Difficult times in the shipbuilding industry could mean trouble for Bass River Township and its largest taxpayer, Viking Yachts, but the company has survived the recession by moving toward high-end construction.
The company’s yachts range in price from about $1 million to $7 million. Viking’s ability to adapt to the changing demands of boat owners and economic times has allowed it once again to survive changes in the shipbuilding industry, according to the company’s representatives.
“(Viking) is the largest taxpayer and the only major industry in a township where most of the land is pine barrens that are not developed,” said township historian Pete Stemmer. “If we lost the ratable, everyone else, all the residents, would have to make up the difference. It’s significant.”
According to the Burlington County Board of Taxation, Viking’s parcels are assessed at a combined $15 million with an annual tax bill of $227,000, nearly one-seventh of Bass River Township’s total budget appropriations, which totaled $1.6 million in 2011.
The company employs about 800 people, a spokesman said. That’s up 100 employees from the estimated 700 working there in 2011, according to Dun & Bradstreet, but down overall from 2010, when it employed 1,400.
Bass River Township’s financial fortunes are inextricably tied to its largest business, a fact that hasn’t drastically changed in four centuries. While Viking’s holdings may seem impressive today, the company is one of the few remaining from an industry that dominated the landscape of South Jersey for several centuries.
“At one time, New Jersey had so many marine-related companies, and more boats over 30 feet were built here than anywhere else,” said Peter Frederiksen, a Viking spokesman. “A lot of those companies have disappeared.”
Now, the Bass River Township company and other shipbuilders, such as Cape May County’s Yank Marine, focus on niche markets compared to the global shipping industry that flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries. Viking itself is situated on the site of an old shipyard.
Manufacturing, the sector of the economy that includes boat building, lost 73,200 jobs between 2005 and 2010 statewide, according to state Department of Labor reports. The Atlantic City metro area lost about 2,100 jobs, a decline of nearly 50 percent. Job losses have leveled off in the past two years, with employment currently at about 2,500 in the Atlantic City area.
The shipbuilding industry as a whole has experienced a downward trend since 1980, data show. Nationwide, employment in the industry has decreased from a nonwartime peak of about 212,000 to 121,000 last year.
A vast industry
Today’s builders focus on yachts, pleasure cruisers and restoration work, but shipping magnates of the 18th and 19th centuries produced all manner of sailing vessels, from 500-ton schooners that sailed around the globe to tiny hay scows that trawled the salt marshes.
“We don’t think about it today, but this area has a very deep history of shipbuilding,” said Atlantic County Historian June Sheridan. “The roads weren’t reliable, so most goods had to be transported by water.”
That practical reality meant big business along the region’s waterways. According to one account, Sheridan said, 468 schooners were built along the Great Egg Harbor River alone between 1790 and 1889, although the actual figure may be much higher. The now-lost industry was concentrated along the Egg Harbor, Maurice and Mullica rivers — where a handful of shipyards remain.
“The whole economy changed with the transition from shipbuilding to railroads” around 1890, said Sheridan, whose Egg Harbor Township home is itself built on the site of an old shipyard. “Almost everyone was tied to it in one way or another.”
Viking Yachts, now Burlington County’s fourth-largest employer, began in 1964 next to the Bass River Marina. The marina was once home to a shipbuilding enterprise of John Mathis, a wealthy 18th century land owner who made most of his fortune from agriculture.
Lumbermen harvested tall trees from the pinelands to build the ship hulls. Bark was tapped for pine pitch, a gum-like substance used as wood sealant and water repellent. Furnaces forged iron bars and fittings — the Weymouth furnace, for example, produced 900 tons annually — for the ships. Rooming houses and taverns served a transient population of craftsmen and sailors. A navigation school even opened in Bakersville — now Northfield — in 1870 to teach young men the skills they would need for jobs in the international shipping trade.
Shipbuilding began its decline as rail, and later truck, transportation took over the freight industry. Its first era was also dampened by the consolidation of construction to larger ports in places such as Baltimore and Camden, and by the depletion of quality lumber.
Stemmer said the proliferation of builders along the Mullica River caused the local forests to be overharvested in the mid-1800s.
“After 100 years of shipbuilding, the supply of suitable wood just didn’t exist anymore,” he said.
There were still vast swaths of uninhabited forest land, but Stemmer said the builders had already taken the choicest trees by that time.
Sheridan said some of the enterprises survived for longer by importing wood from other areas. With the tallest trees long decimated, she said, at least one builder looked as far away as the Carolinas for lumber to use for masts.
“After a while, they couldn’t find any straight trees, so they would go down there and tow them up here,” she said.
Second coming, second decline
While South Jersey’s shipbuilding industry was resurrected in the 1940s and ’50s, Stemmer said, the two industries were completely different.
The new industry tended to focus on America’s growing middle class and catering to an increase in leisure time. Technology also mirrored the changing tastes of those customers, evolving from smaller wooden skiffs to fiberglass behemoths with Jacuzzis and flat-screen TVs.
Frederiksen said boating is a “moving target,” one that requires boat builders to constantly retool and introduce new products. It’s also an industry built on repeat customers, which can be susceptible to the economy.
The company will have completed 53 or 54 boats by the close of this fiscal year, he said, compared with a peak of 108 a decade ago.
“People who have that lifestyle have the money to buy,” he said. “When we come out with a new model, the first batch usually goes to Viking owners moving up or down in size.”
The company has also begun offering other types of services, Frederiksen said. In 2002, it opened the Viking Yachting Center next door with a maintenance center, marina and pool. The company also operates similar facilities in Florida for customers who travel south during the winter.
Viking isn’t the only the local shipbuilder to change its focus.
Jillian Yank, of the Tuckahoe-based Yank Marine, said the shuttering of other shipyards has conversely been good for business. But while Yank, which opened in 1969, has kept busy repairing the boats of now-defunct builders, she said it hasn’t built any of its own for several years.
“This past year was one of our busiest years,” said Yank, 30, who returned to the family business full-time a year ago as project manager. “But we haven’t been involved in any new construction.”
She said the future of the business seems to be in clean diesel conversions and, possibly, wind turbines.
“It’s an exciting new prospect for a lot of people in the shipbuilding industry,” she said. “If wind farms start going up offshore in Atlantic City, we’re in a prime location.”
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