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Lower Gas Prices, Faster Economy Float Boating Industry

Larry Coleman, a salesman with Trudeau's Marine, talks to Bill Floren and Kimberly Abramski at the 55th Annual Portland Boat Show on Jan. 7 in Oregon. Lower fuel costs are projected to boost boat sales this year.

The Great Recession and high oil prices hit the boat industry hard, knocking down sales. Now, with hiring up and fuel prices down, the boat industry is expecting a rebound. And enthusiasts are crowding into boat shows around the country.

Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, says that any extra money in boaters' pockets is good for business. In fact, his organization is forecasting up to 5 percent higher sales for new powerboats this year.

"We didn't actually even factor the lower oil prices when we made these projections. But I think that certainly they will provide a significant tailwind," Dammrich says.

There are ripples of that enthusiasm at the Mid-America Boat Show in Cleveland, where sea shanties played from speakers in one corner of the convention hall.

The overwhelming majority of watercraft in Cleveland are powerboats — yachts, fishing boats, pontoon boats — and many people here are already boat owners.

Bob and Nancy Chizmar have been boating up and down the Great Lakes for 38 years. Bob says they have changed their habits over time.

"We don't go out and just ride around like we used to," Bob Chizmar says. "Our boat burns maybe 25 gallons an hour."

Gas in the Cleveland area is going for about $2 a gallon, down 40 percent from a year ago. And if those prices don't take off again, Nancy Chizmar says, she might consider another adventure.

"If it stayed this low, we'd probably do a last hurrah and take a nice, long trip," she says. "We've been to Niagara Falls, by boat."

Boat owner Eric Booker served lobster bisque to convention-goers. Booker is hopeful that a positive year for boating means more customers at his restaurant in Put-in-Bay, a popular island vacation spot on Lake Erie.

"People usually have X amount of money budgeted for their boating season. If they can make five trips on that budget, maybe this year they can make seven trips on that same budget," Booker says.

Salespeople in other parts of the industry are gearing up to ride that wave, too.

Jeff Klein, who sells boat lifts, says sales have recovered in the past few years. He sees low gas prices opening up a chance for even more business.

Boaters will "be out on the water a lot more," Klein says. "And consequently they'll be using their boat lifts more, and they'll be breaking and replacing them with new ones, so, we look forward to it."

But it typically costs more to fill up at a marina than at a gas station, and boaters say they're waiting to see how much they'll have to pay for that marina fuel this season.

Boater Jerrold Saxton says he's not convinced prices will stay low, but he accepts that boating is an expensive hobby.

"Someone told me the definition of a boat is a hole in the water that you pour more money into. And it's true. It's going to be expensive if you're a power boater," Saxton says.

But if low fuel prices hold out, boaters here are hoping that hole of money will be shallower by the time the Lake Erie ice melts.

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