When Ann Baldree, vice president of Georgia-based Marine Products Corp., went to Capitol Hill for her first American Boating Congress four or five years ago, she invited one of her dealers in the D.C market to come along.
Baldree wanted to impress upon her Georgia legislator that his decisions affected businesses around the country — specifically, dealerships that carry the company’s Chaparral, Robalo and now Vortex brands.
“I wanted our congressman and senator to know that decisions that were made for constituents in the state of Georgia had ramifications throughout the country,” Baldree says. “I wanted them to meet my dealer that serviced the Virginia and D.C. area and talk to him. I think that really gave an added impact to our Georgia representatives that these decisions being made obviously have far-reaching consequences. It affects boat dealers all over the country, and not just Chaparral Boats in Georgia. I have continued to do that every year.”
The dealer has been welcomed in to meetings and has contributed a lot of his personal story, Baldree says, and that has helped Georgia legislators understand how decisions affect his business. “It just gives them a broader perspective. These people have groups like us literally every day they’re in session — everybody has an agenda and is trying to get their message across. So if they have a personal understanding of your industry, I think your message resonates more with them.”
Baldree will bring the dealer to this year’s American Boating Congress, which is scheduled for May 11-13 at Washington’s Renaissance Hotel. The agenda includes tracks, meetings, panel discussions, speakers and head-to-head discussions with elected leaders. David Gregory, former moderator of NBC’s “Meet the Press,” is the keynote speaker.
Once thought of as a manufacturers’ initiative, the ABC has grown to include the many segments that make up the recreational boating industry, and advocates say it’s important that they speak in a unified voice. The National Marine Manufacturers Association, which traditionally has spearheaded the initiative, has worked to bring in groups and businesses as co-sponsors in an effort to open the event to everyone with a stake in boating and fishing.
Bill McGill, president and CEO of MarineMax, and son Brett McGill, vice president of West operations, attended their first ABC last year and called it an excellent experience. “As the nation’s largest recreational boat retailer, it is our duty to stay aware of the important issues that affect our customers, our team members and our shareholders,” Bill McGill says.
The increase in dealer participation is a recurring theme among those who regularly attend ABC. “There are many pressing issues that affect our boating lifestyle, such as water quality … ethanol fuel and fish conservation, and many dealers just didn’t know how to get involved,” McGill says.
The Marine Retailers Association of the Americas is making that easier. This year, the MRAA is putting together a panel discussion to address dealer issues, says Will Higgins, the group’s new lobbyist. “Dealers are becoming more aware of the opportunity they really have to get in touch with their representatives and really be heard,” says Higgins. “That’s one of the most important things that elected representatives can see — an actual business person from their district coming in and saying, ‘This affects me and my business and the jobs I can create.’ ”
The dealers will do their own Hill visits on one of the days, Higgins says. An MRAA board meeting also will take place. However, the dealer contingent plans to be part of the larger group. “We are planning on doing a breakout session on dealer-focused issues. I’ll moderate a panel, and we’ll bring a few dealers in to discuss issues important to them,” Higgins says.
A unified voice
Industry advocates say it’s essential that people be on the same page when approaching lawmakers about issues of concern. Maverick Boats president and CEO Scott Deal has said that can be a challenge. “I think that a lot of these issues, they just seem so enormous, and people are so busy running their own businesses that they think, What effectiveness can I have? The answer is they can be extremely effective. We’re job creators. This administration and past administrations are very interested in protecting American workers and jobs. As long as you make a jobs argument, we’re on sound footing.”
“The American Boating Congress is my favorite industry event of the year,” says Marcia Kull, vice president of marine sales for Volvo Penta and a longtime ABC participant. “It is a time when all of us come together as leaders to focus on the business of boating and overcoming common barriers.
“As industry leaders, it’s our obligation to represent our employees and customers before the legislators and to inform them in advance of impacts — both pro and con — of proposed legislation,” Kull adds. “At ABC we put a public face on the value and importance of the boating industry in job creation, innovation and recreation.”
Don Parkhurst, senior vice president of marine and RV finance for SunTrust Bank and legislative committee chairman for the National Marine Lenders Association, says he attends ABC annually. “We remain concerned about things that would damage recreational boating. Anything that hurts the overall sale of boats hurts our ability to finance them.”
ABC this year is offering three tracks so people can pick and choose issues based on interest and relevance, says Nicole Vasilaros, director of regulatory and legal affairs for the NMMA. “We are going to have various panels from different co-hosts because we’re hoping to bring a really wide perspective to ABC this year. The structure is going to be really different, which is kind of a direct result of the feedback we’ve gotten as this event has continued to grow.”
Some of the tracks will be issue-specific and will consist of meetings with appropriate members of Congress, staff and committee members, Vasilaros says. “You have a lot of power now to choose issues that are most important to you or your business. You can participate in a team Hill meeting with people who are interested in that specific issue, and we will take you to Capitol Hill to meet with staff and members of Congress who are directly responsible for that issue to do advocacy outreach for those topics that are important to the boating industry.”
Ethanol: the big daddy
Some of those issues have carried over from last year, but “we’ve really expanded and broadened our palette this year,” says NMMA spokeswoman Lauren Dunn. “I think a lot of folks will be surprised at the number of issues we’re dealing with.”
