How do you spell relief? A-m-e-n-d-m-e-n-t-6.
At least that’s what Christopher Hodge is thinking after Floridians voted Nov. 4 to adopt the tax relief measure for working waterfronts. Some property tax relief would be welcome, especially in today’s tough economic climate, says Hodge, president of E&H Boat Works and The Ways, both in Palm Beach Gardens.
E&H, a one-time full-service yard that relies mostly on contractors now, and The Ways, a self-service facility, are neighbors. The Hodge home lies between them.
“The taxes are the only reason we invented The Ways,” says Hodge, 56. That was in 1984. “This has been an issue for us for a long time.”
He says he opened the self-service yard to generate more income so he could afford the taxes on The Ways property. Leon and Andrea Hodge, his mom and dad, started E&H in 1946 on a piece of the 4-1/3 acres of prime Intracoastal waterfront the family now owns. The property, just north of PGA Boulevard, is on the edge of “the PGA Corridor,” some of the priciest land in Palm Beach County.
His taxes: $110,000
Amendment 6 requires county assessors in Florida to set the taxable value of working waterfront on the basis of its actual use instead of its highest and best use so marine-related businesses can survive in neighborhoods where condominiums and other high-profit uses are driving up property values.
Hodge’s total property-tax bill now is about $110,000.
He says he’s had at least five offers to buy the property in the last few years. One developer wanted to turn it into a state-of-the-art drystack marina; another planned a mega-development — a hotel, shops, restaurants and marina — on 60 acres including the Hodges’ property. A third was a “flipper” — a speculator who would have tried to resell the waterfront for a profit.
Hodge says none of the proposals ever saw the light of day.
Squeezed by taxes and other rising costs, Hodge says the offers are enticing — and he’s bit at a few of them. But Amendment 6 takes some of the pressure off.
“We [Hodge and his mom] are prepared to stay,” he says, though that’s far from a certainty. Preserving a traditional boatyard in the midst of mammon is not easy.
“Of late, I guess I’d say anything is OK,” he says. “Whatever happens [is] for a reason. I’m fine with a sale. I’m fine if we stay. I’ve had so much practice worrying that I’ve decided to get out of the worrying business.”
‘Only job I’ve ever had’
Hodge says the boatyard is all he knows. He still has an E&H pay stub for work he did at the yard when he was 10 years old — for 10 cents an hour.
“I’ve probably been working here for 45 years,” he says. “It’s the only job I‘ve ever had.” He lives in the family home on the property, so he walks to work.
“The idea of selling [the yards] and driving someplace other than the boatyard to work is kind of scary,” he says, so he remains partial to the notion of staying put.
Hodge says the industry has changed a lot since his parents started E&H and built its vintage marine railway. He still uses it to haul boats, and it’s especially good for lifting wooden boats because it doesn’t squeeze their hulls. A 70-ton Travelift hauls boats at The Ways.
Mom and Pop Hodge started out storing a lot of boats on the uplands, but in the ’60s and ’70s demand for repairs became so heated that they focused on that. “At one time, we had 50 employees and sales in the millions and millions of dollars,” Hodge says. Today, he employs 10. Mostly, he rents space out to contractors, but his in-house staff still does some mechanical and electrical work, carpentry and repairs to rigging. His shipwright, Don Bishop, is an expert in wood hulls. Hank Stanciec is a specialist in rudders, gears, shafts, alignments.
“I’m the general contractor, the concierge now,” he says.
The yard works mainly on powerboats 30 to 70 feet, and the occasional sailboat. He says sailors tend to be a bit too tight for his tastes. “A gentleman who likes his money better than his boat — I just can’t do business with him,” he says.
Like most in the industry, Hodge’s business has suffered in the recession. He’s been through tough times before. The 10 percent tax on luxury goods from 1990-93 was “awful,” he says. But today’s credit crunch and stock market woes and economic recession take the cake. “It has been devastating to everyone,” he says. “It’s a roller coaster in this business.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2009 issue.