Record-setting attendance, promising meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, better prepared stakeholders and a diverse group of speakers combined to make this year’s American Boating Congress a success, organizers say.
“This year’s ABC was one of the most successful in recent history,” NMMA president Thom Dammrich said a few days after the conference. “ABC attendees truly made their mark. In this important election year, it’s more important than ever that the voice of our industry is heard on Capitol Hill.”
Attendance rose to an all-time high of 250 marine industry stakeholders. “I’ve talked before about our industry as an ecosystem, and we’ve seen some growth over the past few years — slow but steady growth — but this year, through the work of our co-hosts, our attendance is up 20 percent. That is fantastic,” Dammrich told a packed house during his speech to the industry on the final day of the May 9-11 conference.
“This year’s event is truly representative of the depth and breadth of our industry,” Dammrich told the audience at the Renaissance Hotel. The annual American Boating Congress is a three-day legislative conference where the industry in a united effort formulates and lobbies for public policy positions on issues that affect marine businesses.
The upcoming election saturated the atmosphere of this year’s event. From the life-size posters of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders erected outside meeting rooms to the two keynote speakers — CNN’s Paul Begala and Fox’s Tucker Carlson — who represented both sides of the aisle, the election was on everyone’s mind.
In such an uncertain political climate the industry remained realistic about the amount of legislation that will actually be passed. “We’ll be following up with members of Congress now to ensure that policy-specific discussions continue to move forward in the months to come,” said Dammrich. “And we encourage all members of the industry to continue these conversations on home turf now that ABC has concluded.”
Regardless of the election, stakeholders were adamant about pushing the marine industry agenda.
“We certainly felt like we made a difference and succeeded in our goals,” says Cynthia Sailor, executive director of the Florida Yacht Brokers Association. “It was a very successful trip and invigorating to see the whole political process in action.”
Sailor was part of a large group that met with several lawmakers on Capitol Hill, including U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. “[Sen. Rubio] seemed to be very in touch with the issues relating to each group participating in our meeting,” says Sailor. “And he seemed very amenable to the changes to our deferred importation initiative, although he made no formal commitment during the meeting.”
Passage of this legislation would allow sellers of foreign-flagged boats to defer payment of the import duty until the time of sale, rather than upon entry into U.S. waters, as is now the case. Deferred importation legislation is sponsored by U.S. Rep. Lois Frankel, D-Fla., on HR 4065 and has a total of 15 co-sponsors from the Florida delegation, says Sailor.
“Our goal is to garner a total of 20 out of a possible 27 co-sponsors from Florida and then begin the steps to securing additional support from other state legislators across the country,” says Sailor.
Sailor’s group also met with a host of other lawmakers and their staff members, touching on topics such as work force development, water management (specifically in the Everglades and St. Lucie County, Florida) and boating access.
Stakeholders say their preparation for the meetings boosted their confidence. For the first time, stakeholders targeting specific states met for round-table discussions before the Hill visits to strategize. They prioritized their topics and identified those that should — and should not — be brought to the attention of lawmakers.
MaryKate Wood is owner and president of Wake WorX, which sells Aquatic Invasive Species water filtration for boats. “I felt better prepared than in previous years,” she says. “We had a list of topics to avoid with the various offices.”
Wood was part of a California team that met with staff members from the offices of U.S. Rep. Mimi Walters, a Republican who represents California’s 45th District, and Tom McClintock, a Republican who represents the state’s 4th District.
“They were very open to hearing why we were there,” she says. “They were patient and respectful. McClintock seemed to be the most interested.”
Wood chose California because getting her product established there has been tough due to that state’s many government agencies.
Florida team member Scott Lewit, president of Structural Composites in Melbourne, says his meetings went well. “I felt like we made a lot of traction on the ethanol front,” he says. “I think more people are interested in actually repealing the Renewable Fuel Standard.”
Work force development also caught the attention of lawmakers, says Lewit. “The focus is turning to institutions and colleges and retraining people without jobs for marine technical jobs involving such technologies as CAD [computer-aided design],” says Lewit. “We have all these people who are out of work and all these job openings [in the marine industry], but they’re going to have to be retrained.”
Dammrich listed the top five issues as ethanol, recreational fishing, passage of the Water Resources Development Act, trade and water access.
