A marine landing on Capitol Hill

Posted on Written by Reagan Haynes

abcIndustry mobilizing a legion of ‘lobbyists’ to address ethanol, other issues at May 8-9 American Boating Congress

The May 8-9 American Boating Congress is shaping up to be the biggest ever, with 30 co-hosts signed on by early March — more than double last year’s number.

The push for marine industry stakeholders to converge on Capitol Hill this year has been intensive. It was a point of emphasis in the state-of-the-industry address at the Miami International Boat Show and was heavily promoted at the Marine Dealer Conference & Expo and other industry events.

“We need to have people who represent marine businesses and jobs sitting face to face with members of Congress or their top-level staff to make sure they’re thinking of boating and its significance every time they consider a policy that could impact boating or small businesses,” NMMA president Thom Dammrich says.

The NMMA is making a point to focus on the entire industry, from dealers to manufacturers to marinas, says Larry Innis, Washington representative of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas. “The co-hosts have been making suggestions on topics and speakers and the NMMA is listening, so it’s not just focused on the manufacturing side.”

One issue on everyone’s mind is ethanol. “This will be something that brings the whole industry together in a way we haven’t seen since the repeal of the luxury tax,” Innis says.

“Ethanol is clearly a big issue,” agrees Jim Currie, legislative director for the NMMA. “Now it’s evident there are going to be … several bills in Congress. We’ll be doing briefings on those, and lobbying on those when members come to town.”

“In past years we’ve had people attending ABC who called on 100 congressional offices during the course of the event,” Dammrich says. “If we could increase that by 50 or 100 percent … it will be that much more impactful. One thing I want to do is make sure boating is at the table at every discussion that concerns outdoor recreation.”

The ABC has confirmed Ken Walsh, White House correspondent for US News and World Report, and Coast Guard Rear Adm. Dean Lee as speakers. Others have been invited, and organizers are awaiting confirmations.

Other issues

Ethanol is just one of the issues lending traction to the ABC, Dammrich says.

Many co-hosts asked for a representative from the National Ocean Council to report on that agency’s efforts to create a National Policy for the Stewardship of the Ocean, Our Coasts and the Great Lakes, Currie says.

“We were concerned initially last year when the group put out a 118-page draft on ocean policy and didn’t mention recreational boating a single time,” Currie says. “There has been a great deal of angst that those who are connected with the White House might come out with some things that would put some restrictions on or potentially stop some of the things that we do on oceans.”

For example, if there is a great deal of offshore wind power development, the industry should know how it will affect recreational boating, Currie says. “We don’t know if they would put in some no-boating zones, and that’s the biggest part of it that bothers us — it is a great unknown. Maybe once we find out we’ll have no concern, but right now we feel really uneasy.”

Meeting with elected officials can be intimidating for those who’ve never done it before, Dammrich acknowledges. “But the truth of the matter is the members of Congress want them to come and visit them. They want to hear from them. To the extent that we can, we’ll send a member of the NMMA staff along if they’d like. We’ll pair them with people who’ve done it before, and we’ll pair them with people from their states. We can provide talking points, and attendees should provide information about their businesses — the people they employ, the impact on their community. Together they weave a powerful story that the members of Congress or staff want to hear.”

Before the event there will be an extensive webinar to discuss issues and to provide a “Capitol Hill Lobbying 101” presentation, Currie says.

“That should give everybody an opportunity to feel comfortable,” he adds. “We’ll have a position paper on ethanol. We also hope to have brought to fruition a very major project we’re working on, and that is a one-pager for every state, showing the value of recreational boating to that state, that tells representatives, ‘These are the number of jobs produced. Here are the impacts on voters in your state.’ ”

At the dealer conference in Orlando, Fla., last November, Brunswick Corp. CEO Dustan McCoy, GE Capital Marine Group president Bruce Van Wagoner, Yamaha Marine president Ben Speciale and Cobalt Boats CEO Paxson St. Clair touted the ABC to a roomful of dealers.

“It might make us a heck of lot more effective if we focus less on issues between us and more on the issues out [in Washington],” McCoy told the group in Orlando. “I think we’re going in separately. Do we have a joint PAC, are we putting money together and deciding together who we’re going to support? Walking around and talking to representatives is great, but helping people get elected and following regulations is better. We’ve got a lot more money and a lot more power together, and I suspect you couldn’t put a piece of paper between us on where we come out on the issues, but we’re coming at them separately.”

The MRAA has been trying to ramp up dealer enthusiasm.

“Every single day these offices get hit with a group that comes to Washington,” Innis says. “It’s going to be important for us to have a presence there. It’s been tough to get dealers to come to this in prior years. Last year the MRAA board met there for the first time in 20 years … and the people who work on the Hill enjoyed it, and dealers thought it was a good use of time and money. So I hope more will come this year.”

Carlton Phillips, of the Virginia Marine Trades Association and Prince William Marina, says he isn’t sure whether he will make the conference. “I think if I went over there I’d get myself into trouble,” he says.

Phillips speaks passionately, yet knowledgeably, about E15 as a “technician who happens to own a dealership.” He also is familiar with advocacy. He helped launch the Virginia trade group a few years ago to impress upon legislators the impact of boating on the region. “It’s amazing when you look into how many people are employed in the state of Virginia and how much money boating brings to the state,” he says.

Industry synergy

With changing banking regulations it’s important that National Marine Bankers Association members show up, says Mike Bryant, the group’s president. “Our group does make an effort to at least go to Congress to have some input,” he says.

“One of the things Thom Dammrich set out to do was make ABC much more than just an NMMA event,” Currie says. “Part of Thom’s vision was to reach out to everybody in the recreational boating community and have them understand that the American Boating Congress was not the NMMA Boating Congress, that it was all about the totality of the recreational boating community.”

The concept of inclusion was a product of the industry’s Growth Summit, Dammrich says. “It all gets back to this concept of viewing our industry as an ecosystem. If there’s some bad legislation or regulation that adversely affects one part of the industry it will adversely affect the entire industry eventually. And that’s why we need everybody engaged on every issue. You can say E15 is a manufacturers’ issue, and it is until a bunch of engines blow up.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2013 issue.

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