Skip to main content

The state of boating in the Sunshine State

Declining water access, bigger and more expensive boats squeezing out ‘Joe Six-Pack’

Declining water access, bigger and more expensive boats squeezing out ‘Joe Six-Pack’

Boat-related retail sales have grown a whopping 156 percent over the past 10 years in South Florida, but during that same period boat registrations have remained relatively flat, according to an economic impact study for the Marine Industries Association of South Florida.

Registrations increased 23.6 percent over 12 years in Palm Beach County, but rose just 4.6 percent in Broward and 7.3 percent in Dade, according to the tri-county study released in March.

Marine sales grew “phenomenally” in the ‘90s, but retrenched in 2001-’02 and since have rebounded nicely, says economist Thomas J. Murray, of Gloucester Point, Va., the study’s author.

Murray says the relatively small growth in registrations reflect national trends: declining water access as more waterfront is converted to non-marine uses; a smaller percentage of the population participating in boating; and higher expenditures by fewer people and on bigger boats.

Statewide, Florida registrations increased 49 percent to 920,768 from 1987 to 2005, while spending per boat during that time increased 134 percent from $2,780 to $6,512.

Murray says that suggests that while a smaller proportion of the population might be boating in the tri-county area, the ones that do boat are spending a lot more on their boats and probably are buying bigger boats. He says it also suggests that the “Joe Six-Pack” segment of boating is not as strong as it used to be, at least not in South Florida. Another trend Murray sees is consolidation of South Florida’s marine industry. Though it still has a lot of small businesses, many of them are merging or being bought up by bigger ones.

Murray’s report leaves no doubt that the marine industry contributes enormously to South Florida’s economy. The tri-county area represented 46 percent, or about $2.71 billion, of Florida’s $5.9 billion in gross marine sales in 2005. The industry had an estimated economic impact of $10.8 billion in gross output and $3.7 billion in wages and earnings, and was responsible for generating 134,000 jobs.

Boating’s total economic impact on Florida was greater than the state’s citrus industry, with $9.1 billion in 2000, or the cruise industry, with $5.3 billion in 2004, says MIASF president Kristina Hebert.

“We’re a very strong industry,” she says. “We have a lot of jobs, but we’re not on easy street. We’re vulnerable. We’ve got problems.”

She says Broward County, which at $1.724 billion accounts for the lion’s share of boating retail sales in South Florida, has lost 30 percent of its marina facilities over the past five years, leaving it with just 13. Nine of those 13 have received offers by developers who want to turn the property to other, more profitable uses.

Florida recently adopted a Working Waterfront Protection Act, which among other things, mandates that land use plans in coastal counties encourage the preservation of recreational and commercial working waterfronts.

The bill also allocates more boat registration fees for building launch ramps, and allows boatyard and marina owners to receive a tax deferment for keeping their property in a traditional marine use.