In years past the NMMA has focused on four or five major issues. “This year, we’re offering more just because the nature of the event has really expanded. ABC has really become an industry event and is not just about manufacturing,” Vasilaros says.
Ethanol, and revising or repealing the Renewable Fuel Standard, remains at the top of the industry’s agenda in light of traction in the past few years, she says. The standard, which was amended in 2007, was written with the assumption that fuel consumption would increase. However, declining consumption has made the mandate to have 36 billion gallons of ethanol in the fuel supply by 2022 untenable, the NMMA says.
On the Senate side, U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and Pat Toomey, R-Pa., have introduced the Corn Ethanol Mandate Elimination Act of 2015, which would eliminate only the corn ethanol mandate portion of the standard. Although the bill does not specifically cap formulations at E10, which the marine industry supports, passage would gut the main driver of higher ethanol content — corn.
On the House side, Reps. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., Peter Welch, D-Vt., Steve Womack, R-Ark., and Jim Costa, D-Calif., introduced the Renewable Fuel Standard Reform Act, which would reform the biofuel mandate.
“This is our No. 1 priority for ABC,” Vasilaros says. “We’re trying to continue the momentum we’ve built up throughout the year. This is our opportunity to convince the House Energy and Commerce Committee to take up Goodlatte’s bill.” They also will work to get the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources to move on the Senate bill.
“As much as we’re going to be up on the Hill talking about other issues, this is the issue we’re going to really try to move forward and bring up for consideration,” Vasilaros says. The NMMA will be trying to get co-sponsors for both bills, she says. “Today there are about 50 on one and 50 on the other.”
Another issue that regular ABC attendees will recognize is the reauthorization of the Sport Fish Restoration and Boating Trust Fund, which is more than a straight reauthorization this year, Vasilaros says. “In years past we just wanted to reauthorize that fund. There are some proposals to change some of the percentages for U.S. Fish and Wildlife administration. They are saying they need more, so it won’t be straight reauthorization, but it will be part of the highway bill. We’re looking at ways to change the administration funding for U.S. Fish and Wildlife.”
The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the governing document regarding all saltwater fishing in the United States, is another recurring area of focus. Industry stakeholders have increasingly pushed the idea that the Magnuson-Stevens Act should specifically address the economic, social and conservation needs of recreational fishing.
The industry has rallied around a report co-authored by Deal, the Maverick president, and Bass Pro founder Johnny Morris, titled “A Vision for Managing America’s Saltwater Recreational Fisheries.” The Morris-Deal vision calls for the needs of recreational fishing to be differentiated from those of commercial fishing in the Magnuson-Stevens law, which is also up for reauthorization.
This year the NMMA is expanding its focus on saltwater fishing by working to get some movement in Gulf states regarding red snapper management, a hot button topic for the recreational fishing industry. “We’re looking for [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] to be doing an implementation plan, and we’re taking a different approach to snapper outside of the MSA,” Vasilaros says.
Eileen Sobek, assistant administrator for NOAA fisheries, will join that discussion.
In addition to ethanol, saltwater fishing and dealer relations, there will be several other areas of focus, Vasilaros says.
Tax reform will be on the table because of member concerns about it; Parkhurst says that’s an area of interest for the NMLA, as well.
Invasive species will be another new topic in an effort to build on January’s industry conference with the American Boat & Yacht Council in Las Vegas. “Most of the bills in Congress deal with Asian carp in the Great Lakes, but we’ll be looking at that and seeing how the industry can get behind and move forward on that issue,” Vasilaros says. “We’ll be continuing our effort to bring the industry together in terms of manufacturing to prevent the spread of invasives and will have a panel discussion to continue the dialogue from back in January.”
U.S. flagging for superyachts is an issue being stressed by the U.S. Superyacht Association. “The superyacht industry is making a big push to change some of those regulations to encourage more U.S.-flagged superyachts.”
There will be panels on state government relations that will include state marine trade association representatives who will talk about best practices when dealing with local lawmakers.
Another area of focus will be informational sessions about Cuba and changes in U.S.-Cuba relations. The Latin America Working Group will be talking about the potential for Cuba and what will be allowed. “The NMMA hasn’t taken an official position on the embargo; we’re just monitoring changes to make sure there’s parity in terms of travel to make sure that air travel rules are equally applied to sea travel,” Vasilaros says.
Rear Adm. Paul Thomas, who serves as assistant commandant for prevention policy overseeing three Coast Guard directorates, will talk about some of the pending regulations. By the time ABC begins, there should be a Coast Guard reauthorization bill floating. “We’re looking for updates from the Coast Guard on what they’re working on. We know the House Transportation Committee is looking at introducing a 2016 Coast Guard reauthorization bill,” Vasilaros says.
The NMMA has done a “remarkable job” of promoting the event and encouraging people to participate, Baldree says. “It can be intimidating, but once you get there you truly feel the power of the unified voice. And you walk away saying, ‘I made a difference. Our group made a difference.’ You feel empowered by it.
“I would strongly encourage every single person that goes to ABC to have the total experience. To do that, don’t be intimidated. Go to Capitol Hill. Meet with your leaders,” Baldree says. “It’s very engaging to hear all the speakers, but they need to take the final step — go to the Hill, talk to representatives and have our voice heard.”
This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue.