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Charleston boat sales moving upscale

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There are some Charleston residents who have never been on a boat, and there are others who live in the area so they can be on the water.

It’s for the latter that the Charleston Boat Show is held each year. The 37th annual marine industry extravaganza starts Friday at the Charleston Area Convention Center. Displays will fill the center and half the parking lot, with more than 10,000 people checking out the latest models and fishing and boating demonstrations.

"To live in Charleston and not spend time on the water is to not live in Charleston,” says Steve Potts, president of Scout Boats, a designer and manufacturer based in Summerville.

Boat sales nationally have been steadily rising since they crashed in the recession of 2008, according to industry analysts, and Lowcountry dealers report a strong market.

“A lot of people relocate here to be on the water," said Rick Hall, vice president of MarineMax's Atlantic region, which sells Scout Boats in Charleston. "I hear it all the time."

While many workers complain about stagnant wages, boat sales have been booming. 

The National Marine Manufacturers Association expects to find that powerboat sales last year increased 6 percent to 7 percent over 2015. The numbers will be finalized this spring.

“Recreational boating is seeing some of its healthiest gains in nearly a decade,” the association said in a statement from Chicago.

Potts says he's selling more expensive models than a year or two ago. He's talking about 42-feet luxury fishing boats that cost nearly $1 million. They're made to order and won't be displayed at the boat show. 

“The higher priced boats seems to be where we have a great deal of demand," he said. "Charleston is changing to become a more affluent market."

The association also notes significant growth in the luxury boat market.

"Big boats are back," according to the report. "One of the more standout areas of growth in 2016 was among yachts and large cruising boats, a category that has been slower to rebound as high net worth individuals looked to remain more liquid post-recession. ... That trend is likely to continue into 2017 as consumer confidence and spending remain strong."

On the retail level, Hall says the biggest change in the last year or so has been the rising popularity of 28- to 38-foot, open center-console boats that cost between $100,000 and $400,000. 

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"That's been a big surprise," he said.

Jim Duncan of Duncan Boats of Summerville also reports strong luxury sales.

“It’s unbelievable," he said. "This show is going to be critical to make a decision either to buy now or to place and order, because sales are so hot right now that I don’t see how the manufacturers are going to be able to keep up with demand. We’ve already sold six boats in January, and we usually don’t sell a boat before the show. People are buying now because they know selection is going to be difficult.”

Buyers are also concerned that interest rates have been creeping up and want to lock in a rate, he said.

"The cruiser market is starting to come back," Duncan said, speaking of boats with full galleys and berths that sell for between $130,00 and $330,000. "We’re seeing pretty good uptick in the mid-range cruiser business, say 28 to 35 feet.”

While noting the rise in luxury sales, the national association also reports that boating is predominantly “middle-class,” with 72 percent of boat owners having a household income of less than $100,000.

Butler Marine, which has stores in Charleston and Beaufort, reports the strongest gains in the 20- to 23-foot range, boats that cost between $40,000 and $65,000.

“That market has been on fire for the last three years,” owner Chris Butler said. “Those are our fastest moving units.”

About 238,000 new power boats were sold in 2015, and the association expects the number to grow to more than 250,000 for 2016. Total sales of new boats, engines and accessories totaled $17.4 billion in 2015 and are expected to total $19.1 billion in 2016. 

Boat shows are attractive to potential buyers because manufacturers offer deals not seen anywhere else, according to show organizer Jacqui Bomar, president of Greenville-based JBM & Associates. Those attending can also check out boating and fishing demonstrations. Capt. Dave Carraro of the National Geographic Channel’s “Wicked Tuna” show is scheduled to greet guests and conduct a fishing seminar. There's also a mermaid for the kids and live music.

Butler said the show is important to dealers because most people who come are serious about boating.

“It’s huge," he said. "I consider it our Super Bowl. It’s our biggest event of the year. It is  a good barometer for what the rest of the year is going to hold, and it has not been wrong yet. Last year (business at the show) was better than the year before and last year’s sales (after the show) were better than the year before.”

Reach Dave Munday at 843-937-5553.

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