So you want to own a marina?

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Boater demographics, environmental requirements and storm preparations and repairs all affect the business model of today’s marina. Marina owners and managers are in a continuous state of upgrading pilings, addressing new government regulations and assessing the needs of a baby-boomer boating population.

Investments in new-build, upland structures such as swimming pools and clubhouses, along with infrastructure investments such as larger, deep-water slips that target the luxury boating market, are additional components of an unwieldy and ever-changing marina business equation that must answer to the bottom line. Marinas today are often asked to be a safe haven, an escape and a home away from home.

Here are some of the most recent trends and pressing issues in the U.S. marina industry:

Weather

Weather continues to play a dominant role in the profitability of a marina. Hurricane Sandy, in October 2012, devastated wide swaths of the New Jersey, New York and Connecticut coastal areas, leaving a record $50 billion in damage, according to the National Hurricane Center. Damage numbers reported by BoatUS, the Marine Trades Association of New Jersey and the National Hurricane Center include:

• 25,000 boats damaged or destroyed;

• $650 million in damage to boats industrywide;

• $589 million in damage to recreational boats in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut and 400 to 500 marinas severely damaged in those three states.

Although many marinas were able to rebuild with state-of-the-art facilities, including the installation of higher pilings and wave attenuators, other Sandy-damaged facilities have not fully recovered. Some have closed permanently.

A March 2013 webinar series hosted by the Association of Marina Industries and BoatUS focused on lessons learned from Sandy, and many of the safety guidelines and storm prep recommendations from AMI and BoatUS have found traction in marina rebuilds and upgrades. Specifically, higher pilings have become a new standard. Sandy’s tidal surge measured 10 to 14 feet in areas hit hard, and 16-foot pilings have replaced many that were lost in the storm. These higher pilings are also being used to replace old, aging pilings in marinas unaffected by the storm.

The view across the commercially undeveloped lower Connecticut River from Essex Island Marina has special appeal.

The view across the commercially undeveloped lower Connecticut River from Essex Island Marina has special appeal.

The BoatUS catastrophe team was on the ground in hard-hit areas hours after Sandy abated. The CAT team’s observations and their discussions with boaters and marina personnel confirmed what BoatUS has recommended in the past: Boats hauled before a storm generally have a better chance of survival. Many marinas are now anchoring hauled boats to the ground and adding ground screws and tie-downs to the haul-out areas, which give a boat on the hard one more way to resist strong winds and high surge. Moving haul-out areas to higher ground when that’s available is another modern piece of storm safety advice.

BoatUS director of technical services Beth Leonard cautions that although these critical steps may keep boats safe in one storm, they may be of little help in another.

“Marinas today understand the subtlety of hurricane planning,” says Leonard. High pilings may keep boats secure in a strong surge, but the tops of pilings must be able to handle higher wind forces and higher pilings come with engineering considerations.

“We’ve encouraged marinas to be specific in their hurricane planning and look at the specific risks, in specific locations, of specific storm threats.” Each storm is different, she says, and today’s storm plans have to assess potential surge damage versus damage from windstorms and heavy rains.

Modern marina storm planning also looks at pre-storm time management, knowing that marina staff will have to do the best they can in a compressed amount of time. BoatUS has even suggested that marinas take a deposit from their customers and consider a “first to pay, first to be served” haul-out policy, or an agreement in which boat owners can opt to pay for preparation services in advance.

Leonard recommends marinas set up storm plans with flexibility and stay on top of changes, pointing out that each storm and each marina’s ability to react to a storm is different. The rebuilding after Sandy was often defined by differences in marinas, she notes. Staten Island’s 140-slip Atlantis Marina and Yacht Club was devastated, but was able to rebuild and reopen the next season. The repairs to damaged bulkheads and debris removal at Nichols Marina in Great Kills Park were held to stringent federal standards, and the marina reopened a year and a half later for the summer 2014 season. The smaller, privately run Nelson Sailing Center on Toms River in New Jersey rebuilt in stages and continued to rebuild during the summer of 2014, almost two years after the storm.

Sandy affected the landscape of marina businesses throughout New England, and Leonard says she sees a trend in the tier system of marina ownership throughout the United States. On one side is the very large, multi-marina group ownership structure, such as Westrec, and on the other are very small mom-and-pop facilities. “The middle group is going away,” she says.

Marina operators face a constant challenge to ensure that painting and other maintenance activities in their yards are not violating environmental regulations.

Marina operators face a constant challenge to ensure that painting and other maintenance activities in their yards are not violating environmental regulations.

Brewer Yacht Yard runs 30 marinas in 24 locations across six states. Brewer marketing director Lynn Oliver says several Brewer marinas were repaired and updated because of damage incurred in a nor’easter that followed two days after Sandy, but updates at a company such as Brewer are constant. “Our goal is to protect our customer and make our boat owners feel safe,” Oliver says. The average Brewer yacht yard sits on 5 acres and is home to 250 slips. The company spends $5 million annually to replace docks and bulkheads, buy new equipment, build new storage and service buildings, upgrade bathrooms, provide better security, dredge, build clubhouses, pavilions, playgrounds, add swimming pools and improve landscaping, chief operating officer Rives Potts says in Brewer’s Tide Watch Spring 2014 newsletter.

Brewer replaced damaged pilings in its Salem and Plymouth, Mass., marinas with higher, long-lasting pilings but, Oliver says, Brewer is ordering these same pilings to replace any old ones. “We try to stay in front of challenges and changes,” she says. Brewer’s Plymouth Marina received a major infrastructure change after Sandy weakened and the quickly following nor’easter destroyed its wave-attenuating dock. The new dock had to be brought in from Sweden.

