Marinas and boat sellers across South Jersey are bracing for a season unlike any other, as the rebounding industry realizes the full effect of Hurricane Sandy on business.
At Grassy Sound Marina in Middle Township, Debbie Mooers, who owns the marina with her husband, Jim, expects a decent boating season — the 75 rental slips were all nearly booked by early April.
A bigger portion of business, however, is the day-trippers who rent pontoons and 16-foot skiffs to scour Turtle Creek for flounder, striper and crabs.
“That’s what really will make or break the season,” said Mooers, of Dennis Township. “And that’s been way off the last four or five years.”
The off-season has been anything but easy — Hurricane Sandy meant $180,000 in ongoing repairs and new steel beams for the tackle shop, she said.
“We roll with the punches. We’re used to doing that. You work with the weather and Mother Nature. It is what it is,” Mooers said.
Before Hurricane Sandy, industry signs pointed to a resurging boating industry, one hit especially hard as people lost jobs, dug into savings and curbed the discretionary spending that drives the business.
Brian Tersaga, owner of All Seasons Marina in the Marmora section of Upper Township, said leasing had been up slightly this year — occupancy had been in the 70 percent range the past few years.
“Hopefully we’ll start to creep back up. Under normal economic times this place is always full, but the recession has not been kind to us,” he said. “Until consumer confidence climbs up, I think it’s going to haunt us for a while.”
Boat dealers and marinas employed 1,217 people in Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland and Ocean counties in 2011, according to the latest available data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Employment shrunk by one-fifth from 2007 to 2011.
The Chicago-based National Marine Manufacturers Association estimates that sales of new powerboats increased about 10 percent in 2012, after steep declines from the recession and its aftermath.
Andy Biddle, owner of Professional Boat Sales, which has a location at All Seasons Marina, said sales at winter boat shows this year were particularly promising. Biddle, of Egg Harbor Township, sold about 20 boats at the Atlantic City Boat Show in February, 50 percent more than last year, he said.
And while bargain shoppers dominated the market, Biddle said more customers were opting for a bit more upscale watercraft. Part of that is due to improved lending — something that requires a credit score of about 550 today might have needed a 680 or better three years ago, he said.
“Without Sandy, I felt it would have been even better, because more people are worried about their houses, or raising their houses … whereas before they only had to worry about buying a boat,” he said.
The Virginia-based Boat Owners Association of the United States estimated that Sandy caused about $650 million in damage to more than 65,000 recreational boats.
Al Mury, chief operating officer of C-Jam Yacht Sales in Somers Point, said his company had yet to get much business from replacement of storm-damaged boats.
“Some of that may be people are still waiting to settle insurance claims,” he said.
Overall, sales had increased over the past two years, he said.
C-Jam sustained minor damage from Sandy and reopened within a week of the hurricane.
“The fact that we were a little south of the hardest-hit areas, the impact here was certainly a lot less from LBI on north, those areas,” he said.
Indeed, geography was a major factor in storm damage, with areas of Ocean County and North Jersey hit particularly hard.
Mark Hattman, owner of Sheltered Cove Marina in Tuckerton, Ocean County, has dealt with massive damage — both to his business and the loss of business from people with damaged boats and homes.
In budget projections from September, Hattman said he had forecast 10 percent to 12 percent growth this year. Now it’s looking to be down about 20 percent, he said.
“We really felt like we were in the second year of a recovery, we were looking to add some staff, and then the storm hit and changed everything,” he said. “We’re more worried about having to pay to have our building be structurally sound, cover cash flow and fix our docks until the insurance companies come around,” said Hattman, of Egg Harbor Township, who said his business incurred $1.4 million in damage.
The Manasquan-based Marine Trade Association of New Jersey tried to get a handle on Sandy’s damage to marinas this year through a survey it sent to 676 members.
The 109 that responded reported combined total losses of about $55 million, including docks, inventory, buildings and equipment.
The trade association’s survey said those businesses reported an $11 million loss of revenue from the storm, with an estimated $15 million in the future.
“Many businesses are still working very hard to recover from the impact of the storm. … I don’t think we’ll know the full impacts of the storm until the end of the year,” said Melissa Danko, executive director of the marine trade group.
In Ocean County, Sheltered Cove Marina has 250 boat slips. Less than half were full in early April, compared with 90 percent last year, Hattman said.
With some marinas nearby destroyed and fewer overall places to dock boats, Hattman said one of the biggest questions of his season is, “Where did those boaters go?”
“That’s the magic question. I don’t know the answer,” he said. “There are a lot of marinas that don’t have slips, that may never have slips again. So where are all those customers?”
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