Jeff Wasil, an engineer and technical expert with Bombardier Recreational Products, hit on a couple of those topics during his Hill visits. “That’s one of the best parts of ABC — first, discussing together issues that affect the recreational boating industry and then sharing these concerns during Hill visits,” says Wasil. “I had an excellent meeting with [House] Speaker [Paul] Ryan’s office and already received some feedback that is very helpful. We discussed several topics, from ethanol and the Renewable Fuel Act to water resources development.”
The work force shortage
Work force development has been gaining attention from the industry. In fact, on the first day of ABC the Recreational Boating Leadership Council launched a special task force to organize and fuel the industry’s effort to combat boating’s work force shortage.
“We’re a voluntary group, and we’re not charged with this, but our need for qualified employees for every facet of our industry has become a very critical issue,” says council chairman Matt Gruhn, who also heads the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas. “There are shortages everywhere. States are addressing the issue, various associations and other groups, too. We’re saying let’s put it all together and form a united effort before it gets worse.”
RBLC member Nancy Cueroni, executive director of the National Marine Distributors Association, says she was happy to sign up. “It’s obviously on the minds of everyone, and we’re very excited that we are helping with this issue,” Cueroni says, adding that John Adey, president of the American Boat and Yacht Council, also will sit on the task force.
The RBLC was created during the industry’s third Growth Summit in December 2011 to guide and oversee efforts to increase participation in boating and spark action and discussion to overcome obstacles to growth. The New Markets Task Force announced final plans for its new industrywide multicultural educational training module, including the selection of featured industry companies and a video production firm. The forthcoming 45-minute multimedia training module is projected for a fall debut, in time for boat show season.
The RBLC also decided to disband its Affordability Task Force, saying it has completed its job by raising the issue and providing tools to help educate the industry. Additionally, other task forces, such as Marketing and New Markets, are constantly addressing the issue, says Gruhn. (There are six task forces.)
A host of speakers took the stage, including Republican U.S. Rep. Austin Scott of Georgia’s 8th Congressional District. He spoke passionately about the importance of strong advocacy for access to fishing and focused on the short nine-day red snapper season.
“Fishing has been a big part of my life, and they’ve taken something from me that is important,” says Scott. “Because with my dad, at the age of 70, I probably will never go snapper fishing with him again. They stole that from my family, if you want to get right down to it.”
To further push his point, Scott told the audience that his 16-year-old son, Wells, while fishing the Gulf of Mexico for speckled trout, was disappointed that he has never caught a snapper. “It dawned on me how much they had taken from us when [my son] said that.”
Scott urged the industry to stand up for its consumers and fight for fishing rights. “You have a great industry — one that really stands for America,” says Scott, who owns a 32-foot Regulator fishing boat.
U.S. Rep. Patrick E. Murphy, a Democrat who represents Florida’s 18th Congressional District, which includes Palm Beach, Martin and St. Lucie counties, talked about the need for protecting the health of boating and fishing waterways.
He cited the drainage of fresh water from Lake Okeechobee into the coastal waters of Florida and in the Florida Keys and Everglades. Water quality, and therefore marine life, has suffered because of the drainage, which chokes the water of oxygen, he says.
“Something that is near and dear to my heart is cleaning up our waterways,” he says.
Murphy also spoke of the need for bipartisan conversation and finding the “middle ground” to make progress. “Compromise isn’t a dirty word,” says Murphy.
For the first time the event featured two keynote speakers: “Fox & Friends Weekend” anchor Tucker Carlson and CNN commentator Paul Begala. Begala is a Democratic strategist, and he is a political contributor for CNN. He appears frequently on “The Situation Room” and other CNN programs. Begala was a chief strategist for the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign.
“Bernie Sanders’ message is a message that looks very much like Donald Trump’s message,” says Begala. “It’s, ‘Hey Washington, there is a middle class in America, and you can’t have a functioning democracy and [healthy] economy without it. And by the way, our middle class is collapsing.”
Carlson is editor-in-chief of The Daily Caller, a political news website. A conservative pundit, he formerly co-hosted CNN’s “Crossfire” and MSNBC’s “Tucker.”
“You are watching a rebellion of voters against their own parties on both sides,” Tucker says. “That’s what is actually happening, and we miss this in the press because we focus too much on the people who are running.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2016 issue.