NAPLES — With the belief the economy is on its way back from the abyss, Wolcott Marine has returned to the business of selling boats.
And the Naples-based company isn't the only business feeling buoyant about the forecast for the boating industry. Wolcott Marine,854 River Point Drive, operated in both service and boat sales for years but had to cut back to only service when the Great Recession hit in 2007-08.
This spring, with signs of economic improvement on the horizon, Wolcott's sales manager Mike Webster felt the timing was right to get back into the game.
"We were big in boating sales for a number of years," Webster said. "Obviously, the economic crunch changed things. But since the sales department is up and running again, the early signs have been very good. Word is getting out there that Wolcott Marine is back."
Statewide, recreational boat sales climbed by 34 percent in 2011, and Florida led the nation last year with boating sales totaling $1.5 billion, according to a report the National Marine Manufacturers Association released earlier in May.
Many local boating dealers are also reporting an increase in sales.
"We're up almost 20 percent, and interest is up considerably," said Barry Marshall, district manager for MarineMax, 1146 Sixth Ave. S., Naples.
"I think the improvement in the economy is a big reason for that, but also from talking to people, it's just been beautiful and it's a great way to enjoy the family. People are tired on being on the sideline."
One in every 13 permanent Collier County residents owns a boat and Paul Farmer is one of those people. He has been boating in Naples for eight years since moving to the area from Miami, and he said the waters around Naples have been busy in 2012.
"A good indicator is that in the middle of the week this parking lot is full by the afternoon," Farmer said pointing to the lot at Landings Park, Ninth Street South, Naples.
"We have to plan on getting here early in the morning or there won't be any open spots. The last couple of years this area had really died off, and I wouldn't say it is back to where it was six years ago, but it is definitely picking up."
The fact people are spending money on "big ticket" items such as boats is a sign of economic recovery, according to Jeff Laird, who works in sales for the Boat Place, 540 Davis Blvd., Naples.
"Even though we're coming to the end of our seasonal period, we're still strong," Laird said. "Everything is selling: new boats, used, motors and service. The last six to eight months have been really strong compared to the last couple years. Everyone sees the market picking up and it snowballs."
The recreational boating industry in the United States had not seen an increase in retail sales in five years, but in 2011, sales for boats, accessories and marine services increased 6 percent to $32.3 billion, according to the report by the National Marine Manufacturers Association.
The report also said that boating participation nationally is at its highest point in 15 years.
"In 2010, we kind of bottomed out. We were down about 55 percent," said Thom Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufactures Association.
"But the economy is improving, albeit slowly. Consumer confidence is improving and we're seeing single-digit growth in terms of new boat sales. We are projecting that sales will continue to grow in the low single digits until 2015."
While local boaters and sellers seem to agree that participation and sales are up, for some boating dealers, single digit growth is nothing to get too excited about.
"Everyone I've talked to in the industry views it as a very slow recovery," said Jason Travis, who is the sales manager at Trapper Custom Marine, 2959 Davis Blvd., Naples.
"Everyone from boat builders to engine manufactures are saying it is going to be slow growth, if not a plateau for the next three to four years before we see another big jump as far as recovery goes."
According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association study, Florida ranked fifth in the nation for growth in 2011.
"Florida for years was No. 1, and now it has dropped to No. 5," Dammrich said. "But considering how hard the housing market was hit in Florida, you're still doing pretty good. Frankly, as things improve in Florida, I actually think the outlook is better there than nationally."