Fair winds follow Tri-City boat sales

Boating is surging in popularity across Tri-City waterways, with boat sales jumping more than $1 million in Benton and Franklin counties year over year.

“I think everyone’s having growth and good times. I just hope it stays for a while,” said Willie Nelson, general manager for Nixon’s Marine Inc. in Pasco. “It’s definitely economy-based when you’re dealing with big ticket items.”

Despite the steady increase in sales, fewer boats are registered across Benton and Franklin counties compared to the year prior, decreasing about 1.5 percent between 2018-19. This could mean more boats are bought locally by out-of-town buyers who register them elsewhere.

All boat registrations expire at the end of June each year. The total number of registered vessels at the conclusion of June 2019 was 9,045 across Benton and Franklin counties, compared to 9,184 the previous year. The slight decrease doesn’t offset an overall statewide increase in registrations, up 7 percent in Washington, year over year, totaling 229,982 boats, according to Department of Licensing data reported by Washington Sea Grant, University of Washington. New and used boat sales across Benton and Franklin counties topped $17 million in 2018, compared to $14 million the year prior.

A portion of these sales contribute to the $499 million spent yearly in Washington on new boats, engines and accessories, according to the National Marine Manufacturers Association. The spending is part of an overall $6.9 billion impact that boating contributes to the state economy, which the NMMA refers to as “an American pastime and economic engine.”

The boating industry supports 22,872 Washington jobs and 1,433 businesses.

One of those businesses is Nixon’s Marine, which moved to Pasco this spring after decades in Walla Walla.

Nelson said the move was expected when Shawn O’Connell bought the business about a year and a half ago.

“The previous owner had said, if he was going to buy it, he should move it to capture all this business over here,” he said.

Now at 3025 Travel Plaza Way in the King City area of Pasco near the AutoZone distribution center, Nixon’s focuses on high-performance bass boats. O’Connell also owns the local Northwest Bass tournament.

Nelson said boats sold at the Pasco dealer are generally 19 feet to 21 feet long and cost between $50,000 to $80,000 for brands like Ranger, Triton, Crestliner, Vexus, Duckworth and Skeeter.

“They’re mostly structured around fishing and family fun,” Nelson said.

Fishing is the No. 1 reason people own a boat, said George Harris, president of the Northwest Marine Trade Association.

“More than half of boats are used for recreational fishing some or all of the time,” Harris said. “I use boating and fishing interchangeably. When I say boating, I also mean fishing and when I say fishing, I also mean boating. They’re just so interconnected.”

Colby Smith is an avid boater and has owned different boats intended for either fishing or water sports.

“My mom always said, ‘You’ve got to find something you guys can do together as a family.’ So skiing was one, but that took a while. And then boating was an easy one because the kids were little,” Smith said. “But it works because there’s always something to do, so if you want to swim or you want to float around, or you want to tube; you can do all these different things and it keeps everyone entertained.”

The Mid-Columbia offers a number of opportunities for fishing, with boaters and anglers frequently using the Columbia and Snake rivers for sport and competition, though Nelson said the target has changed.

“I think the decline in salmon and steelhead fishing is having an impact on what we sell because they actually can no longer fish for salmon and steelhead, so they’re fishing for bass and walleye and whatever,” Nelson said. “A fisherman’s going to fish, so they need to figure out what they can do.”

Harris’ group works with other agencies to keep boaters using their investment.

“We work closely with the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife to make sure we have maximum fishing opportunities, because that drives boat sales,” Harris said. “It’s also weather-related. All the smoke in the last few summers in Eastern Washington may not have harmed boat sales, but it certainly changed the days on the water for families.”

Access to boating is just one of the reasons that make the region appealing, according to Visit Tri-Cities.

“We focus on the appeal of the rivers in general since we have three rivers running through our community, and boating is one of those activities that people enjoy,” said Karisa Saywers, Visit Tri-Cities director of marketing. “It is an attraction for both visitors and residents to take advantage of our waterways.”

While still a big-ticket item, boats are seen as a more affordable luxury for families. The NMMA reports 62 percent of boat owners make $100,000 or less.

“It still goes with the economy: it’s a pleasure item,” Nelson said. “Some people think they don’t need it if they’re pinching pennies, obviously. You have the guys where that’s what they do, that’s their hobby, so they’re going to do it anyway.”

Mid-summer is a prime time for boat sales, especially following the Fourth of July, Nelson said, “We always get people after a holiday. They will have gone out with friends and enjoyed it and said, ‘We should get a boat.’ We get a lot of service after a holiday, too, because everyone goes out and breaks their stuff, too.”

In 2018, more than 1,200 boats were sold in Benton and Franklin counties during the second and third quarters, covering the spring and summer months, compared to about 400 sold during the fall and winter months.

“Boats are more affordable than people realize,” Harris said. “An easy-to-use, entry-level boat that you can use on the Columbia or the upper Columbia can be $30,000 to $40,000.”

He said the “average value of a brand new boat sold last year was about $45,000, which can be about the price of a car.”

The used boat market is strong and results in many boat dealers selling more used inventory than new. For the first quarter of 2019, $2.06 million in boat sales was recorded across Benton and Franklin counties. Used boat sales accounted for $1.26 million of that amount.

In 2018, Benton County consumers spent $12.3 million on boats, with more than $7.1 million on pre-owned vessels. The story was similar in Franklin County where $5 million changed hands on boats, and about half that, $2.6 million, in used sales. These sales include transactions with private owners, dealers and imports, which include a boat registered locally but bought out of state.

Many boat owners find the depreciation of a used boat is not as significant as with a car, and it may be possible to recoup a significant portion of their initial investment, especially when selling a boat privately. When asked about the old adage that the best two days of owning a boat are the day you buy it and the day you sell it, Harris has a quick response: “We prefer to say, the best two days of owning a boat are Saturday and Sunday.”

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