft and Hydro-Sports closed their Manatee County plants and in 2010 when Donzi Marine left.
But those that survived the choppy water say the sector is mounting a comeback.
U.S. retail boat sales jumped 6 percent last year to $32.3 billion, with aluminum power boats reporting the steepest upswing, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
It was the first annual increase since 2006.
Florida led the way with $1.47 billion in recreational boat sales, a 35 percent climb over 2010 and the most marine sales of any state, records show.
"Boat sales traditionally follow consumer confidence very closely, so when we see sustained consumer confidence in the long run, we also see increases in boat sales," NMMA spokeswoman Ellen Hopkins said. "Boating is not just a product, it's a lifestyle, and people don't want to wait anymore."
Historically low interest rates and loosening credit conditions have helped buyers needing to finance.
But because a purchase of that magnitude can impact the entire family, buyers are still vetting the idea extensively before jumping the gun. They are shopping around for the best deals.
The trend has not solely encompassed the upper-class. In fact, more than 80 percent of boat owners in the U.S. had an annual household income last year of less than $100,000, records show.
"Everybody adjusted their budgets and figured out what they could afford and what was necessary," said Mike Brimer, general manager of Ingman Marine, a dealership near the airport in South Manatee. "People gave up the golf memberships or maybe that one week vacation ever year in the Bahamas for a boat. We live in the most beautiful place in the world. Why wouldn't you want a boat here?"
The surge in sales also has manufactured a new demand among boat builders.
The sector endured many of the same struggles as the area's housing market during the recession. As demand fell, so did prices.
Consumers who were still in the market turned to pre-owned boats because deeply-discounted bank repos were easy to find, and like the construction industry, the trend hurt the boat builders that count on new sales.
Now marine manufacturers are seeing their revenues accelerate again. An estimated 83 percent of the boats sold in the U.S. in 2011 also were built in the U.S., according to the marine association.
Hann Powerboats in Bradenton has landed some foreign contracts that are projected to double company sales this year over 2011, which were 30 percent higher than 2010.
The manufacturer specializes in large military-style boats engineered to go extremely fast while keeping fuel efficient. Most of its boats are sold to the government, including the U.S. Air Force, Navy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, municipal authorities and some private corporations.
"We're seeing more inquires from all segments of the marketplace," Hann Vice President Kevin McLaughlin said. "People are begging to investigate more for relatively near-term purchases."
Even the luxury market has come on strong.
Chris-Craft, headquartered on 15th Street East in South Manatee, has seen growth for three consecutive years. About 50 percent of the company's sales stem from overseas buyers.
With a focus on the high-end market, Chris-Craft unveiled two new models -- the Corsair 36 and Launch 32 -- during a special presentation at the Miami Boat Show in February. Both have been well received.
"We sort of damned the economy and built two new boats that were the largest of their series this year, and it looks like a good decision," Chris-Craft Marketing Director Kirsten Pedersen said. "The luxury market hasn't been hit as hard as others, but spending did change. We overcame that and it's the reason we're still in business and doing well today."
Josh Salman, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @JoshSalman