MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
We have two reports now about the impact of the economic downturn on life in the U.S. First to Florida, where boating is a very popular pastime. There are more than a million boats registered there, one for every 18 people. But with high fuel prices and expensive payments, many owners are having a hard time using their boats or getting a good price for selling them.
NPR's Greg Allen reports.
GREG ALLEN: On any given day you'll find boaters at Black Point Marina, south of Miami on Biscayne Bay. But Marina officials say as fuel prices have risen, traffic here has gotten lighter.
At the boat ramp, Hank Banalewicz recently had his 17-foot outboard in the water and was about to go fishing with his two daughters. Fuel, he said, costs about twice as much as last summer.
HANK BANALEWICZ: Oh, it's totally ridiculous. Costs us, what, almost $250 for this boat this morning. Last year, when the gas prices were down, it'd probably be 100 or 120 bucks.
ALLEN: Yeah, what do you find when you're out there? A lot less - a lot fewer boats?
BANALEWICZ: Oh, no - hardly any boats. Not at all.
ALLEN: Banalewicz says he takes his boat out less frequently now, and when he does, he uses it differently. He cruises less and anchors more. That's the story here in Florida, also in Michigan, California and other places where boating is big. Von Skinner says the cost of fuel is also now becoming an issue with boat buyers. Skinner is a boat dealer who owns the Cozy Cove Marina near Fort Lauderdale.
VON SKINNER: Two years ago, no one even asked how much fuel it burns, just how fast does it go, how many engines can I put on there? Now, of course, now people are starting to think more fuel economy, you know? So the speed ain't as important.
ALLEN: Like most in the boat business, Skinner says his sales are off, down at least 50 percent from last year. Boats are luxury items - and expensive luxury items at that. The brand-new 34-foot Jupiter with twin 350-horsepower engines on display at Cozy Cove costs more than $250,000. Skinner says he's getting by on sales of used boats. And he says wealthy customers continue to buy Jupiters to fish from and to tow behind their mega-yachts.
SKINNER: Those guys are still buying boats - the big yacht guys. So - but, you know, the average everyday business owner or, you know, the guy that would own a boat, they're not buying boats right now. They're hurting.
ALLEN: Elsewhere in the boating industry, things are worse. The nation's largest boat retailer, Marine Max, reported sales down by nearly 30 percent in the first quarter. Boat manufacturer Brunswick has announced plans to close 12 plants.
Nationwide, fewer boats were sold in 2007 than any time in the last 40 years. The ripple effects from that slowdown extend far beyond boat dealers and manufacturers. Head south from Miami on U.S.-1 and you'll eventually arrive in the town that bills itself as the sport fishing capital of the world. Islamorada in the Florida Keys is home to at least 90 fishing charter boats.
Onboard the 43-foot Yabba Dabba Doo, Steve Leopold says it's the height of summer fishing season, when he should be out every day. But he says the slowdown has hit him and others in the charter fishing industry hard.
STEVE LEOPOLD: July, after July 4th, our business was probably down 30 to 40 percent.
ALLEN: Part of the problem is fuel. Leopold says the high cost of diesel forced him to raise his price by a couple of hundred dollars. But mostly, he believes, the economy is whittling away customers. People are spending less and fewer are willing now to put out the $1,400 that it costs for a full day of deep-sea fishing.
LEOPOLD: I think some of the boats - they won't make it through this fall season. They have reserves that they can back up on, which a lot of these owner-operators do not. There already are some boats that are planning on going out of business.
ALLEN: While most of the boating industry is hurting, there is at least one business that's not only doing well, but thriving. Bob Toney is the CEO of National Liquidators, the nation's largest marine repossession company. He's a boat repo man. At his company's docks in Fort Lauderdale, boats are everywhere.
BOB TONEY: You've got six docks that are probably 400 feet long. And most of them, we have them double-stacked and triple-stacked deep. You've got several hundred boats in the water just right here.
ALLEN: Toney's company has tripled in size over the last two years. As the economy has gone bad and people have run into credit problems, boats have become a luxury, he says, that many can no longer afford.
TONEY: We can pull up to a boat, say like this one right here, jump on line and get the lines off, untie the lines, we pull it away from the dock in usually 15 or 20 seconds.
ALLEN: Toney sells most of the boats his company repossesses at auction, and despite the slow economy, he says sales are brisk. One reason: the weak U.S. dollar. Nearly two-thirds of the boats he repossesses are sold and exported to buyers overseas.
Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.
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