Larry Crockett, executive director of the Port of Port Townsend, runs several marinas in Washington state’s public port district. Port Townsend doesn’t have to deal with the hurricanes or harsh winters seen along the East Coast, but weather remains one of its biggest concerns. “Out here, we worry about the geography of our tectonics. Earthquakes. Tsunamis. The Big One the geologists say we’re overdue for,” Crockett says.

The marina strives to keep up with state earthquake and tsunami regulations in the same way the East Coast stays abreast of new hurricane safety regulations. All new buildings are built to new standards and specifications, and updates are made to maintain compliance. When one of the marinas took out the old floating docks several years back, new floats were installed with new steel pilings placed three feet higher than the previous pilings, Crockett says.

The Port of Townsend is a public entity and includes several marinas and Washington state’s largest boatyard. The marinas see traffic from hundreds of sailboats and recreational powerboats, along with commercial vessels such as Alaska fishing boats in for a haul-out. Crockett says the marinas and boatyards create jobs and economic growth; the Port District prides itself on being a working waterfront with public ownership, but challenges remain. “We still have to pay our bills,” Crockett says, “just like anyone else.”

Boater demographics

Although the Port of Port Townsend marina is public, boater preferences still play a role in marina management and development, and the marina provides extras such as high-speed Wi-Fi and public spaces for socializing, Crockett says. “We try to provide those things the boater wants while balancing the increase in the cost they will have to pay. We have to recoup the investment costs somewhere.”

Brewer Yacht Yards attracts a range of people, from entry-level boaters to families, Oliver says. “We even offer Freedom Boat Clubs in two or three of our locations. These clubs are a way new boaters can get to the water; often they become boat owners themselves.”

Brewer sees some changes in boating demographics, with older boat owners, fewer sailors and more trawlers, Oliver says.

“The average age of 55 to 65 is moving, and the way we see people use their boats is changing,” she says. “Many of our boaters appreciate the facilities in the marinas, but also what we offer outside the marina.”

Brewer targets the entire nautical spectrum — small-boat owners, wooden-boat owners, circumnavigators, around-the-can racers, fishermen and megayacht captains, Oliver says. She says the Brewer yards all are different, but the brand connects the boater with what to expect at each.

“Clubhouses and pavilions have become more popular,” she says, “and all of our locations now have a pool.” More and more people have boats that rarely leave the dock, and having a restaurant either on the grounds or nearby is important, she says. Brewer installed a bocce ball court at the Bruce and Johnson’s Marina in Branford, Conn., and people from that yard and other Brewer locations use it.

“We call [all of this] value-added composition,” says Oliver. “We’re not the least expensive, but the value you get is year-round.”

Brewer Yacht Yards host popular BYY Rendezvous for their members — weekend trips to destinations such as Mystic Seaport or the Herreshoff Marine Museum. “The pressure is off [the boater] to plan an outing,” Oliver says. “People feel comfortable and taken care of with us.”

The National Marine Educators Association notes that in 2013 more than two-thirds of all boaters were between the ages of 31 and 64. BoatUS president Margaret Podlich says that although BoatUS’s traditional member remains the same, the organization does see more members spending more time on their boats without leaving the dock. One way to look at it, she says, is that the demographics of boating are changing if you look at what you do with your boat. Tow sports — wakeboarding, wakesurfing, skiing – are popular with the younger crowd, people in their 20s and 30s. “Hot-shot Malibus and other cool-looking boats with loud music systems are popular with a younger crowd,” Podlich says. On the other hand, New England may have an older crowd, she says. Marinas have to speak to these changes and look at slips for Malibus, add Wi-Fi and provide places for young people to go.

Boater demographics are a concern to Port Townsend’s Crockett. “When I look at the demographics, I see a mostly older, retired community. The last set of docks cost $4 million to replace. If we don’t have the same dynamic boating community, I ask myself: Should I invest in the new docks?”

Environment/Safety

Brewer’s Oliver says safety is always a priority at BYY and “we continue to develop certifications and continue to push for top services.” She says Brewer’s goal is to have a master technician at each location. “I believe our marina staff holds more ABYC certificates than anyone else,” she says.

Federal and state environmental regulations such as the 2008 Clean Boater Act, which regulates the discharge from recreational vessels, and other pumpout and sewage regulations set standards that marinas have to stay abreast of. The Clean Boater Act regulates the release of antifouling and corrosion-control agents, the transport of aquatic nuisance species, bilge water, cleaning and maintenance-related discharges, fishing waste and graywater. Vessel sewage is currently regulated under the Clean Water Act. These restrictions put the onus on marina management to know the laws and prevent infractions. Brewer invites state and local regulators to the BYY properties to ensure regulations are met and that the marinas are a safe place to work, Oliver says.

Washington state’s environmental regulations are some of the strictest in the country; stormwater runoff has to meet higher requirements than drinking water, Crockett says. Increased restrictions on the use of copper antifouling paints on recreational boats in California and Washington state have called for Washington’s 2018 copper paint phase-out. The phase-out starts with a January 2018 ban on sales of all boats under 65 feet that have copper in their bottom paint.

“We’ve had to hire an environmental compliance officer,” Crockett says. “That costs us money. We maintain best management practices; we can’t have a diver in the water cleaning boats. We can’t have someone sanding their boat while their boat is in the water. We constantly go around being a watchdog. We charge people an environmental fee, and at times we fine people.”

This article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue.

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