Kentucky Houseboat Maker Struggles To Stay Afloat

A houseboat sits in the Majestic Yachts Inc. factory in Kentucky i i

A houseboat sits in the Majestic Yachts Inc. factory in Kentucky. The company's owner says there isn't one order for a new boat this year. David Greene/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Greene/NPR
A houseboat sits in the Majestic Yachts Inc. factory in Kentucky

A houseboat sits in the Majestic Yachts Inc. factory in Kentucky. The company's owner says there isn't one order for a new boat this year.

David Greene/NPR

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Jim Hadley and his two co-owners stand on a boat inside the Majestic Yachts Inc. factory i i

Jim Hadley (left) says he and his two co-owners, Mitchell Higginbotham and Bill Padgett, had to lay off all 27 employees at Majestic Yachts Inc. David Greene/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Greene/NPR
Jim Hadley and his two co-owners stand on a boat inside the Majestic Yachts Inc. factory

Jim Hadley (left) says he and his two co-owners, Mitchell Higginbotham and Bill Padgett, had to lay off all 27 employees at Majestic Yachts Inc.

David Greene/NPR
Dave Powell i i

Majestic is feeling the pinch from boaters like Dave Powell, who decided to put off plans to buy a new, bigger houseboat. David Greene/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Greene/NPR
Dave Powell

Majestic is feeling the pinch from boaters like Dave Powell, who decided to put off plans to buy a new, bigger houseboat.

David Greene/NPR
Faye Womack stands in front of a marina full of houseboats i i

Faye Womack, a Majestic employee who got laid off, says she's worried that people will stop spending money on houseboating altogether. David Greene/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption David Greene/NPR
Faye Womack stands in front of a marina full of houseboats

Faye Womack, a Majestic employee who got laid off, says she's worried that people will stop spending money on houseboating altogether.

David Greene/NPR

This time of year, it's peaceful at the marinas around southern Kentucky. Houseboats are tied up, looking like floating RVs, waiting for their owners to arrive along with spring weather.

But the houseboat industry is far from peaceful. Manufacturers are struggling, and the people who build houseboats are losing their jobs. There's been a rippling effect in the industry.

For Dave Powell, whom I met in Louisville, a weekend of houseboating in his home state is paradise.

"We're the Kentucky Caribbean, because our water's clear," he said. And the clear water lures him to a lake near the Tennessee border every weekend, eight months out of the year.

"You've got your 22 foot of front yard on the dock, and you can sit on the front porch and talk to your neighbors like they did in the 1930s and '40s."

Neighborhoods aren't the same these days, he said. "The neighborhood we live in is 3-acre plots and up, so you don't sit on your front porch and talk to your neighbors."

Powell's floating front porch was built a few years ago by Majestic Yachts Inc., a small company in southeast Kentucky, and he is ready to give Majestic more business. He wants to sell his boat and have a bigger one built.

"But the way the economy is at the present time, you can't hardly sell a rowboat. Nobody wants to let go of the money," Powell said.

Banks are much pickier about whom they'll lend to these days, he said. And they're insisting on hefty down payments. A year ago, boats were selling so fast, Powell would have taken the risk — buying a new one before his old one sold. But now, he has decided to wait.

He does look forward to the day when he can call Jim Hadley, the president and CEO of Majestic, and say it's a go.

"Jim knows that I'll come back to him to get a boat. I'll just tell him what size the hull is, start welding it up," Powell said.

Down south in Columbia, Ky., I spoke to Hadley in one of Majestic's two factory buildings. It was empty and freezing.

"We don't even heat it right now," Hadley said.

There's no need for heat because there are no employees. Last year, Majestic was busy building 12 houseboats. This year, it's feeling the impact from decisions made by boaters like Powell. Majestic hasn't gotten a single order for a new houseboat this year. The company just finished laying off its entire workforce — 27 people.

It was tough, Hadley said, because there were a lot of old friends. Now it's just him and his two co-owners, working on a couple of projects by themselves.

"We are kind of like an old rock band," Hadley said. "We've been together a long time, and hopefully we'll be together a lot longer. We love what we do. Manufacturing houseboats and river yachts is in our blood. It's always been in our blood."

One of Hadley's laid-off workers, Faye Womack, dropped by the empty factory and agreed to drive me around, down to a nearby marina.

She checks in with Majestic every couple of days to see if there has been a phone call from someone like Dave Powell up in Louisville. She has known the company's owners for years and says they're like family.

"I really hate that we're all laid off," she said. "It's bad because a lot of good people work there — a lot. It's sad. It's really sad. You hate to lose your job. You know there are people with families. ... And there's nowhere here to get a job."

But the 54-year-old has another worry. She's concerned that if people become too cash-strapped, they'll stop spending money on houseboating altogether.

"If there wasn't people down here, it would be sad. So I don't know, David. Time will tell, child, that's all I know," she said.

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